Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Teaching to populations that make you nervous

I have a confession to make: I'm scared of teenagers. I have been since before I was a teenager myself. When I was a teenager, I was a homeschooled geek who avoided risky, impulsive, or rebellious activities. I never understood my peers and I knew they didn't think much of me. I was tremendously relieved to reach adulthood, where people were expected to behave the way I typically behaved (well, sort of.) But going back to interact with a group of teenagers has always been challenging for me.

First of all, I have flashbacks to my years of feeling profoundly uncool and entirely failing to make positive connections with teens when they were my peers. Second, I feel like I'm lacking the skills to present myself as a credible figure. I can't relate to them; I don't understand what drives them or where they're coming from. (Weirdly, this is not an issue for me when working with three-year-olds. I totally get three-year-olds.) I prefer a very relational teaching style, and feeling like I can't relate to an entire age demographic really sets me back.

This is not specifically about teenagers: I'm guessing others have some populations that they feel really awkward, uncomfortable, or nervous teaching to. I'm wondering how you deal with that? My instinct is to overprepare, even more than I would normally, so that I'm never stuck without something to say. To know my material absolutely cold so that there's one less thing I'll be nervous about. To go into a performative mode where I'm less responsive to the room and more focused on the presentation itself. I don't know that this is the best approach, but it's the one that reduces my anxiety, and I feel like it makes sense to play down the relational aspect of teaching if I don't feel like I can relate. But then it feels like I'm withdrawing and giving them less than my best just because of my own issues.

What do others think? Are there populations that you have a hard time teaching to, and how do you handle that?

Edit: After doing some online research, I found a few links that were helpful and reassuring. (Also, your comments are making me feel a lot better about this!) I found a couple of blogs of teachers who have generalized social anxiety, which is very reassuring to me: if people who are anxious around any population can teach, then I can teach to teenagers. Especially helpful was this post by littlemissteacherlady about applying teaching strategies to her own struggles with anxiety, by setting manageable and concrete learning objectives. I'd never thought of it that way before, but there can definitely be an aspect of self-teaching in terms of the way I teach, and (just as I wouldn't with a student) I don't have to expect myself to soar to "totally comfortable and at home" levels right from the get-go.

I found a great blog post from a black educator talking about her experiences of discomfort teaching groups of white people. Some of the things she says about overcoming it were helpful to me, such as recognizing that a lot of the feeling of "I'm out of place and they're all wondering why I think I have anything to say to them" is self-imposed, based on past experiences and not on anything the students in front of you are doing. I think treating every new classroom of teenagers as a blank slate would be helpful to me, rather than assuming that they're judging me as sooo lame just because that's what lots of teenagers have done in the past.

This article was neat, a teacher talking about how she relates to her students' academic struggles by comparing them with her own athletic struggles. It reminded me that even though my teenagerhood was very different from most people's, I may have analogous experiences, and that I can be creative in looking to find ways to relate.

Overall, I feel like I can take my current strategy (overprepare and shift to a more performative style) as a starting point, but work to expand my approach as I work with different groups of teenagers, so that maybe in a few years they won't be scary at all!


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  2. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! Teens are absolutely FRIGHTENING! I did do some work with teenagers and it wasn't always as bad as I expected. Maybe it's not as easy as it sounds but I found that I connected to them the easiest when I found something we had in common. Sometimes I had to dig far longer than I wanted to but more often than not, it worked! For example, I remember specifically one shy and difficult teen girl really connected with me when I told her something horribly embarrassing (but appropriate) story from high school. I think she realized I wasn't some out of touch adult that had no idea what, "she was going through." It also helps to try and keep up with some pop culture things. It may not be fun for us, but it will open up a dialog. I found that when this was the case, the teen was excited to see me next time and update me on (INSERT KATY PERRY/JUSTIN BEIBER/WHATEVER)'s life. Popular TV shows are helpful with this, too.

  3. Bryce, I agree that it's really important to find ways to show teens that you're not so out of touch and I love that you were able to be vulnerable with them without being inappropriate.

    One of the readings in the shared files said that when you are using music or other media, be conscious of not trying too hard. That comes up for me all the time since I am so terribly out of touch with most popular music and I'd probably be out of date. What I've done to keep music and references to it alive in my teaching (since it's so helpful) is to ask the kids to offer suggestions of songs that they think might be helpful and then keep my Spotify open to find them, either for that session or the next one.

  4. Thanks for sharing your weakness. You are 100% not alone. There are a number of populations that I feel uncomfortable teaching/counseling/ presenting to and my best advice is to just be honest with who you are. If the teens see you as that dorky adult, they will be able to joke WITH you about it. Making a few jokes at your own expense can go a long way. While working with a group of mostly black adolescent girls at an inpatient mental health facility in Philly, I was referred to as “That Preppy White Lady” constantly. I would joke back and have them call me “Miss. Preppy White Lady.” When they saw I was unfazed and comfortable with my skin tone and cardigans, they came around and eventually opened up to me. Teen can always tell when you are faking it to get on their good side, but they also respect when you don’t apologize for who you are as an adult.
    Working in the mental health field has put in many situations that were not totally comfortable for me. For example, I have had to do group therapy for substance abuse groups, but they took one look at me and knew I was not “one of them.” They felt they had nothing to gain from someone that had not been through their very challenging lives. At that point, the best thing to do is give them the authority by asking them to educate you. Rather than trying to share therapeutic techniques I learned in some undergrad class, I asked them to teach me about what it was like to be an addict. This empowered them to share their thoughts about how to overcome their addictions. In those groups, where I have no first-hand knowledge, I basically become a facilitator and help others work through and reflect on things THEY already know rather than being so naive to think that I know what they are going through.
    The one group that I have not developed a strategy for is religious groups. I remain completely uncomfortable attempting to teach/counsel/ present to groups that have a vastly different view on religious. Any tips? Anyone? I got nothing.

  5. Ha, Jessica. "Any tips? Anyone? I got nothing." I feel the same way about religious groups; they are hard. Although sometimes I can mesh right in because there are definitely times I know more about their Bible than they do. This only works for Judo-Christian religions for me. If you can site their Bible (a source they revere) to lend evidence for your education, they may listen.

  6. Sasha, thanks for the suggestion! However, I have a hard time using the Bible as a reference. Given that I am an Atheist, the Bible is not a reputable source. I prefer not to use it for or against any argument. My goal is to be able to relate to religious groups in an effective way without relying on religious texts. It would make me uncomfortable to reference religious texts or values and it may make religious populations uncomfortable that I refuse to acknowledge their faith. There must be a solution out there…

    Maybe I bite the bullet and try to relate/educate using terms and texts I do not fully endorse? I don’t know. That just feels icky…

  7. I totally understand what you're saying; it's like how I feel about children. When you put me in a room full of anyone who isn't between the ages of 12-22, I'm at a complete loss. I hate it. It makes me uncomfortable.

    The reason that it makes me uncomfortable is because I have so little training in how to deal with children and adults, although I /have/ worked with both populations in classroom settings. It's not what I'm used to. It's not what I'm trained to do. It's not what I /like/ to do. And so I hate it.

    I think that when it comes to dealing with populations that make you uncomfortable, the best thing that you can do is prepare. Talk to people who know those populations well. Look at resources to see what is age-appropriate. And then face your fears and DO IT. It's rarely going to ruin your life. Even in situations where I've taught populations where I dreaded going to work everyday, I would still DO it again if I had to.

  8. Thanks for the comments, everybody! Dr. Sitron kindly pointed out that I'd missed a major part of the assignment (due to forgetting there was a whole instruction sheet for blogging apart from the syllabus), so I've added a few paragraphs and some additional thoughts.

  9. My Chemical Romance anyone? ...

    On a more serious note, I have learned through experience that as the role of a teacher, there will be many moments where you will be uncomfortable and that discomfort can help motivate you to work through those thoughts and issues.

    For example, growing up in North Dakota, I had never been around a Muslim population until I decided to interview at a school that was primarily Muslim East African refugees. After that interview, I decided that if they offered me the job, I definitely would not take it just based on my discomfort. I didn't feel like I would be able to relate to the students like I had been able to in my past schools as a teacher. I really got annoyed with my vague reason for not wanting to teach in that school, so I figured the best thing I could do was to reach out to resources from the school and from other teachers that taught in multicultural charter schools. That was the best decision I had ever made because not only did I receive information with how to proceed with a certain level of comfort, I created a network around me that I could always ask questions to.

    A major strategy that I always relied on was to find common ground. Whether it is talking about tv shows, hobbies, humor, etc., the discomfort lessens as each classroom or group become individuals to you.

  10. I think that by admitting to this uncomfortableness, this is a total STRENGTH in your professional and personal development as an EDUCATOR!! In my opinion, the next step is deciding what to do about it. Recognize this area and stay away from it or move through it. There are times when both responses are appropriate.

    I am most comfortable teaching with at-risk students. Put my in a kindergarten class and I promise to "freak out" because I have no idea what to do with that developmental level. The fact that I know this, I consider a strength and not an area to further explore. On the other hand, I have had to push through other levels of being uncomfortable in the classroom when it comes to topics of conversation, complete and blatant levels of ignorance, and disrespectful and condemning attitudes towards women. I am challenged the most personally and then have to check myself professionally to remain professional. As Dr. Sitron was stating this weekend, "what does your face feel like" and recognize it, work on it.

    As others have already stated, finding a connection is a great teaching tool to working with teenagers. I found the following article on brain development and teenagers along with teaching strategies and activities. It synthesizes a lot of what we have talked about in 625/626 and teaching.


  11. While I think all these suggestions are valid...I also wonder..."do we have to [if we don't want to]?"

    Here's an example (because I live in similes and metaphors):

    At my former job on surgery days we had to set up the medical suite. This involved prepping many rooms (OR, pathology, clean room, recovery room), in addition to other chores like laundry. One day there were five co-worker around a gurney sorting laundry while many of the other rooms being set up yet. I said something like "come on! We don't need five people to do laundry. Can I get some help over here!"

    My experiences were similar to yours. Even as a teenager I didn't get other teenagers. I didn't do typical teenager things. I had two jobs (one including being a children's church teacher) and I was in eleven clubs and organizations. Who had time to screw (if it wasn't a sin, that is) or anything else? Lol.

    I also feel that a lot of teenagers are obnoxious little brats who think they know everything. Awful, but true.

    I think of teenagers like the laundry on that gurney where so many people are interested in them and not enough people are interested in the other rooms...or age brackets. Now I'm not opposed to teaching them; I would if it was required for some godawful reason, but I feel I'm better suited towards other age demographics that are too often neglected (such as older adults).

    I think it's great that so many people want to teach teens (including you! :) ), but I don't personally feel the need to do so when so many people already have an interest. I'm gonna be over yonder.

  12. Thanks to everyone for sharing and the tips about dealing with populations that make an educator nervous. Teenagers are a hard group to deal with Ginny so don't think it is odd to shy away from working with them. Some of the best advice I ever received was when I took a seminar on discipline in the high school classroom ( The woman who ran it emphasized the importance of always remembering that as the educator in a classroom of teenagers that you are still the adult. When you are the teacher you have implicit power that can be used in order to have the classroom run smoothly and create the safe space necessary for learning to occur. I walk into the room with the mentality that I have the power to create the safe space for my classes and I will not allow that power to be highjacked by a teenager. This does not mean just be strict and standoffish. In fact it is the opposite, be relatable and outgoing with the students, but always be aware that you are in control of the classroom when it comes to teenagers. You are the adult. If anyone is interested there is a great book about discipline in the classroom that I was given at the seminar called Discipline in the Secondary Classroom by Randall Sprick.