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Tips for Teaching Teens (by Michelle Worgan)

Part of the series: Stuff All EFL Teachers Should Know

While trying to have a quick nap on a hot Friday afternoon in Southern Spain, I started thinking of what to write about for this guest post. Two ideas came to me – the first being the use of puppets in the early learner classroom, and the other being how to successfully teach teenagers. I’ve decided to leave the puppet post for my own blog sometime soon, and to write here about teaching teenagers.

In most ELT situations, a teacher will more often than not end up having to teach teenagers at some point. In private institutions, children are the most lucrative students, starting when they are young and hopefully (from the teacher’s and owner’s point of view – even if their reasons are different) continuing at least until they go to university.

However, for many teachers this age group is the bane of their career. It can be incredibly difficult to create a positive learning environment in which adolescents feel happy, secure, valued and motivated to learn. The reasons for this are many: teenagers are going through many physical and emotional changes, including changes in their brains (see Naomi Moir’s post on the OUP blog; they would normally prefer to be somewhere else on a sunny afternoon; if they do want to come to class it may be because it is where the rest of their friends are, as a kind of social club; peer pressure is at its highest and this can have a very negative effect during a lesson; and they may even be suffering from stress and exhaustion due to their demanding school and after school commitments.  These are just a few of the reasons why it can be extremely difficult to provide successful lessons and courses with this age group.

I have taught a fantastic group of teenagers over the past two years, and I think it will be useful to look at aspects of our teacher-student relationship to see why in this particular case, the course has been successful.

The First Day

The first few days are crucial to the way the course will run.  The students will make unconscious decisions during this time about what kind of teacher you are and it is essential to let them know that while you may be relaxed and friendly, you will not accept any nonsense. With an exam course like the one I have been teaching, I spend a large part of the first lesson explaining what will be expected of them during the next two years. I make sure they are conscious of the amount of work they will be doing both in and out of class and how important the pace of the course is, if they want to reach their objectives (in this case, passing the exam).

You may hear lots of moans when you make it clear that they are going to have to work hard, but generally I find that most teenagers expect to have to put in a bit of effort, and this usually motivates them. It is really important that they are motivated, especially if it is a two year course.

Good Cop Vs Bad Cop

I consider myself to be quite strict with teenage exam prep groups, and contrary to popular belief, research has shown that firm but fair teachers are preferred by this age group. Although you may be tempted to treat a group of sixteen year olds as adults, the fact is that emotionally they are not. Even though they may look like adults and demand to be treated like one, they don’t usually have the emotional balance and reason that an adult usually has. This means that if you do talk to them as if they were your friends or peers, they will often use this as an excuse not to study or do as you ask. At the end of the day, most teenagers don’t have the maturity to choose progress over fun and games, and you will find it much more difficult to get them to put in the required effort.

However, this doesn’t mean that you have to bear the stick constantly – give them a carrot when they have been working hard! The idea is you are seen to be in control of the class – something that teenagers consider a quality of a good teacher. Rewards such as games and other fun activities can be a great incentive to get the work done. Do make sure though, that you do give them the rewards you promise, otherwise they will just think that there is no point in doing the work.

Short-Term Goals

For you the school year may fly by and as soon as you know it, June is here again. For the average fifteen year old though, a year can be a very long time. In a two-year course such as the one I’ve been teaching, you need to provide students with plenty of goals to work towards during the course. Trying to get students to study for an exam that they will sit in two year’s time is almost impossible. Even if you constantly remind them of the exam, they will not see it as something realistic until about three months before. This means that you must set them regular goals that they can achieve in order to keep motivation as high as possible. You can discuss and negotiate these goals with your students, keeping them involved.

Motivation

One of the questions constantly posed by teachers of teenagers is “How can I motivate them? They aren’t interested in anything!” If you ask a group of teenagers what topics they would like to cover in class, they will come up with very few. Even if you do bring in some materials you have found about their interests, you will inevitably find that they show the same amount of enthusiasm as if they were the typical course book unit about the environment. The problem, I find is not the actual topic of the lesson, but the type of activities involved. Most course book pre-reading tasks for example, do not make you want to read! Trying to get a learner to read through a gapped text before attempting to fill in the gaps is a nightmare, usually because the text is about something not at all interesting and the student has no incentive to read. Imagine you have a text about someone who survived a shark bite. Instead of just asking your students to read, tell them the story from the survivor’s point of view from the beginning, but stopping before the end. Now ask what happened next, encouraging all kinds of funny or even gory answers, and then get them reading! The main thing is, unless you want to spend hours before every lesson trying to find interesting teenage material and planning lessons, to find fun ways to exploit the materials they already have in their course books.

Humour

One of the reasons why I have enjoyed teaching this particular group of teens is that we have had some brilliant moments of laughter. Sometimes I have been the instigator and sometimes they have. Although I have made the students work really hard and cover as much as possible every lesson, a good laugh now and again can motivate teenagers to want to come to class. I started this by making up stories, usually to introduce some grammar point, that they actually believed (like having sprained my ankle – lots of limping around the classroom), and then got a bit of a reputation as a fibber! However, this gave me and the students an opportunity to relax. When they saw that I was prepared to joke with them, they were much happier about working. They would themselves decide to work hard so that later they could have a bit of a laugh. I had the odd trick played on me (in a nice way) that had me crying with laughter.

I do believe that teenage groups can be the most rewarding. When you see how much progress they have made, when they have become more responsible for their own learning, how they have grown up and when you and they both feel sad on the last day of the year because you won’t see each other for three months, then it is really worth it.

I have been teaching English for over ten years, mostly in Spain. For the past eight years I have been living and teaching in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz. I love teaching children and I have a blog mostly devoted to Young Learner related issues and activities called So This Is English and you can find me on Twitter as @michelleworgan.

19 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    These are excellent tips, Michelle. Thank you so much for sharing from your experience.

    I’ve always enjoyed teaching teens–my first teaching degree was to be a junior/senior high school English teacher.

    I’m also looking forward to reading your future post on puppets! I’m sure it will be equally fascinating.

    Thanks again for agreeing to share a guest post with us!

    1. You’re very welcome, Barbara! I agree with you that teaching teens can be great fun, but it is hard to get that balance right! Lots of patience is needed, I think.

  2. Leahn says:

    Hi Mchelle,

    This has brought back memories of teen classes. I haven’t taught a group of teens for a few years know so it was very interesting to read and you raised some very important things to remember when teaching teens.

    I think that teaching teens is great when you know how to, and hen you can harness their energy and motivate them! You definitely need strong micro-teaching skils with this age group. Good job with your class.

    Almost makes me want to run out and find myself a group!

    Thanks

    L

    1. Smaragda says:

      Thanks for the tips Michelle. Some of my best and worst memories are from teaching teeenagers. Hopefully as years go by, there will be more and more good memories and less ‘bad’ ones. I believe that parents’ support is of vital importance when dealing with difficult teenagers.

    2. Thanks Leahn, remember all those summers teaching teens in Cambridge? Of course teaching teens year round is more complex than in summer school but I do think a similar approach can be useful – in summer school lessons always went very smoothly, even though after the class you were trying to play football with them! It is lovely to see teenage students start doing their homework (without you having spoken to their parents first!) because they want to improve – that is motivation.

      Thanks for your comment :)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shelly S Terrell, Peter Aylett. Peter Aylett said: RT @TheEngTeacher: Tips for Teaching Teens (by Michelle Worgan): http://bit.ly/ctChg5 via @barbsaka […]

  4. Hi Michelle,
    Thanks for this great post. Great tips :)

    Eva

  5. Marisa Pavan says:

    Hi Michelle,

    As a teacher of English of intermediate and upper intermediate teenage classes, I agree with you on the advantages and disadvantages of teaching this age group. I must admit that my experience has helped me reach the right balance in teacher-student relationship. I make them feel at ease in class but at the same time, I feel they respect me as their teacher and they feel respected as students and as human beings.
    As you have expressed, it’s not easy to motivate them and to keep them silent. Besides, even if I struggle to help them become independent learners, most of them don’t have the intention of being so as it means a higher level of responsibility from them. No matter how much resistance they oppose, I’m determined to insist in my mission to turn them into autonomous students and to help them develop life-long skills.
    Marisa

    1. Hi Marisa,

      Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you on the difficulty of getting teens to become autonomous. They can be very lazy (or lethargic may be a kinder word) and are so used to having everything handed to them on a plate that they usually balk at any responsibility. However, I think this is an age group that can really benefit from autonomy, both in English learning and in life. I have written an article about learner autonomy which will be published in Modern English Teacher in July, maybe that can give you a few tips.

      I admire your determination, Marisa – it’s hard work but things will be so much better once you have achieved your goal. Good luck!

  6. Hamdi says:

    Hi Michelle
    I really appreciate what u wrote about teaching teens.I started my career as an EFL teacher with teens. What counts most is fun and motivation.A teacher has sometimes to be patient to reach his objectives.Once the bridge of understanding is built in class ,things will be Ok in the future.The age factor is very crucial .
    I totally agree that a teacher has to exploit his materials thoughtfully to make his teaching interesting not boring..
    Thanks
    Hamdi

    1. Hi Hamdi,
      Thank you for commenting :)
      Sometimes we tend to treat all children/teenagers the same, whatever the age, and I think this is a big mistake. As you say, the age factor is crucial. We cannot expect the same behaviour and attitude from a thirteen year old and a seventeen year old, so it is a matter of trying things out until you get the right balance. Experience definitely helps though!

  7. Naomi Moir says:

    Great post Michelle! I couldn’t agree more with the points you raise! The bit about them looking like adults, but not yet able to behave like adults is a point I often make in teacher training sessions I run – it’s so easy to forget that they haven’t yet learned all the skills necessary to make those adult decisions etc.

    I also particularly liked your comments about what qualities teenagers actually want/like in a teacher. Penny Ur did some interesting reserach on this a while back and I think it can be found in: ‘A course in language teaching: practice and theory: trainer’s handbook’ (CUP).

    Thanks for the interesting read and for the mention!

    Naomi

    1. Thanks Naomi, I thought your post was really interesting as I’ve never investigated the psychological side of teaching/learning/behaviour and it is something that we all need to take into account.

      As for teenagers preferring a firm teacher, it just shows that they are still bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood – they still need to feel secure, with the teacher enforcing the rules but with some leeway and fun. Quite a hard balancing act to be done by the teacher!

  8. Linda says:

    I particularly appreciated you addressing the first day of lessons. I think it is one of the failures of student teaching that new educators don’t get the chance to run a class from the beginning, which we know is the most crucial 2 weeks of teaching.

    Thanks for the post and the service to the profession.

  9. Rajshri says:

    Hello Michelle,
    I teach English in India.Thanks for your tips. I too have fun in teaching the teens. I am a fresher and what I have always believed was once they are into sixteen , seventeen and eighteen, they are enough matured. But now after reading your comments and a little exposure here at the college leads me to think if I really was right. Of course, every child is unique, my main concern is the discipline factor! I am friendly but I really dont know how to be firm. Can you help me with this problem of mine?
    Thanks.