Keepin'-It-Real Reminders from the High School Classroom
I am half-way through a long-term substitute teaching job: four sections of freshman English at the school from which I "retired" two years ago. Eight hours a day with brand-new high schoolers: emotional, excitable, nervous, hormonal wrecks. Also, it is Homecoming Week. So there are costumes.
Seventy minutes at a time with freshmen feels like being trapped among a herd of knife-bearing three-year-olds. A vocabulary lesson can erupt into chaos if I relax for even a moment. The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, as Steinbeck reminds us in that perennial freshman-English favorite. I had my plans to breeze through the trimester; my students thwarted them. Inventing creative, surprising, specific ways to torture us is a teenager's job description. It is impossible to prepare; there is no rule book; spending time with teenagers is disorienting, frustrating, humbling, and exhausting.
After being completely flattened by the humanity of it all, I have sort of found my groove. Even the discovery of penis graffiti and a desk full of sunflower seeds doesn't faze me. It has been excellent research for my book.
This return to the classroom has been a humbling lesson in meeting teenagers where they are. I prepared for my teaching like I prepared for my own parenting, quite confident the kids would play along and respect the rules of the game. As we know (but I marvel at my need to keep being reminded), our children seldom play by the rules. I have had to formulate a new game plan. I am reminded once again of the most important thing I learned observing teenagers and their families: to survive the three-ring-circus of adolescence, parents must KNOW, PROTECT and HONOR our teenagers.
Here, my observations from the actual trenches we call English class.
KNOW. The (Adolescent) Struggle is Real.
It's a jungle out there. In a single classroom of fourteen-year-old students, you will see: boys who have not reached puberty, muscle-bound lads in XXL shirts, girls so mature you could befriend them, others so innocent they look perpetually stunned, daily inventions of facades and affectations, people motivated by fear, others motivated by desire, and lost souls not motivated by anything at all, devoted to apathy as a way of life. The spirit of rebellion permeates the hallways of an American high school as tangibly as the aroma of perspiration and Axe Body Spray. Often, that rebellion is as misplaced and as baffling to the hell-raisers as it is maddening to the adult objects of their defiance.
This week, I have learned about one boy who struggles to find a balance with his ADHD medicine, another who served as pall-bearer at his grandfather's funeral on Saturday, and one girl whose day was made when she was asked to Homecoming (also one nervous boy who, upon asking said girl to the dance, broke into such a profuse sweat he needed to remove his ultra-cool hoodie). One kid feels awful because his dad gave him a hard time for buying expensive shoes. I suspect a couple of kids have trouble staying awake in class because video games keep them up all night. I have a hunch about who might be indulging in recreational activities before class (and believe me, I'll get to the bottom of THAT).
Meanwhile, I want these not-quite-grown-ups to learn the difference between reflexive and intensive pronouns. I want them to care about Shakespeare and invest in precise vocabulary. Clearly, we are not on the same page. I try to remember: We do not teach English (or math or history). We teach students. My frustration and exhaustion after a day of trying to teach freshmen are visceral reminders. It is vital that we KNOW what's going on with teenagers before imposing our expectations upon them. Otherwise, trying to communicate with them--never mind helping them become responsible, happy adults--feels futile, indeed.
PROTECT. TEENAGERS NEED BOUNDARIES.
These teenagers are tricky; they will do everything in their power to convince us they do not want boundaries. I assure you, they crave them. Without order, our adolescents are lost. Nothing in their lives seems in control. Their own thoughts and emotions are tangled and often scary. They are astute enough to recognize hypocrisy but naive enough to be frightened by it. The adults in their lives do contradictory, weird things. Many teens find it impossible not to vocalize every thought in their brains. Some burst into tears without reason. Their bodies betray them daily in ways that baffle and humiliate them. So much really is beyond their control! They need adults in different ways than they did when they were small, but they need us. Without some order set for them, teenagers must find order in their own chaotic, hormonal, not-ready-for-prime-time brains. Without some boundaries, they wander too far astray and get lost.
As much as they need boundaries, limits and natural consequences for their mistakes, teenagers are programmed to strain against every limit we impose. Parents and teachers, we can take it. Sometimes to PROTECT teenagers--from chaos in the classroom, bad habits or dangerous behavior--we must stay the course and reinforce their boundaries. It is worth it in the end; hibernation is not the answer. But it's exhausting.
As a teacher in a classroom full of unruly ninth-graders I often feel like a drill-sergeant. Hands raised, bottoms in seats, eyes on me, "Yes, Ma'am," hats off, shirts tucked in, phones put away, please stop that tapping on the desk. Managing a classroom is exactly as exhausting and demanding--and requires precisely the same vigilance--as parenting, only the children depart with the bell and I get to go home at 3:30. But I persist. I engage with them even when I long to relax. I yell and cajole and whisper and encourage. I insist they follow the rules of the classroom--and of basic human interaction--even when they protest in ways I could not have fathomed. By God, I do not give up on them: a full understanding of direct objects will indeed enrich their adult lives, and I shall protect them from all influences that keep them from learning it. If uncontrollable humming during an exam must be met with a trip to the Dean's office, so be it. I am happy to argue the merits of the homework assignment at lunch. Setting and maintaining boundaries is tough work but it's our only defense against pure adolescent chaos.
Parenting teenagers is more complicated, more relentless, more demanding than we can prepare for or imagine. Have faith. It is worth it. Remember, always, the lovable toddlers inside the hormones, whom we would protect at all cost. Parents of teenagers, too, do best to PROTECT their kids from the crazy, chaotic world. Which usually means setting and reinforcing boundaries.
HONOR. Meet teenagers where they are.
If we had to share the physical existence of our teenaged sons and daughters, we couldn't make it through our days. It would involve more sweating, scratching, twitching, and random vocal explosions than adults could stand. When we HONOR the actual experience of adolescents, it is easier to forgive them for being fourteen. It is easier to forgive them for being more fascinated by naughty drawings, farts and insects than transitive verbs. I am reminded what folly it is to try and push them beyond the limits of their cognitive or psychosocial development. Perhaps a ninth-grader is hard-wired not to care about how diction creates tone in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.
In fact, I know this is true. Some days, it takes all my strength to make sure everyone has a pencil and no gum is stuck to the desks. If no one falls out of a chair or vomits in the classroom, we consider it a day well-spent.
As a teacher, I hate to admit I lower my standards. But the lesson plans that look so efficient (and brilliant) on paper rarely play out so well. I honor my students enough to speak truth to them. I communicate what I expect from them and what they can expect from me. I tell them when they disappoint or frustrate me. I also tell them, of course--often and in no uncertain terms--when they do well and do good and surprise me with their brilliance.
As always, working with adolescents requires the balance of a tight-rope walker. Don't expect too much, but don't sell them short. Honoring students means holding them responsible for meeting their considerable potential, while at the same time cutting them the slack their physical condition (puberty) demands. Sometimes, a child must sit still at her desk; other times, I might send her on an invented errand, granting her a moment of distraction and the more diligent students a moment of peace. They keep us guessing, these teenagers!
When I am at my wit's end, I try to remember their physical reality and my sense of humor. By God, they do say funny things. The detours we take during classroom lectures are truly, deeply maddening but they can also be downright hilarious and give me insight into the lives of these people who refuse to bend to the will of my brilliant lesson plans. Every once in awhile--it deserves mention--I also manage to really teach them something. When I find some semblance of balance between my expectations and their pace, we connect. Lightbulbs go off almost literally above heads. We all feel the satisfaction of getting it, if only for a moment, and we silently strengthen our pact to keep muddling through this English-class business together.
To reach adolescents--and to teach them--we do best to KNOW about anything preventing them from meeting our expectations. When we PROTECT their boundaries, they feel safer and more sure in the uncertain world. And really, we can't hope to get very far with them unless we HONOR exactly where they are in the complicated, confusing, often amusing process of growing up.
On the bright side, living with teenagers keeps us in the moment. They are a constant invitation to remain flexible, keep learning, and see the world through new eyes. Meeting them where they are requires vigilance and super-human tenacity, but it's worth it. When you break through a sullen stare and connect with a teenager, when you get a glimpse of the funny, confident, fascinating grown-up lurking behind the angst (almost but not-quite ready to see the light of day) you can see it's worth it. Know, protect, honor. Easier said than done when we're faced with real-live hooligans, but worth it every single time.