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Quick Ideas for Teaching Teens: The First Steps for Building Rapport.

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Quick Ideas for Teaching Teens: The First Steps for Building Rapport.

When teaching teens, we first need to commit ourselves to building a healthy learning environment.  Rapport is a large part of that. Faced with the first days of the new academic year, or a new class, how do we build rapport with our students? While the map of a teen classroom may have terra incognita, it doesn’t need to have dragons, jagged rocks and sea monsters as well.  In this article we look at two first steps to building a meaningful and fruitful relationship with a class of teens.

1.Building Rapport With Teens: Something to Consider as You Learn Your Students’ Names

During the first class of a new academic year, the first step we all take is to get the class register and get to know our students’ names.

Easy you might think. I’ll just give them name tags, or, I’ll have a map of the class on my desk and everyone’s names with where they’re sitting. Or I’ll just call names form the list. Let’s rethink this exercise. If you are committed to building rapport, the next time you learn names of a class, pay attention to yourself as much as the new students.

Certainly, write them down, or get the students to wear name tags or have their names on their desks. But at the end of the first lesson, try and remember the names and faces. Which names and faces did you struggle to remember? Were they the quieter ones? The weaker or less confident ones? It may well be the case. You’ll remember the rowdy one and the students that always volunteer answers. This is your first map of the class. Beware! Here be dragons!

Take a moment to reflect on what your natural tendency will be with this class –and what biases or habits you may create right from first impressions. You might have received prior information about these students. Teachers may have given you their experiences. Listen respectfully, file it. But go in with a clean set of eyes and ears.

Really notice the quieter students and what will work for them. Observe the rowdy students or the “naughty” ones without making your mind up about them. No judgements. Perhaps it’s just a question of channelling their energy in a different way rather than blocking it and shutting them down. If building rapport with teens is our aim, making sure our learners know they have been really, trully heard and seen as significant individuals is important.

2. Building Rapport With Teens: About Ground Rules and Harnessing Choice

“I will treat you as an adult. But if you break our agreement, I will treat you as a child and you will hate it when I do.”

– James Heal, Seville, Spain: long time teacher of teens.

Here’s a revolutionary idea. Think about these ideals that underpin many democracies*:

  1. Human beings have certain fundamental rights
  2. The people affected by the decision should have a voice in the making of that decision
  3. Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in life and freedom to choose.

Can you think of a classroom or a school where this is really played out? Where students actually have a choice? Most of our schooling is compulsory and the style of the teaching is also imposed. So imagine a school run by the teachers and students together where these ideals are applied. What would that look like?

A School Model for Choice

In his book “Free to Learn”, Peter Gray describes how Sudbury Valley School, established as an alternative school in 1968 in Massachusetts is run. The primary administrative body is the School Meeting, that includes staff and all students. Each person has an equally valid vote. That means a child’s vote is the same as an adult’s.

The School Meeting gathers once a week and sets the ground rules for behaviour. It also hires and fires staff, sets the budget and over sees the operational running of the school. Any rules established by the School Meeting apply to everyone. So, if a teacher breaks the rule, the consequences are the same for them as for any student. In this way, it shows that the child’s world is not segregated from the adult’s world in this sense.

Not only that, but learning is entirely voluntary and negotiated. A class has no formal status and lasts as long as learner interest lasts. In fact, being at school is negotiated too. Within agreed rules, children can leave the school. Rules include being accompanied by someone over a certain age and saying where you will be.  A surprising amount of learning takes place in this “free market of ideas and free enterprise system of talents” (Greenburg 1992).

How Much Choice do Your Students Have?

Negotiating the rules of the classroom to this extent may not be within your or the students’ power. It’s possibly not even their choice to be studying English. But there are some ideas from this case study that you can take, adapt and apply in your classroom.

To begin, conduct a class investigation into what we (teacher and students) are and are not permitted to do. This can reveal a lot about the lives of our students.  They can learn about us too. Expect a lot of heated discussion. At what age can you get a mobile? Snapchat? WeChat? Instagram? Can you choose your own subjects? Do you have interests outside of school? Who chose them? How long can you stay out? How often can you go out? What are your obligations with the family? With homework?

This will give you an idea about how much autonomy your learners enjoy in their lives. Give your students agency and choice…and the responsibility or consequences that come with it. This is very important for adolescents to believe they are beginning to have control over their own lives and is a crucial part of building rapport.

Negotiating Ground Rules

However, for students unaccustomed to having a choice about how things are going to be, you will need to rip release choice. I remember how crazy all the private school kids went in our student accommodation in my first year at university. Going from being told what to do at every step of the way to being given 100% free choice can be too much too soon.

Therefore, decide on choices about manageable things. Perhaps for your teens, the choice to do homework or not may not be the right thing. Try scaffolding it: have a bare minimum to be done with the choice to challenge themselves with more. We need to remember that teens while they are not children, are not adults either. They don’t need you to be a big kid to get on with them. They still need guidance. You, as the teacher, the adult friend, model and guide, have to be the kinder, stronger, wiser one.

Finally, agree that everyone, including the teacher, will stick to them. If a teacher shows personal responsibility to “The Rules” it demonstrates that you respect your students and the agreement you all have together. Respect earns respect.



Further Reading: Free to Learn, by Peter Gray, Basic Books, 2013

*Democracy has its roots in judeo-christian ideals of personal responsibility, which may not translate across all cultures. We should respect where we are and find a commonly held value about how we wish to be treated by others.

Original Header Image: “Here be Dragons?” © 2018 by Emma L. Pratt