The value of a teenager

Many years ago I was in the doctor’s office being prepped for a procedure that most older adults endure, not someone in their early 20s.  The doctor was particularly chatty that day and asked what I did for a living.  When I told him I taught junior high English, he harrumphed and said, “I’d rather pick up garbage.”  I didn’t take it personally, but I know that many people would echo his sentiment.  I, however, know I have the best job in the world – for me – and I’m richly blessed because of the people I spend my days with: teenagers.  Mostly, because I can learn so much from them.

A quick web search will provide all the ‘evidence’ you need as why teenagers are devalued today.  They are generalized to be moody, disrespectful, and mean.  Teens take ridiculous risks and make poor decisions.  However, an astute teen will point out that adults do this too.  So why look at kids as foreign beings?  Well, they can be hard to pin down sometime, but after spending the better part of 20 years enjoying their presence, I see incredible value in this age group.

For one, they have much to teach.  Most times their unintentional lessons are lost on me, but when I look, I learn.  For example, one of my students is rather immature for his age.  He tries us most days but his peers seem to give him more grace than the adults in his life do.  They’re understanding and welcoming and they overlook slights admirably.  I can learn from that.  Many times I’ve assigned a pet peeve essay.  It’s a good topic because everyone seems to have a pet peeve, kids then write in their comfort zone – no research or heavy thinking required – and it does take some critical thinking skills.  However, one student recently wrote a beautiful piece questioning  why we should even have a peeve.  Hhmmmm…he’s right!  I’m inclined to peevery, but he advocated for being more patient with people and ourselves, thereby not having a peeve at all.  I can learn from that.

Another way I see value in teens is their desire to have relationships with people.  Children play and interact with others quite seamlessly but teens begin to discern and become introspective about who they ‘play’ with.  Sure, I’ve seen many be exclusionary and I trust that they’ll someday move past that and be more inclusive of others.  I’ve also seen others make choices that leave me in awe.  I think of Jordan who was quite popular when I had him in 8th grade.  He was what many people would consider the “total package.”  Good at everything and popular with all, he stood out most when a teacher announced that they needed to choose partners.  Those words are dreaded by a small population of kids in middle school.  Jordan would ignore all the calls of his names and urgings of his friends and literally shake them off as he searched for the student who wasn’t picked.  Male or female, he made his way over and asked if they’d be his partner.  I can learn from that.

In addition to that example, teens desire a relationship with adults.  Many adults would find that surprising but I know it’s true.  Kids want to know us adults!  They love to know little quirks about us and want to talk to us, especially if they know we like them and are on their side, but they feel a gap that stands invisibly between the two generations.  To the rescue –  Alex and Brett Harris who have been advocating for teens for a few years now on their website  They’re all too aware of the teenager’s image and are showing off all the best in their generation while encouraging their peers at the same time.    This site by teens and for teens is always inspiring for adults to read proving these kids are deep thinkers, have big hearts and care deeply about the world they’re about to inherit.

Clearly, I see lots of value in teenagers and I love them very much.  They delight me and make me laugh.  Their lightheartedness is so often just what I need to brighten my day.  But what I value most about them is how much I can learn from them.  God is gracious enough to leave something for me to teach them, but I’m their student too, and what a pleasure it is.



How to be a successful student

I imagine there might be lots of places where one can find tips on how to be successful at school but I must throw my two cents in, as over 20 years of teaching, I’ve observed students practice what works and an equal number that practice what doesn’t.

Attach your passion to your study.  Such as, my daughter sings everything!  She also hates history facts.  So, sing them!  Replace song lyrics with facts.  Over the years we’ve changed the lyrics to everything from advertising jingles to top 10 songs on the radio.  It’s fun and quite easy!

Acknowledge your avoidance.  When I see it, I call it what it is.   Trying to avoid tackling an assignment, my kids stack  up non-essential tasks during homework time, hoping to avoid the inevitable.  I just call them on it!  They always sheepishly acknowledge it and interestingly, it seems to spur them on to just get on with it.  Not sure why….

Don’t repeat what doesn’t work.  Oddly enough, kids have ways of doing things that they don’t find successful, like guessing at how to spell a word or just cramming papers into their binder.  They seem puzzled when that doesn’t work.  Really?  Then why keep repeating the behavior? (Adults do this too) Sometimes we have to ask them to talk that one out.  What might work better?  They always know the answer.  Articulating is the missing piece to achieving it.

Engage your mind.  Everyone daydreams.  It’s healthy and normal.  However, when we intentionally choose to engage in what’s going on, we’re much more successful.   Kids can sit through a class and not hear a thing.  We adults assume they have.  Then there’s a clash of some variety when push comes to shove.  Students who own their learning, own their mind’s attentiveness.

Search for cues the teacher gives you to be successful…and take advantage of them.  For instance, I have the habit of always writing down the next day’s homework on the same corner of the whiteboard.  One student was perpetually in the dark about his homework.  When I asked him he said he didn’t know what the homework was.  Perplexed, I explained that I always write the homework down – and he has to pass that board on his way in and out of the classroom each day.  “Oh, I don’t actually read that.” I was speechless then; I’m speechless now.

Stay after….and ask questions!  Students who show an investment in their learning by asking about their work or grades or instructions are just bound to be successful.  That’s the time when the teacher can individualize, take the opportunity to modify or simply reassure the student that they’re on the right track.

Don’t let a setback set you back.  It’s very rare for students to get a straight A on everything.  The normal learner will encounter something that makes them work a little harder.  I love that moment as a teacher!  To see a mind pushed in a new direction, to make it stretch in a new way….we should rejoice.  Let the man or woman who’s been in their career for decades coast in their comfort zone.  If you’re in school, you should encounter new challenges and new demands on how you think.  Sometimes it’s when students learn a new language; for others, it’s the next level in math.  Whichever it is, embrace the challenge instead of getting down on yourself.  You’re bound to need that brain pathway to be opened for some other challenge that’s bound to come your way.



Kids are more than a test score

I saw that on a bumper sticker this week and “amen!!”ed it out loud.  It’s so true!  Now, I’m saying this as I watch my son’s junior year grades.  He is gifted academically and since he’s four-year-college bound, we want him to get the best possible grades now so he can capitalize on scholarships and the perks that come with high school achievement.  You might be wondering if I’ve forgotten the title of this post.  No, I haven’t.  This is a fine line to walk as a mom and a teacher.  Especially since I was his teacher for three years.

Even though we want our kids to do well, it can be easy to look at those grades, check the progress report and gauge their success based on the numbers.  However, that’s a quick path to a bad habit if we make the leap to judge based on the numbers exclusively.  One of the joys – and truly, just one- is knowing my students beyond their assessments.  In the same way we know our children and can advocate and enlighten their teachers based on who we know that child to be, the wise teacher seeks to know their students.  Granted, in my position of having small classes, it’s more feasible.  But making this a goal, to look – really look – at our students/children can make all the difference in their learning.

Kids learn early on that that red grade at the top of their paper means something bigger than they’d choose.  I’ve seen kids literally deflate when they get a graded paper back;  others look to see how their peers did; some share loudly/proudly; others shove that paper into the deep recesses of their binder hoping to hide it or forget it forever.  Most kids’ moods are dictated by their grades.   Some kids pretend to not care at all.  Those that truly don’t care are rare and I’ve met maybe two in my career.  However, those that feign indifference are being disingenuous.  But I understand why.  It surprised me to learn how many parents track their grades daily.  Then there are those who have no clue how their kids are doing….not even checking progress reports or report cards.  But those spectrums are admittedly extreme.

Most often, kids feel that their grade defines them.  I’ve had parents tell me that their kids “feel so dumb.”  Heck, I’ve heard kids say that themselves and I want to shake them and yell, “No you’re not!!” But would they believe me?  Since teachers are the keeper and “giver” of grades, it feels like we can say little, but the adults in their lives have much, much influence over these kids, whether they want to admit it or not. Since kids can begin to believe that they are not more than a test score, it’s our job to communicate otherwise. But first we have to believe it.  Are we talking about their strengths, even if they did get a poor grade?  Like, persistence, organization, a strong vocabulary?  Are we noticing passions that could be directed towards their  learning?  (more on that in future posts)  Are we not making a big deal out of one poor grade or a little dip in learning?

Kids need us to support them through the ebbs and flows of their educational years.  They’re not always going to get A’s….they might not always get C’s.  Many parents rejoice in that moment when the lights seem to go on and a kid just ‘gets’ it.  Hurray!  Let’s make sure we let them know that whether they get A’s or C’s, whether they ‘get’ it or not, we love them, they can be successful and they’re not defined by a letter in red.