Things I’ve Learned Teaching Teenagers
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Teens are a dodgy mixture of immature senses of humor, spongy brains, and twitchy energy in full-grown bodies. I read recently that the part of our brains that understands long-term thinking is still developing in our teens. So they have the strength of adults with a still-forming sense of consequences. For a long time, they were the demographic that scared me the most. Especially in groups.
Then my dear non-profit, IMPACT Bay Area, got tapped to teach self-defense to the entire 9th grade in San Jose Unified School District and I became one of the instructors from our organization. Six schools, thousands of students. Wiggly, hormonal, complicated students.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that for the last school, Abraham Lincoln High School, I was no longer nervous the night before. Five am came early the first day of the last week, but it didn’t feel like a nerve-wracking act of masochism this time around. I was, dare I say, excited. These kids have made the early mornings, hours of rush hour traffic, navigating complicated schedules and revising class plans late at night worthwhile. I’ve learned so much. Here are a few gems that stand out for me now:
Teens are often listening even if they don’t appear to be.
Things aren’t always what they seem. I was really shocked to discover that every time I reviewed the previous day’s class, the kids remembered the important parts. In the moment, there are side conversations erupting by the dozens. It feels like they are completely unaware of what I’m saying. But the few times I got to assist my co-teachers with “classroom management”, I realized their side conversations were almost always prompted by the latest teaching point. They were processing the information. It may be disruptive to my old lady brain who loves peace and quiet to learn, but they were getting the message.
They thrive with encouraging, individual attention.
The teens were almost unanimously cooperative during drills, when I walked around with the focus mitt so they could try the strike I just taught. Answering a question in front of the class was a little more challenging, but I noticed a marked difference when I walked around and stood in front of each person for a moment while they answered. Just having someone take a moment and listen brought a richer presence into them. It was really beautiful to be a part of.
The most challenging ones are incredibly sensitive.
There are amazing personality ranges in every class. Quiet kids with soulful eyes, the almost zealous over-achievers, the coordinated ninjas, the ones who are friends with everyone, and the “difficult” ones. These were the ones who shouted, sought constant attention from me and their friends and classmates, volunteered too often and raised their hands without having good answers. I tried different tactics to dealing with them without losing the rest of the class, and discovered that acknowledging them affectionately and then setting a firm boundary often helped. They needed to feel seen and safe and could set aside the attention-seeking behavior a bit.
I realized by the end of this experience just how human we all are. Seeking acceptance and wanting to be witnessed. Figuring out who we are in relation to this collection of others. My own high school career was filled with a lot of wonderful things when I reflect on it now, but it was also fraught with insecurity, trying to discern the rules of the social hierarchy and forming my identity to succeed at the illogical process.
Being back with this age group at 35 is so different. I can treat everyone with love and respect and hold them accountable when they cross a boundary, even the ones I would have wanted to like me when I was their age. It’s freeing. And I now understand how much they are paying attention, soaking up every experience, and recalibrating themselves. It makes me wonder if adults are doing something similar, just under a few more layers of constraint (self-imposed or otherwise).
I walked through a gym filled with 130 students today and felt no trace of the fear I started this teaching project out with. Instead, I noticed a sense of pride with this new identity as a sort of spirit guide for this precious age group. They are just around the corner from autonomy and adulthood. This age is fleeting, irreplaceable and I have to admit, hilarious.
I’m happy to report, the kids are alright. They’re clever and feisty and bright and beautiful.
If we let them, they’ll be just like the best of us, probably even better.