Why aren’t my teenagers speaking?

teenagers speaking

As any experienced language teacher knows, getting students speaking in their second language can at times be difficult. This is never more true than when teaching teens.  The variety and intensity of the reasons for this reluctance can vary but the inevitable result is the same – lessons which feel difficult and forced.  Despite all our preparation and planning, it isn’t the teenagers speaking but us and our students seem bored and distracted.  All our work and enthusiasm hits a wall of dismissive indifference.

As a consequence we chastise our students for their apparent lack of motivation.  At first we do this lightly and then, as our frustration grows, with more insistence until finally we can add resentment to to our students’ existing indifference.  At this point the invisible barrier between teacher and student becomes palpable and seemingly insurmountable.

What we often don’t realise is that from our students’ perspective that barrier has been there all along.  It is only now that we the teachers finally sense it.  So where does this barrier come from?  To understand what it is that keeps us from connecting with our students we have to put ourselves in their shoes; only then can we hope to break these barriers down.

Life as a teenager

worried girlAs we all know, life is complicated.  What we can forget as we grow older, however, is that it has always been complicated.  Even though these days we have bills and taxes, work and responsibilities, we have always been finding our way in life.  Back at school it was the mystery of inter-personal relationships that confounded us; how we fitted
into the microcosm of school society and it’s myriad dynamics.  It was all-consuming,
the most important question that life had to offer.  It was beyond simple studies, far bigger than trivialities like the origin of life or the universe – it related to our inner psychology, our self-image and the perception of us by others.  And let’s be honest, very little time needs to be spent with a teenager before the importance of “self” for them becomes very clear.  All joking aside, however, it is safe to assume that there is more going on in a classroom than the teacher is aware of.

How we learn our place in the larger world of school and who we are as people we learn largely through trial and error and our observation of the sucesses and failures of others.  It is a sad fact, though, that at that age errors can be harshly judged and mercilessly ridiculed by our peers and this can have devastating effects on an adolescent psyche.

And now we, as teachers, enter into this psychological pressure cooker and ask our students to participate in an event where they know for a fact that they will make errors; perhaps in front of the very elements who might ridicule them.  In addition they have to walk a fine line – to be bad is to be open to ridcule but to be too good is to risk another criticism; we have all heard words like “Swot” or “Teacher’s pet”, for example, and worse besides.

A teacher’s role

We can therefore see that the teacher’s role is far more difficult than we first expected and that before learning can occur we have to create a space apart from ‘school’ where the same rules do not apply – a place where students can feel comfortable enough to assert who they are as a person with confidence and create new, more supportive ideas of who they are as a group/class.  This can only happen when the teacher acts as a guide and facilitator and this requires a connection and trust in a person they have always seen as “other”.  The very label of ‘teacher’ puts us on the other side of the ‘wall’.  Breaking that wall down is clearly going to be difficult and will force us to look at our students in a much larger context; not just as “learners” but people.  In the next part we will consider the first of these new contexts and their effects – the learning environment.