The final thoughts :Working with Teenagers to Build Success – Part 2



              Continuing  the previous post, let's deepen and conclude our reflections upon the challenge of teaching teenagers. 

              Teenagers have a greater learning potential than that of young children but they are considerably more difficult to motivate and manage. It also takes longer to build a trusting relationship with a teenager, but once a teacher finds the correct balance of respect and authority, teaching teenagers can be a rewarding, and fun-filled experience. 

         There are several reasons why it seems to be so difficult to deal with teenagers. At this age, dealing with all the physical changes and psychological pressures of adolescence can seem overwhelming. As they journey through puberty, criticism, academic, athletic and peer pressures, dating challenges, hormonal changes and a host of body concerns mixed with their own search for self cause many teens to struggle with self-esteem issues which may affect their lives for a long period of time. 

Photo from ELTPics

Teenagers often seem so cool, but deep inside they are just scared human beings who are going through a moment of transition – and a very difficult one at that. They put on masks and put up walls to hide their true feelings. They will attack you because they feel threatened by the world at large, not necessarily by you, the teacher. 

I took the picture below last Saturday, 1st June,  when, in São Paulo, I visited a museum called Pinacoteca.  

Photo by Roseli Serra -São Paulo June 2013

In a room full of traditional oil paintings full of adults (most of them middle-aged people) I  suddenly noticed these four girls. At first sight I thought they were ready for a party.  A few minutes later, lots of people, including my husband and daughter,   approached them and to our surprise they said: "This is our fashion style. It's the way we believe we should dress, like Lolitas (probably  a mention to Wladimir Nabokov's character Lolita  so that people pay attention to us. After all, we are different, aren't we? Interestingly, one of them was carrying a book ( hung as if it was a bag), and I happened to notice it was a beautiful edition of " Alice in Wonderland" written by Lewis Carroll .   

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the way they chose to dress. Not at all! On the contrary, it's nice, cool and beautiful! In a follow up conversation they said to be shy girls.  They cannot deal with so much  youth , creativity and beauty and then they hide their feelings by wearing different clothes as masks . It then made me reflect a lot about how tough must be to face adolescence nowadays. Perhaps it is even tougher than 35 years ago when I was at the age of 15.

        For ages teens have tried to call the world's attention either by their attitudes or dress code . Can you not sense the fear behind their masks ? In order to overcome their fears, teenagers need to publicly vent whatever issues are bothering them, and the educational system should be open to that.

I strongly believe that teachers need to be trained to listen to their students in a neutral way (very much like a psychoanalyst would). This means our role as teachers is not to convince teenage students to see things from our perspective but rather to allow students to form their own, guided opinions. We are not in the classroom to show students we are right and they are wrong. Ultimately, what we should be trying to do is to discuss a subject from as wide a perspective as possible.


As a corollary of the above, if one of your teenagers decides to “put up a fight”, don’t take it personally. Remember that his/her anger is not likely to be directed at you personally. Think of Alice in Wonderland being attacked by the Queen of Hearts: “Off with their heads.” It’s not usually as bad as that. Unfortunately, you represent the establishment and could be seen as one of the expanders of the horrors of the status quo. (You’re right: the classroom is like Wonderland at times.) My tip here is – don’t even try and confront him/her in front of his/her peers. Talk to him/her after the lesson. Give him/her your unconditional support at this difficult time. (Then “lose it” with your shrink later!).


Even if you often find your teenage students’ attitudes to be childish, give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as “near-adults”.  In other words, try not to be too condescending towards them. Condescension is often read as an attitude of superiority and we all know how much teenagers hate that. To be honest, I don’t blame them for that, do you? Remember - your tone of voice will be particularly important here. Try not to sound as if you know better.
Allow them to surprise you. Teenagers will rise or fall according to our expectations, so if you intend to pre-judge them, assume then that they will live up to your highest expectations! To see them soar is total bliss.

SHARING THE FLOOR             

  Photo from ELTPics by Roseli Serra -Rome- May 2012 

         Teenagers are generally considered difficult to motivate. In our desperate urge to make ourselves popular and win teenagers over, we teachers tend to hand over ownership of content of extra materials entirely to them. I don’t personally subscribe to that point of view. Giving teenagers ownership is indispensable as long as the teacher’s own sense of ownership is not diminished because of that. Negotiate your ownership rights carefully with them. I am convinced that teenagers (like children) are willing to expose themselves to the excitement of learning and discovery provided that teachers have managed to establish a classroom culture of mutual trust and constant negotiation of boundaries. As a matter of fact, with mutual trust, respect and goodwill, almost anything becomes possible!

      Having taught teenagers for a long time, I noticed some peculiarities about them and my pieces of advice (reminders, actually) based on my own experience are:

 Be flexible, firm, coherent, friendly, do not be over-sensitive (they are not against you). Remember that shouting at SS will make you weaker. Don’t take things personally, SS may have had bad experiences in the past and you are the nearest target. 
 Teenagers crave to authenticity and " real people". A teacher pretending to be someone else who he feels may impress teenagers will be spotted in a second and lose respect of his class even quicker. 
  Avoid personal confrontation in front of the others. Talk to the disruptive student one-to-one after the class.
      Maintain calmness in the face of aggression or rudeness.
      Encourage them to work as a group (adolescents love having the feeling of  “being part of a tribe”)
      See that pedagogical content is not dissociated from group dynamic.
      Connect language to their own lives and value their opinions (Take them seriously).
      Encourage SS to learn not only from you but from their classmates,  books and all the outside world available for them , including the web
      Encourage SS to listen to each other (don’t keep echoing your SS).
      Talk about personal experiences (successes, failures).
      Make contact with them.
      Try out different activities.
      Get into their world of interests and emotions.
      Encourage them to ask questions and link answers to real life.


When things get a little rough with your teenage students, I urge you to remember some of my thoughts on the matter.  If things get totally out of hand, do not fall into total despair. Simply invoke the Bard or remember his words in “As You Like It ,   a Shakespearean  comedy: 

Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.

Shakespeare is definitely hip – not even a grumpy teenager will have the courage to deny that! 

Enjoy your teaching! 

  1. HARP,  Richard -  The Effective Rapport .  Edimburg 2000
  1. PARROT, Martin – Tasks for Language Teachers – CUP  2005 
  2. Puctta, Hebert - Teaching Teenagers: Model Activity Sequences for Humanistic Language Learning, United Kingdom, Longman, 1993.
  3. SERRA, Roseli – What Teenagers Want – workshop presented at the British Council – Summer Course, February 2007. 


Working with Teenagers to Build Success – Part 1

For many adults, the idea of working with teenagers can be quite daunting. Some adults wonder if they will be able to relate to youth. Others are afraid they will be asked questions they don’t know the answers to. Still others imagine their students are versions of the monsters that they were when they were teens. 

What if we open our hearts and minds, work hard to break the barriers and open the road to effective learning? 

This post aims to demonstrate that working with teenagers does not have to be a difficult experience. It also aims to help us teachers to develop a positive relationship with teenagers.

As teachers we play an important role in a teen’s life. Studies have shown that we teachers can significantly improve students’ levels of academic success.  We help students to set goals, become more motivated and realize the importance of education.

According to studies, good teachers enable students to:

• Develop positive relationships with adults
• Increase their level of school engagement
• Become more comfortable around others
• Enhance their self-esteem
• Develop a positive view of the future

But we have some questions in mind:

  1. How could we motivate and encourage teens to learn?
  2. How could we teachers help them build their self-esteem by being a good mentor and learning coach?
  3. How to deal with the challenges that we may encounter when working with teens?
  4. Are teenagers really different nowadays from what they were 20 years ago? If so, HOW different and WHY are they different? Are they really that different? 
It seems to me I was a teenager  not a long time ago, although I am reaching my 50th birthday soon. I remember having similar doubts, concerns and wishes as those teens I teach and live with daily. 

In the 90's, I used to be an avid watcher of the TV series "THE WONDER YEARS", and I see that, although there are generations separating those teenagers from the actual ones, they are pretty much the same inside: "Nothing is mine, except my heart, my fears and my growing knowledge ", says Kevin Arnold at the end of this episode. 

 Apart from the similarities, nowadays teenagers are:

      More technologically-oriented.
      Quicker thinkers.
      More informed about general subjects.
      Less capable of spending much time concentrated on a single thing
      More willing to consume.
      More restless, more energetic.
      Often perceived as ´disrespectful´ by elders or/and authorities.
      More individualistic.
      More capable of multi-tasking.
      Less sensitive to people’s needs.
      Bored quickly.
      Eager for challenges.



        The internet is easily accessible and teens are frequent users of all sorts of social networks as well as a huge  amount  of apps and online games.

      Smarthphones and mobile devices  such as tablets are at hand and have a great deal of resources.
    “Age of consumerism”-further enhanced by technology.   
 ´Information age´ has led teenagers to sometimes neglect other dimensions of their lives.
     Parents are usually absent from home due to professional reasons or divorce.
   Authority figures often send ´mixed signals´ when conveying their values and their morals.

What are the implications of these “How” and “Why” for the teaching?

      Usually, it is not easy to teach teenagers.
      Adolescents usually don’t want to be in class.
      They are not often concerned about others.
      They love disagreeing with the teacher.
      They are strongly opinionated (they know better).
      They are lively, enthusiastic, energetic, fun.
      When they like the subject they can be really cooperative and creative.
      By confronting the teacher they might change some behaviour patterns which were hampering the learning in class and the development of students and teachers as human beings.
      The problem of mixed ability has become more pronounced.

How could we help learners?

1     Active listen to them:

Being a teacher of a group where the SS are 
either teenagers or very young adults who 
have just entered the university, I have experienced that the less I speak the better. Surprisingly, I have not only reached good results but have been asked to express my 
opinion about things I would never imagine 
they would care whether I speak or not. Following this idea, I concluded that active listening is crucial to good communication with teenagers (and others!).

To be an active listener:

  • You must be open-minded and focussed on the person with whom you are speaking.
  • You must keep in mind that you should talk very little: Reserve judgement and refrain from giving advice.
  • The focus of the discussion should be on encouraging the student to talk. (Brackenbury, 1995, p. 45)
  • As an active listener, you must want to help and listen. Rather than judging, you need to trust the other person’s ability to cope with problems.
  • Most importantly, you have to accept that the other person is unique (Harp, 2000, p. 9).
  • Your job is not to offer suggestions but to encourage the speaker to find their own solutions.
Wise Commandments for Good Listening (Adapted from Harp, 2000, p. 9)

  • Stop talking! You cannot listen if you are talking.
  • Respond to feelings. First, identify the emotion that the other person is
  • When you are working with teens, do not ask too many questions. Once you can do this, you are well on your way to having a good relationship with teenagers.

Active listening includes:  

·         Facing the person who is speaking
·         Making frequent eye contact (but not staring)
·         Using an open posture: leaning forward slightly (but don’t invade the other person’s “comfort zone”)
·         Being relaxed
·         Encouraging the other person through verbal cues (“tell me more”, “give me an example”) and non-verbal cues (nodding your head) (Brackenbury, 1995, p. 37-38)


Pay attention to non-verbal cues. A lot of what 
we understand in a conversation comes from non-verbal cues. Through experience, we learn to interpret non-verbal cues and use them to determine how another person is feeling. Paying attention to what students are subtext (“reading between the lines”) and the non-verbal cues can help you figure out areas they need to work on. It helps to develop a trusting relationship. Additionally,  it makes students feel important and thus encourages them to continue attending classes and feel motivated to do so.

Ask open questions. These are questions that encourage others to talk about themselves. Unlike “yes-no” questions (“Do you like school?”), open questions  (“What do you like most about school?”) allow a longer responses. Using open questions helps you to focus the discussion or discover more information.

Be patient! The fact that you are willing to demonstrate your affection and patience in many ways does not mean you should become a doormat. If and when necessary, a teacher should be firm. Whenever in doubt (for instance, on day one of the semester) I usually advise teachers to start with a “strong hand” and relax the grip later. This is particularly important, for instance, when it comes to classroom management issues

No threats, please! Don’t threaten to take action against a student unless you deem it absolutely necessary and really intend to do so.
Clarify. Ask questions such as “So, you worked on past tenses in class last
week. What did you work on this week?”. This helps you – and other speakers to determine the main points of what is being said. It also demonstrates that you are paying attention.

Summarize. Review what was said, including both events and feelings. This ensures that all participants have understood the main points of the discussion.

Go easy on criticism! Avoid responses like “If I were you …” “I think you should…” These statements put people down and do not allow effective problem solving.

Use the five-step approach. Asking these five questions will help students resolve problems:
    1. What is the problem?
    2. What have you tried?
    3. What else could you try?
    4. What is your plan?
    5. (After students have tried to solve the problem) How did it go?

“I Messages” (modified from Brackenbury, 1995, p. 26-27) “I messages” are a way of speaking which acknowledge people’s feelings. They assertively describe what is going on inside the speaker by using positive statements instead of put-downs or blame. Modelling these messages and teaching students to use them will help students communicate effectively and resolve conflicts more easily. “I messages” consist of three parts.

• A statement of feelings that usually begins with “I feel …”
• A statement of fact beginning with “when you …”
• The observed result of the behaviour using “because …”Instead of: “You make me mad when you yell at me.” Use: “I feel angry when you talk to me with that tone of voice.” _ an “I message”, giving the same information, but in a much less confrontational tone)

To sum up:

• Focus on students’ interests and concerns, not your own. Talk about activities
teens can  do, like doing and feel they are progressing by producing language.

• Don’t get too personal: Pay attention to the cultural differences and to your SS /group profile.

• Don’t assume understanding. Ask students to summarize what you have said.
This will confirm that they have understood.

• Encourage and praise students.

• Be patient when waiting for a response. Allow students ample time to respond.

• Be aware of differences in non-verbal communication (gestures, degree of eye contact, personal space, etc.).

We'll be back to the same subject soon. 

Enjoy your teaching! 

 Suggested reading: 

1.      BRACKENBURY,  Paul – Educating Teenagers  For Real Life , London 1995
2.      HARP,  Richard -  The Effective Rapport  Edimburg 2000
3.      HARMMER, Jeremy – How to Teach English –  Chapters 1. 2 & 3 Longman   2004