Be Brave: Teaching Teenagers

I’m not sure when a room full of teenagers became as scary as giving birth. However, as I lay awake the other night, contemplating my decision to take a secondary sub job, childbirth somehow became my mantra.

You gave birth, you’ve got this.

Ironically, my fear didn’t just keep me awake, it also prevented me from powering up my cell phone to hit cancel on the automated sub page. I can’t stand the idea of letting my anxiety stop me from doing something I’ve always wondered about. In some alternate reality, I must be a high school teacher because I’m drawn like some poor insect to a flame.

The upside of fear-induced insomnia is it creates time for reflection. As I lay awake, I asked myself where all this anxiety was coming from– what is it about teenagers that is so darn scary? I find it necessary to interject that this particular population of teenagers is more on the side of something you’d see in a movie where the teacher is first reduced to tears and then toughens up, but the reality is that even private school teenagers have made me hesitate from pushing send on otherwise attractive job postings.

Which brings me back to my question. What’s the worst that could happen? Sure they might not listen to me, profess hatred, or pull some stupid prank, but even then, I’d only have to last through one period at a time for just one day. I’d weathered the same from 4th and 5th graders for entire years. Heck, I’d given birth, which used to be one of the scariest things on my list of probable life scenarios worth fearing.

Still, somehow, the older kids were much more intimidating. I’d seen them yell and scream profanities and not listen to their teachers on the same campus where I used to teach. I even shared a wall with a class that made me feel lucky to have students I didn’t have to climb onto the planters to talk over. And this was the very same school where I’d impulsively hit “accept” on the secondary sub posting…

So, when 5:50AM came around, I dragged myself out of bed and resisted the final opportunity to use my fussy, teething infant as my excuse for not showing up. As I put on my most drab teaching attire and pulled my hair into an austere bun, I practiced my game face. Despite my slight frame, I managed to look somewhat menacing if I scrunched my features just right. And, unlike prior days, where I’d filled my commute time with blue tooth banter, I quizzed myself on teaching techniques and played music that made me feel adequately tough.

Upon arrival, the Dean of Discipline armed me with positive incentives and detention slips. He also warned me they’d be challenging. Great. Maybe I already wasn’t exuding the toughness I’d hoped. As I set up shop in the front of the classroom, I let my eyes stop on the note from the previous day’s sub, cautious not to read so much as to psyche myself out. A quick glance revealed cursing, attitudes, help from admin.

What did I get myself into?

One day was regrettably not enough time to morph into Michelle Pfeiffer and build lasting relationships with these kids. Still, there was no getting off the ride now. First period, 11th grade. The oldest, and biggest of the kids for the day. Straight into the deep end.

I shook each of their hands as they entered the classroom and felt tiny looking up at 6-foot-tall man children. Still, most of them made eye contact and smiled. Maybe I could do this. As I started busting out my hard-won teaching strategies, I realized I didn’t need them. Sleepy eleventh graders came in and did their job with little prompting. I didn’t even have to finish a single countdown. What a relief. One period finished and nothing to report other than an hour of near-perfect silence.

Next up, three periods of 8th grade and at least thirty familiar faces from my year of resident teaching. Maybe that was part of the secret to my success. Many of the kids knew my name and some even remembered me fondly with warm hugs and excited faces. But that wasn’t entirely it. These were the kids the other sub had written such copious notes about.

Second period came into the room as a hot mess. Laughter, chairs squeaking to unassigned spots, backpacks flying across the counters. I doubted myself for a moment, although I’m certain they didn’t see it. A loud countdown did the trick and for the most part, the kids listened. Check marks and detention slips helped. A long period of silent work was achieved.

Third and fifth period repeated the same scene. The sixth graders at the end of the day were louder, but just as responsive to a strong voice and the promise of both negative and positive consequences. Sure some individual students required more interventions than others, but overall the classes were all right.

The worst that happened? Two boys handed me a hall pass dipped in toilet water, but I didn’t let them have the satisfaction of an emotional response. I calmly washed my hands in front of the class and asked them to go to the office. I’ve dealt with worse.

It turned out that teaching older kids wasn’t so different than teaching fourth and fifth graders. It wasn’t easy but I survived. I talked directly to teenagers and they (mostly) did what I asked. I used a strong voice and looked them in the eyes. I came home tired but triumphant. I’d let go of my fear.

Now I just have to work up the courage to try Kindergarten…

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4 thoughts on “Be Brave: Teaching Teenagers

  1. You’ve got this…

  2. kingmidget says:

    I read this and think back to my days as a student and how we so totally disrespected subs and I’ll never understand it. Kudos to you for overcoming the fear and getting it done.

    • olivia says:

      Meant to say thanks a couple weeks ago! It’s amazing how many students so badly want to hate substitute teachers. Makes me laugh. I can usually get them to come around… Usually. Every day is definitely an adventure, though.

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