Teaching Teens 101


Teenagers often have a reputation which precedes them. Moody, rude, unmotivated and uncooperative, they’re many teachers’ least favourite age group to work with. What many teachers don’t realise is that teaching teens can be just as fun and rewarding as teaching other age groups – you just have to approach it in the right way. 

Thrown in at the deep end and have a class of teenagers to deal with? Here is what I wish I’d known when I first started teaching teens. 

1. Remember that they’re not adults.

It sounds obvious, but especially if (like me) you’re not overly tall, it can be a bit of a shock to walk into a room of 15 year olds and realise that they all tower over you. One of the mistakes people often make when teaching teens is that they assume that because their students look like adults, sound like adults, and sometimes act like adults, they can teach them in the same way that they would adults. With some classes, you can – however as a general rule, I’d say ‘don’t’. Teenagers don’t have the same attention span as adults. Hormones lead to fluctuations in both mood and energy levels. Often teachers complain about their teenage classes being ‘bored and lethargic’, when actually their students are just tired. For more information about the differences between teenage and adult brains, I really enjoyed this article.

Teenagers can be interested in very ‘adult’ topics (and by this I mean things like politics and the economy, as well as the other interpretation), but they can also surprise you by suddenly being interested in something that would strike you as being very immature. I remember one occasion when my teens begged me to let them write letters to Father Christmas – simply because they’d seen the letters my younger students had written and for whatever reason it had tickled their fancy.

Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that teenagers do need stricter boundaries than adult students. In most adult classes, there isn’t much classroom management to ‘do’, students don’t tend to be badly behaved and students are generally respectful of others’ points of view. Adult students also don’t have quite the same propensity to say things simply to ‘get a reaction’. Your teenagers need to be aware that if they wish to be treated like adults, they need to behave like them.

2. …but they’re not kids either.

Given what I’ve just said, it can be natural for teachers (especially those used to teaching younger children) to go too far in the other direction and treat their teens as though they are simply bigger children. Again, this tends to not work well. Teenagers are becoming ever more aware of themselves and the world around them, and as they get older they are increasingly able to engage in adult topics. I’ve yet to encounter a teenager who doesn’t hate being patronised – and if you ask them to do too many activities which are seen as ‘babyish’ this is the risk you are running.

3. Let them provide the input.

As I’ve touched upon in my last two points, teens can often be changeable, and surprising! It can be hard to work out what they will (or won’t) be interested in, and even if you weren’t a teenager too long ago yourself, it can still be difficult as an adult to try to keep up with the latest popular singers, films, books, and trends. Rather than guess what your students might be interested in or which celebrities they might be familiar with, it’s far safer to plan your activities so that your students can provide as much of the input as possible – even if it means asking them about things they like, and planning a subsequent lesson based on that.

4. Let them talk about themselves.

A useful addition to the above point. Teenagers are often pretty self-absorbed creatures, and are far more likely to engage with an activity if it gives them the opportunity to think, write, or speak about themselves. It also means you’re guaranteed a topic that everyone is interested in – win-win! The teenage years are also when children move from only thinking about their own little world to having opinions on more diverse subjects and issues, so if something does come up (or a textbook activity on the environment or laws is unavoidable), be sure to ask if they have an opinion on it.

5. Respect them!

I cannot stress this enough, as I’ve always found this to be the most important factor when teaching teens. If you respect them, they respect you – and vice versa. Teens need to be allowed to express themselves, to engage with themselves, each other and the world around them, and they need to be able to do so in an atmosphere which is open, friendly and supportive. Conversely, they should know that there is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the classroom, and any words or behaviour which are intended to hurt, belittle or intimidate other class members, or to disrupt others’ learning, will not be tolerated. Make your expectations know, be clear, be firm, and above all, be consistent.

6. Give them some responsibility.

With respecting teens, comes giving them some responsibility. Show them that you trust them, you respect and value their ideas and opinions, and their behaviour is almost sure to reward you. Not sure how to give your teens responsibility? Allow them to determine the consequences when rules in the class contract are broken. Allocate a certain student or group of students to be responsible for preparing/leading a game each week or each lesson. Spice up a revision lesson by asking each pair to prepare and present a short summary of a topic that will be covered in the test.

7. Don’t police them too rigidly.

Part of treating teens with respect and giving them some responsibility means trusting their ideas and opinions. Sometimes it can be worth giving teens a bit of a free rein and allowing them to talk about a potentially controversial issue – they may well surprise you with their maturity!

8. Ask “why?”

Often we associate constantly asking ‘why?’ with toddlers or small children. However it’s something I like to use with teens, as it forces them to think a little more and express themselves more clearly and in more detail. Often teens tend to try to cut off a conversation by giving a quick/silly answer. ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ ‘I slept.’ ‘What did you do yesterday?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘What can you tell me about the person in the photo?’ ‘He’s stupid’. Rather than try to pressure students into giving an entirely different answer, another approach can be to take their original answer and then run with it. ‘You slept? All weekend? Do you like sleeping? Why do you like sleeping?’. Be warned, this will make you incredibly annoying. It will also make your teenagers talk more, and in time they will give longer, more thought-through answers.

9. Expect the unexpected.

One of the joys (and the challenges) of teaching teens is that you never quite know what to expect. A normally chatty, lively class can be impacted hugely by a pre-lesson argument. School exams can have an effect on how motivated (or even how awake!) your students are. You may carefully plan a lesson, only to find that for whatever reason, on that day, your students aren’t interested in it. Yes, it’s annoying. But often going with the flow is the only way.

10. Hold the coursebook loosely.

Maybe whatever coursebook you’re meant to be using is fantastic, ideal for teenagers and really suited to both the level and the interests of the students you’re teaching. Chances are this is not the case. You may want to think about adapting the coursebook, leaving out or changing some activities altogether. Particularly if your coursebook is a few years old, don’t hesitate to replace the material (or particularly the songs!) for something a bit more up-to-date. The coursebook is there to help you – but provided you’re teaching whatever grammar, vocabulary and skills that the students need for any exams they are taking, don’t feel as if you have to follow it slavishly.

I hope some of this helps with your teen classes (particularly if you’re new to teaching this age group!). You can also read my Teaching Kids 101 post, which focuses on teaching 6-12 year olds. 




6 thoughts on “Teaching Teens 101

  1. Hi Elly,
    These two posts are excellent beginner’s guides for teachers – I’ve already added them to my useful links for CELTA trainees and put them into my young learner session 🙂 Thanks for writing them!
    Have you seen this post by Fiona Mauchline on the Materials Writing SIG blog? It’s about choosing themes for teens: http://mawsig.iatefl.org/gagas-grandma-and-garden-clippings-or-choosing-themes-for-teens/
    Hope your summer is going well!


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