The Stumbling, Humbling Job of Working with Students (teenagers)
I spend roughly eight hours five days a week with teenagers. This is my job as a high school English teacher. I love my job and it is rewarding, but I do have some observations about working with teenagers.
It’s often thankless.
Teenagers don’t say thank you for speaking truth into their lives. I was a pretty decent teenager: no rebellion, good grades, etc, but I didn’t show appreciation for my teachers and youth leaders like I should have. Sorry Mr. Bailey, Mr. McCarger, Mrs. Henley, Mrs. Weidinger, Rich and Angie Cochran, Mrs. Wyatt, and more.
Teenagers look like adults and feel like they are adults, but they lack the maturity and perspective of adults. Teenage brains are literally not even finished developing. They are consumers more than contributors, and often ungrateful consumers at that. It’s difficult to truly connect with most of them because they don’t yet know who they are. The truth is, they will consume what you offer them, greedily or ungratefully, but here’s thing you MUST know if you work with teenagers: what you give them shapes who they are becoming.
That hard truth you spoke to them? That story you told from your own life? That life lesson you gave from the sacrifice of your own mistakes? They heard it. They absorbed it. They may even have rolled their eyes or showed ZERO reaction to what you said, but it went in. It will come back later, as they enter adulthood. They will remember what you said, just as you remember what was said to you.
You don’t reap what you sow. Yet.
Working with teenagers means you don’t see the harvest. It’s not like mowing a lawn and stepping back to see the tidy results. It’s more like pulling weeds that crop up almost as fast as you dig them out. I had to remind myself of this recently. I labored hard to teach my students a skill I knew they would need. Yes, it was a part of my curriculum, but more than that, I wanted to teach it to them well. I taught, I modeled, I poured out. Then it was their turn to show me what they had learned. The results . . . were less than I expected. I went home discouraged after a rough day of their showcased efforts.
But I considered the process. I considered what they knew before (very little), and what they knew after. (We processed the experience afterwards as a class.) I considered the slow, but patient teacher of Experience. I had given them that. They would remember that experience, and they would use it next time. I would probably not reap the results of what I had taught, but it had been taught nonetheless.
Keep expectations low.
Teenagers are by nature very ego-centric. The world revolves around their current crisis. This is not an indictment against teenagers; it is a necessary stage of development as they find their place in the world. But the effect is: they don’t see me as a person unless I teach them to. I am a task-master, source of discipline, teacher, leader, authority. They won’t consider that I might have bad days, get discouraged, be affected by the negativity they express. They aren’t going to be aware of my unique challenges as their teacher. Sometimes it’s my job to make them aware that I am a person with feelings. But most often, I have to expect that they won’t think of me at all. This is a realistic expectation for teaching students. If I adopt this expectation, I won’t be angry or disappointed in them. Yet, if a student is particularly appreciative, it’s icing on the cake.
The other side of this is that it is my responsibility to refill myself when I get drained from working with them. The consumer-nature of teenagers will sometimes leave me empty. Understanding the nurturing nature of the work helps me understand why it’s so important to refill my tank.
For all those working with teenagers, take heart. The work you do is eternal. Much of life is cyclical, but each person only gets one coming-of-age, and you have a chance to impact that soul in formation. Take the chance, do the work, adjust your expectations, and water yourself.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the roper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. ” Galatians 6:9