In the first and second part of this article I wrote about teenagers' growing need to focus on peer relationships and to challenge authority, and discussed ways that this affects teaching. This final entry discusses the phenomenon of teenage awkwardness, and how to be sensitive to it in the language classroom, as well as presenting a few conclusions.
We must all have memories of our own teenage awkwardness: unfortunate fashion choices, idiotic statements blurted out and then blushed over for weeks, the terror of being picked on to speak in public.
Along with adjusting to their changing bodies, which are embarrassing enough, teenagers are experiencing new social dynamics, trying out different identities for themselves, and making big decisions for their future. It’s a time of upheaval and insecurity on many levels, and this may be why they often have such susceptibility for embarrassment and shame. I try to remember this when I ask a class a question and they stare at me silently, or when I reprimand a student and they go bright red and stare at their desk for the next half-hour. A bit of empathy reminds me not to get annoyed or take it personally, but to try a different tack, or apologise if necessary. It really can keep a lesson afloat at a potentially stormy moment.
I’ve also been trying some simple techniques to avoid embarrassing teenagers too much. One is to ask each group in turn for feedback on a discussion session, rather than opening it up immediately to the whole class, which tends to produce silence. I use my eyebrows and body language to remind them not to use their phones, rather than make them feel like a ticked-off child at primary school. Instead of making them give presentations or perform role plays to the whole class, you can put them in groups of 4-6, which is much less intimidating. Then there’s the question of what to do with potentially embarrassing activities, like drilling intonation or drama activities. With some groups, taking a lead yourself and playing the fool a bit will work wonders, allowing them all to goof around and release some of that pent-up awkwardness. With other groups, you might just have to accept that these activities are a non-starter. In terms of discipline, a quiet word or a jokey manner can be enough to get the message across without shaming a student whose awkwardness may send them into a sulk. Eyebrows and gestures can be useful ways to avoid primary-school-style scoldings about phones, for example!
I’ve found this summer that reflecting on my own reaction to my teenage students and noticing why they push my buttons so badly has helped me to feel more kindly towards them and find ways to adapt my teaching to them.
I suspect that for each of us, our interaction with teenagers depends very much on our own experiences of adolescence, and therefore each of us will need to remind ourselves of different things, be thick-skinned in different ways, or use different techniques to help the classroom run smoothly. I believe that reflection, not only on teenage psychology, but on our own psychology and the ways we revert to our own teenage selves, can help us each find the best ways to interact constructively with our teenage students.