The difficult teenager. Really?

This is the 3rd and final part of my two previous posts entitled “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. In a nutshell, while Part I describes how I managed to establish and sustain rapport with a group of teenagers – whom I hadn’t taught for years on end – Part II is an account of how insightful a somewhat complicated situation turned out in the end.

If you haven’t read my previous posts (there’s really no need for it, if you’re pressed for time), here are some important details from one of them regarding what and how I eventually found out why a specific student was behaving the way he was and how this was seriously affecting his performance in the classroom and jeopardizing his learning:

  • His parents had recently divorced and were not on what one would refer to as good terms;
  • His relationship with his dad had always been difficult, which resulted in his not wanting to talk to or spend time with him;
  • He wasn’t doing particularly well at regular school, so his mom had threatened to “return” him to his dad if his grades did not improve. This for him was the worst of all nightmares.
  • He had decided that he would put all the needed effort into improving his grades so he didn’t have to be “sent” back to his dad;
  • Naturally, the above meant putting English homework assignments aside.

The information above (included on my previous post) was gathered after a conversation the student and I had after I’d decided that seeing and talking with the principal would be the only viable alternative to such a complicated and distressing situation for both the student and myself. However, after learning that this kid was going through so many (especially) emotional problems, I chose to do things in a different way.

I guess we teachers are all aware of how defiant adolescents can be when they are confronted by “authority”. Since my purpose here is not to explain the inns and outs of adolescence, I’ll simply limit myself to explaining what kind of strategy (and how beneficial it was!) I used to try to help this student.

Without really knowing I was doing the right thing, the very first need I felt was to apologize to him for having been so heavy-handed without actually knowing how hard a situation he had been really grappling with. I did apologize. I told him I was sorry and that I wished we had had that conversation before. I then went on to say that I had just made a decision: I was not going to either take him to or talk to the principal about what was going on. Instead, I told him I was prepared to help him even if that meant stretching some of the school rules. I added that I wasn’t going to ask the coordinator to contact his mother to explain the situation as I realized no one else but the two of us had a problem for which the solution lay in our hands more than in anybody else’s. He listened carefully.

After going through all the overdue assignments which had to be turned in before the written test, due in two weeks, we reached an agreement. He asked me if it was possible for him to hand in his late  work “in installments” (using his own words), at irregular intervals, according to his own time possibilities. I said that wouldn’t be a problem, provided I had everything by day ‘x’. He agreed.

Using a very friendly tone of voice, I then told him I had let him have his way about it and that it was my turn to know from him what was in it for me. He smiled and said that if he failed to meet the deadline we both had agreed on, I could go to the principal or even call his mother. At this point I was beginning to think I was doing the right thing. However, I wanted a bit more so I asked him if I could assume that the conversation we had just had was the hallmark of a new phase of his life as one of my students. He nodded, to which I said, “I couldn’t hear you.” He said, “Pode, Ed*. Pode sim.” We shook hands and he left.

Though a very common one, this episode had a tremendous influence on the way I now work with adolescents. Things get so much easier if you pass on to them (not to their parents or the school) the responsibility to change and make things happen in a more favorable way, one that they see as reasonable and non-threatening, and that also yields very positive outcomes.

Not only did this student make all his promises good for that specific exam, he also went on to become a much more committed kid in terms of turning in all homework in its due date. In addition, by doing what we did, a relationship based on trust and friendship developed. Every now and then I ask him how things are at school and at home, both with his mom and dad. There are accounts of good and bad times, but whenever I have the chance, I try to reassure him saying that “though it might take time, things will be all right”.

My final and most important point is that we should try to empower our students and involve them in the decision-making process whenever possible. it’s important to try to have them realize that they are agents/doers, not simply recipients/receivers. Fostering and facilitating  the processes of personal growth and development entail performing the duties of our job in the best way possible as much as their duties of their own responsibilities as learners.


* Each and every one of my students calls me Ed, no matter how old they are. I don’t settle for “teacher”.

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Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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