What It’s Really Like… Working With Teenagers

Photo: Martin Poole/Getty Images.
I’m not sure anyone thinking about their ‘dream job’ would envisage being sat at their kitchen table at 1am on a Wednesday, vigorously consuming coffee after coffee under the pretence that increased caffeine levels will somehow equate to zero books left to mark by 8.30am. Despite having found myself in said Nespresso-fuelled scenario many times, I still maintain that my job as a secondary school teacher is the best job in the world.
The long hours and the endless marking are counteracted by the daily snippets of genius, comedy, kindness and initiative that I witness; this, I argue, is what I am really afforded in my job.
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I’m a geography teacher in a large inner-London state school. Because geography is an ‘EBacc’ subject (basically one of the subjects the government has decided is a ‘core’ subject worth measuring schools on and therefore schools care about it a fair bit), there is a lot of pressure to get loads of the students to choose geography for a GCSE option. This means inspiring them to love learning about the world they live in.
The biggest thing that helps me to do this is being a passionate environmentalist myself. Passion is infectious and if you care about something enough then the enthusiasm can’t help but rub off on others. This is particularly evident when I teach about rainforests. I have never seen a class disengaged when learning about deforestation in Borneo. They care too much. The scarring of the landscape and destruction of the orangutans’ habitat is such a vivid and emotive image that they get really riled up about it. I once held a debate about deforestation where members of the class acted as different stakeholders (logging companies, conservationists, palm oil companies, local tribesmen, etc.). By the end, the debate was so heated that I actually had to shout to get them to stop for the end of the lesson. You know that some awesome learning has gone on when they’re begging you to carry on into their break time.
Teenagers get a really bad rep for being moody. I know over 1,000 examples that prove otherwise. We should remember that for the majority of their teen years we put immense pressure on students to prep, practise, learn, revise, redraft, research, rehearse, resit – in GCSEs, they have 10 or 11 teachers expecting all of this from them in their subject. Is it any wonder they’re exhausted?
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In any case, so what if they’re emotional? I love being able to work with people who aren’t afraid to share exactly how they’re feeling with you. Yes, sometimes the politeness you would expect from adults is compromised, but the lack of charade can expose an honesty that is really refreshing, often funny and always genuine.
Who wouldn’t want to be told that their forehead is so wrinkly (side note: I’m 26) that when they do a surprised face and rub their forehead with their finger it looks like strumming a guitar? Instead of finding this rude, which is what I suspect the appropriate adult response might be, I simply had to laugh at myself. I gave it a go: "Goodness me, you’re right!" And the whole class laughed and spent a few minutes comparing forehead wrinkly-ness.
The student who made this comment went on to buy me a giant Millie’s cookie for my birthday and then a huge bunch of flowers when I left the school. By turning a potentially confrontational moment into a comedic one, the teacher-student relationship shifted from being one of power to one of trust. I learned so much from that exchange alone, which I try to take into my everyday teaching; sometimes the kids just want to have a laugh with you. Of course, you have to set the boundaries, but professional judgement of a teacher is all about learning when to relax those boundaries, which is a fine line that I continue to learn every day.
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I have definitely learned that being more open about what’s going well and what isn’t is always the best approach. After all, teenagers will be your best critics. Haven’t planned the lesson properly? I don’t need Ofsted to tell me so; believe me, the kids will be the first ones to tell you whether the lesson was good or not. I have students in my sixth form classes who will straight-up admit: "Miss, I don’t like this activity, can we do it another way?"
Wouldn’t it be healthy if adults felt they could be this honest when they aren’t learning to the best of their ability? How many times have we, as adults, sat through meetings, conferences, training sessions and group tasks where we all know it isn’t really benefitting us in any way, but we politely remain quiet so we can get it over and done with and say we have ticked the box? Health and safety training, for example – how much can I remember from what I just sat through? Not much. Maybe we should all feel more confident to say: "This isn’t working for me, let’s try a new angle."
My career as a teacher may not have happened were it not for a couple of days of work experience at a secondary school that I did during university. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I was convinced that I would only be good at primary school teaching. There was something about the age gap between me (22 at the time) and the oldest students (18) that was really putting me off going into secondary teaching.
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But I soon realised, hang on a second, being closer to their age is only working to my advantage. I ‘got’ what they were going through because I had done it only four years earlier. I was on their wavelength, I used the same language as them, and we had the same cultural references to discuss. Besides, they were old enough to want to learn without me having to worry about ‘telling them off’. I wish more twentysomethings could experience the wonderful feeling of being able to inspire teenagers; they might want to turn to teaching, too.
There are the obvious benefits that you hear about. Yes, the holidays are great, but don’t start any teacher on the reality of this by claiming they ‘get six weeks off’. You only have to google ‘teacher workload’ to know that many teachers are working 60-hour weeks and continue to do work into their holidays. The reward of long holidays is great, but it is entirely warranted.
And yes, the pay gets better the longer you are in the profession, but few teachers really enter the profession for the money.
The biggest perk for me is the relationships you develop with the students. I have tough days with tricky classes, of course, but there is no feeling more uplifting than seeing that ‘penny drop’ moment when an idea suddenly clicks with a student and they look at you with a grin on their face as if to say, "This is alright you know, Miss, this learning malarkey!"
Seeing those same faces on results day, when they have somehow scraped the C they needed to get into college or nailed the A* to go to their university of choice, you sometimes have to throw out the rule book and give them a big hug and go: "You know what, you totally smashed it and I’m so proud of you."
No other job could ever give me that.
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