Teaching Strategies

The Joy in Teaching High School

Four tips for building authentic connections with your teen students.

March 16, 2018
Teacher helping teen students on a tablet
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

“You are the only teacher who acts like you like us.” A student said this to me in class a few years ago. My classroom is my happy place, and I truly love my job. But I know not all teachers feel the same way I do, and the students notice.

Teenagers are fun. They’re witty, creative, inquisitive, passionate, and totally unpredictable. Yes, they have pimples, their voices squeak, they are awkward and sensitive, they smell bad sometimes, they say inappropriate things, they test the boundaries. But they make me laugh every day.

This wasn’t always the case for me. Years ago, I had become so focused on curriculum and objectives that I had lost sight of the most important element of my professional existence: teenagers. A few changes in my behavior helped improve my relationship with the students, which led me to my current perspective.

Finding Joy Among Teenagers

Connect with them personally: Getting to really know the students pays off. Go to their games and their dance recitals. Eat at the restaurant where they work. Let them show you who they are besides your student.

Teenagers who feel that you care about them will be more receptive to your requests and more respectful of you as a teacher. Bonus: Students who feel valued by you will be more willing to take risks for you, and we know how essential this is to the learning process.

Make note of at least one thing you have in common with every student and share it with the class. It can be a simple fact: “Joe, you like the Steelers? Me too!” They may shrug it off at first, but if the Steelers win, you will hear about it. By valuing each student’s individuality, you have a good chance of increasing engagement in the class.

Put the information you learn into your lessons. Alex plays lacrosse, so use his name and sport in an example. Alex gets validation that you were listening and you care. Simple, but effective.

Give out compliments freely but sincerely: You may not expect it, but the teenagers in your class are starving for approval. No matter how much attitude Janie has given you lately, compliment her sincerely on anything that matters to her and you’ll make great strides in winning her over.

Students love to hear compliments on their hair or shoes, but they also love it when you know the score of their game last night and that you heard they played well. Be able to mention some of the amazing things they do when they’re not disrupting your class, like being a part of a club, participating in a talent show, making the honor roll, or winning a pageant.

Compliments are easy to give and show that you’re paying attention to your students as members of society. This is new role for teenagers, and your compliments will show you care about how they are fulfilling that role.

Give them choices: Offering options to teenagers gives them a feeling of power, something they really have very little of in their new roles as members of society. You must remember how, as a teenager, each new tiny bit of freedom was exhilarating. Tap into that—let them feel like they have some control over their learning.

There are lots of ways to do this, and it doesn’t have to mean more work for you. In high school, we have some flexibility in the curriculum to allow for student input. Ask if they would rather read about the death penalty or euthanasia, or if they’d rather give their opinions in writing or orally this time. Allowing them to map their own learning will increase their engagement.

Ask their opinion about a completed unit or activity: “Did you like doing it that way? Should I do this again with my next group? Was this a worthwhile activity?” You’ll be surprised by the maturity in the answers you get. Most teenagers don’t want to waste their time in class, and they’ll be brutally honest if that lesson you spent hours planning was a total flop. Listen to them and take their feedback seriously. You’ll earn their respect quickly if you’re sincere.

It’s always fun to shake up routine with options as well. Let them arrange the classroom for a change, or have them design an order for the day’s agenda. Offer two possible due dates for an assessment. Little things that won’t really be a big deal in the end will make them feel like their lives are important to you.

Adolescence is a magical time. Revel in it. Engage, nurture, honor, and listen to your students first, and then worry about the teaching. Make your class your happy place.