Tag Archives: High School

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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Advice to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self/Sister

I’m happy to say my sister probably needs this advice far less than I did at her age, but because she is my closest link to my sixteen-year-old self, and I love her so, she will have to humor me through this…

I started this post earlier this week, inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s advice to her younger self at the end of Dear Sugar and my own desire to say something meaningful to my younger sister about surviving high school. It was intended to be my way of traveling back in time to fix all the perceived wrongs I witnessed and/or participated in as a sixteen-year-old girl.

However, after the list sat unpublished overnight, I decided it was more angry than inspiring, an outdated wish for more confidence and regret over things that could not be changed. See, as much as I wish I would have stood up for myself and others more, maybe it was the not standing up that needed to happen first. To be on the victimized side of rumors, to watch mentally challenged and effeminate students be taunted, to forego relationships because my friends did not approve, to ignore chauvinist boys who pushed too much or called me horrible names, was all part of my becoming.

Sure it would have been nice if I became confident and outspoken sooner, but maybe I needed to know what it felt like to not be those things first so that I could relate to my quiet students and collect more pieces of life and knowledge of myself. Going back and standing up would have felt good, but it was not realistic to who I was at sixteen. That was me and it’s alright. Forgiving myself for not being stronger is actually the bigger piece of advice than any list of all the things I wish I did. It’s okay to be sixteen, quiet, not sure, and sometimes disillusioned.

An afternoon coffee visit with an old friend from middle school made me realize that it was not just my high school experience that felt a little angry– it was hers too, at the very school I thought would make me happier. While this should come as no surprise, because half the people I know felt this way about their own high school experiences, it was somehow humbling to realize I might have been pretty much the same girl under any circumstances. Just part of the territory of growing up.

So, dear sister and sixteen year-old me, that’s my message. Instead of a long list of sixteen different pieces of advice, I leave you with one idea. It’s okay to be imperfect, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes disillusioned, and not always possessing the confidence we know is inside us. That will come, just keep being you and hold on to all the happy moments, because there will be plenty.

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