Being the adult

street art photo

Street art Mott Haven, Bronx

As I’m hiring for the next school year, I’m starting to see a key teacher quality I hadn’t recognized before: the ability to be an adult around teenagers.

This may sound obvious.  What I mean is that the teacher knows that they are the adult, and that the student is a kid who may not yet possess all of the politeness, life skills, and behaviors they need to be productive and have good relationships.  The teacher knows that as the adult, they have the main responsibility for creating a respectful relationship.

As I’m interviewing teacher candidates, I see two ways of approaching teens:

The first way is the adult/responsible way, and it ranges from a calm neutrality—“Teenagers are teenagers, they have their ups and downs, let’s keep teaching and not take it personally”—to compassion—“It’s tough to be a teenager and we need to guide kids through this time in their life.”

The second way is the victim way, a constant skirmish between the teacher and student: “They’re making it difficult for me to deliver my lesson” or “I’m not letting Student X back into my class until he apologizes.” I am all for teaching kids behavior and responsibility—but the key word is, teaching, not pouting or demanding that a behavior exists before it’s taught.  Kids don’t show up with the skill sets we’d like them to have, so it’s up to us to model, guide, and practice with them until they’ve mastered those skills, not to demand that they suddenly mature so we can be more comfortable.

And—teenagers push our buttons.  Not only do I have compassion for people who are frustrated with teens, but I see that in my own career, I have had many moments of victimizing myself with teens’ behavior.  There were times I wished for a student to be harshly punished.

The way out of this thinking was to get stronger at teaching kids everything: not just English or math, but behavior, relationship skills, and communication skills.

I was touched by a recent interview I did with a young English teaching candidate who had just completed his student teaching.  He described a situation in which a student had gotten angry with him about his grade and then said loudly to a friend, “I’m going to slash Mr. X’s tires after school.”

“I knew he wasn’t going to do it,” said the teacher.  “He was just trying to act tough around his friends, and I knew that in his heart, he was really a good kid.  But I also knew that since he’s a 12th grader and was about to graduate, he also needed to understand how serious it was to make a threat like that.  He needed to see that in school, we have a tolerance for students’ behavior, but as an adult in the outside world, people won’t be so empathetic.”

The teacher described how he had a meeting with the student and the principal, not so that the student would be harshly punished, but so that the student would see the full seriousness of his comment and be able to correct himself.  The teacher described how after this discussion, his relationship with the student got better and better throughout the year until the student was regularly giving him fist bumps, saying “Hi Mr. X” in the hallway, and being a star in his class.

The teacher understood that he was the adult, and it was his job to teach the student, not to get upset by the student.  It would have been so easy for the teacher to bring the concern to the principal through the lens of being a victim.  Instead, he brought the concern through the lens of being an adult and a teacher who knew his job was more than just teaching English.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman



2 thoughts on “Being the adult

  1. FYI – this went to our spam folder for the first time – perhaps the word “adult” in the subject line was a trigger.  The more recent post followed.  Hopefully now they will come back to my inbox. xo A

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