5 Things We Can All Learn From Teenagers, By Someone Who Teaches Them

My biggest sense of dread occurs when I am in the position of sharing what I do for a living.
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Jess Burnquist
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My biggest sense of dread occurs when I am in the position of sharing what I do for a living.

As a teacher, I  face certain occupational hazards. Let’s face it -- this is the age of school violence and lockdown drills. Oddly enough, I don’t find the vague threat of campus violence to be my greatest fear.

Rather, my biggest sense of dread occurs when I am in the position of sharing what I do for a living. It usually goes a little something like this:

Me: I’m a teacher. 

Person: Oh, really? That’s great! What grade do you teach?

Me: Actually, I teach high school.

Person: Oh, my god! Ugh! How do you even begin to handle that? Teenagers are so awful. 

At this point in the conversation, I usually bite my tongue, and attempt to change the subject.

The thing is -- I’m sick of changing the subject.

I love what I do. I happen to teach English and Creative Writing, but I would teach anything (except math -- and trust me that’s for the best) in order to remain a high school teacher. I love spending my days with teenagers because their drama is age appropriate and they have limitless potential.

As a matter of fact, I believe they are the most underestimated age group in our country. They are more anxious than not to contribute to their communities and this world. Furthermore, I think we all stand to learn a lot from teenagers -- we especially stand to gain the following five things:

1. How to Use Technology

Do you remember arcades? Walkmans? The way adults would bemoan all of the lost brain cells? Computers and the Internet are more complex, but adult reactions to such technology are often over the top.

My students may not be able to recognize an Oxford comma, but they know how to find out about one and how to explain their findings. Better yet, when given the freedom, they will make a movie, podcast or PowerPoint demonstrating proper usage. And, yes, this happened -- I speak from experience.

The group got an A+ -- and I admit that I never truly understood the debate over that little sucker of a comma until their presentation.

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Teenagers are no more nor less intelligent than any of us were. The medium they use to demonstrate understanding has simply changed.

And, by the way, that’s not their generation’s fault. Teens today didn’t invent the iPod or the Internet. They are tech savvy, sure -- but their virtual creativity is delightful and complex.

Moreover, they love to teach what they know. It is in your best interest to learn from these technological wizards.

2. How to be Loyal

There exists in teenagers a code of loyalty that goes far beyond some kind of invisible peer pressure.

Think about the stereotypes that exist for our youth. They are criminalized, sexualized and reduced to by-products of their hormones.

To all of these labels I say, "NOPE!" The teenagers I work with are of various socio-economic classes, ethnicities and religions. Daily, I witness them engage in thoughtful discussions, resolve conflicts and stand up for one another.

Last week a student was having a rough day. He didn’t want to work and I didn’t want to send him away from class. I checked to be sure he wasn’t ill, and he let me know that “stuff was going down at home.”

Students were doing group work. I asked him to do what he could. As I made my way back to my desk, I overheard one of his classmates say, “We’ve got this. You can help again later.” No fuss was made, and his three group members not only completed the day’s assignment -- they also put his name first on the paper.

I’m sure someone might be ready to cry foul because I let this occur. I don’t care. That student was offered generosity from his peers in his time of need without prodding. Without fanfare. It’s worth celebrating.

3. How to Love with Abandon

I will leave sex out of this equation because more often than you would believe, my students leave it out of the equation, too. The other day, a sophomore of mine burst into the classroom and asked me how my weekend was -- it was clear that he really wanted me to ask him about his weekend, and so I cut to the chase.

“Long!” he exclaimed, “Wanna know why?”

He proceeded to tell me that he finally got the courage to ask out a girl he’d been pining over since the 8th grade.

“She said yes -- and that was awesome, but then I had to wait until today before I could see her.” He was giddy and excited and unashamed. I thought maybe his peers would tease him for telling me but they just laughed and told him to settle down. 

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Sometimes when I’m walking the room, checking for work, I’ll glimpse the way they decorate their notebooks. There are still bubble hearts being drawn in Sharpies, and poems about break ups tucked into binder sleeves.

Every week I find someone’s carefully folded and forgotten note under a desk after the final bell rings and the students leave the building. These notes contain heartbreaking insecurities, professions of happiness and confessions of disinterest. Teenagers’ depth of emotion might seem immature from our vantage point, but from where they exist, love is as vital as oxygen.

They attach little shame to the love they feel.

4. How to Dream

What were you going to be when you grew up? Do you remember plotting out your lives with your friends, or in the solitude of a journal? Do you practice your passions? Teenagers dream big even in the face of practical parents. Enough said.

5. How to Exist in a Pressure Cooker

I know the pressures of paying a mortgage, putting food on the table and raising children. I stumble out of bed at 5 a.m. each morning and am on the road by 6:15. I have to grade over 130 essays some weeks and I won’t begin to discuss the responsibilities attached to our new teacher evaluation system.

Still, I don’t think it holds a candle to what many of my students endure daily.

I have students who work 35+ hours a week to contribute to rent. They find time to do homework, take care of siblings and live up to the standards of their peer groups. They are to be at school at a set time, eat lunch at a set time, seek permission to use the restroom or get a drink, not listen to music, or use their phones.

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Their lives are not yet their own -- and still, in the space of so much responsibility and imposed structure, they are being told to imagine a plan for their future. Teenagers are read statistics about failure should they not graduate, but who really knows what triumphs had to take place for each student to board a bus to school on any given day?

The media and many adults repeatedly tell them that these are the carefree days of their lives. Were your high school days carefree? Some of my students are simply exhausted -- emotionally and physically, but they show up and they function with grace. 

Please consider the teens in your life. Do you know what his or her dreams are? Who they love?

Let’s not stereotype these kids. Let’s not perpetuate the myth that they are awful humans.

Instead, let’s get to know them, and mentor them by giving them meaningful opportunities to participate in society. And -- most importantly, I think -- let’s learn from them.