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.
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.
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.
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.