Working with teenagers

When I teach Catcher in the Rye, students spend a period writing a short guide for adults who deal with teens: teachers, parents, coaches etc. I’ve been doing this for about five years, and I’m usually surprised by the depth of the response, this year especially.

Here’s the context, if this seems too good to be true. These are the grade 10s, who are 16-17 years-old. There are 31 of them (in two classes) of about 20 different nationalities. They are good to excellent students whose parents have high academic expectations of them. They are relatively independent and sophisticated, and generally their parents give them loads of leeway. (Three of them have their own apartments. Seriously.) Their thinking on these issues may be especially clear: in December they created a written complaint against an incompetent teacher who was not teaching them anything, which resulted in that teacher’s resignation.

They gave me permission to publish these. Here are some of their tips:

  • If you are always smiling, or always angry, or always anything, we’re not going to believe you.
  • Tell us what’s really going on: don’t always make us ask.
  • We won’t trust you just because you’re an adult: you need to give us some proof.
  • Be flexible and spontaneous.
  • Listen to our ideas, even if you think they’re wrong; give us some space to try things out without constant criticism.
  • Give encouragement when something goes right.
  • You can show authority without being mean, and you can be nice without being patronizing.
  • If you ask a question, ask to receive an answer, not to make a point; listen to that answer; and don’t keep asking if the teenager doesn’t want to answer or you will never get answers to any of your questions.
  • Give us the benefit of a doubt. If we disappoint you, fine, but give us the chance.
  • You talk about what you expect of us, but we have expectations of you, too, and if they are not met, we’ll do things you won’t like.

I wonder if these are useful or applicable to dealing with youth in the church, or if there are any to modify, add or take away for that purpose.


  1. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I’d say this is definitely useful in dealing with youth at church. To get my Valiant class under control (six kids 8-11 years old) I spent a lesson working with them on a classroom contract. On the blackboard we made a list of things a good student does. To get the list, I broke them up into groups of two and told them to come up with five things. After they came back and shared their lists, I sent them back to their pairings to pick the five most important. Then we did an exercise to put those five in order of importance. Then we did the same thing for the things a good teacher does. In both cases they impressed me with the maturity of their choices. For example they didn’t say “the teacher doesn’t yell,” they said “the teacher respects the students.”

    The next week I brought in little signs I’d made with their lists. In front of them I signed the “Good Teacher” one and then had them sign the “Good Student” one. Before each class I have someone read out the “Good Student” sign as a reminder. (Recently they asked me to read out the “Good Teacher” one. *lol* It’s only fair, so I did.)

    Not only is the guide you describe useful in dealing with youth but I think if every leader spent some time with their youth making such a guide, it would greatly benefit everyone involved. It’s always helpful to have expectations spelled out.

  2. Goodness, I think this is the way we should be treating other adults in the church, too. It sounds like these youth are asking for the kind of respect they see adults giving each other (ideally), which I think it extremely appropriate, given the level of responsibility they’re evidently showing from your description of them. I especially like that last one–if you don’t meet our expectations we’ll do things you don’t like. I find myself acting out that contract in just about every relationship I have–from my husband to my friends, to my leaders at church and in school.

  3. I’m printing this out and taping it to my forhead. Ok, maybe just the refrigerator. After we move. Anyway, these are important for more than just teens; I am going to try and apply them to more of my own relationships.

    What a great group of kids you teach.

  4. Matt W. says:

    Norbert, I will go over these with my class on sunday, if it’s ok with you. They are 16-18 year olds.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    These are excellent, Norbert. But you obviously have bright and motivated students. I’ve learned from hard experience that if a student has no intellecutal curiousity and no willingness to learn, and is unwilling to make any effort to develop those traits, then it doesn’t matter much what a teacher does.

  6. Kevin–I don’t think these tips are really about intellectual curiosity or willingness to learn, and I suspect if you asked low performing students for a list of their expectations and desires for treatment in a classroom their responses would be similar. I think we’re more willing to ask these bright, confident, and articulate kids what they want because they’ve earned our respect already, but I doubt the answers to this question would change much if you asked less precocious kids. These tips all address respect issues, not learning issues.

  7. Matt W. says:

    kristine N, while I agree with you, the problem is that with the kids Kevin is talking about, they wouldn’t be able to articulate such a list as this to begin with. In fact, it almost flies against their survival instincts in the “peer” group setting to give an answer at all.

  8. Matt W. says:

    Norbert, the more I think about this, the more I want to use this in my Sunday School Lesson. Anychance you can provide some general background. Where is your school, what is the typical financial outlook from this school (Do kids from there go to Harvard, Have rich parents, etc?)

  9. My wife teaches Junior High math in a mixed middle class neighborhood in the Puget Sound area. I had the opportunity to watch her teaching while I videotaped her classes for her National Board Certification over a period of a couple of weeks.

    Now, I think my wife is a great teacher (grin), but it is surprising to see this list, and recognize that with most of her students, she has this kind of relationship. I don’t think she would have articulated it the same way, but I will share this with her tonight.

    Two points from this observation. First, the majority of her students would not be considered high achievers, driven by parents motivation, described more as fair to good students, with a few excellent students. They want and more importantly respond to the kinds of mutual respect described here. Second, I really believe that my wife’s faith and background in the church has helped her to more easily develop this kind of relationship in the classroom. She exercises the same kinds of techniques and practices in her work with the YW of our ward, and gets the same kinds of response. It’s definitely based in understanding that these kids are children of our Heavenly Father, and she loves them. It shows both at school and at church.

    Let’s not assume that only the best and brightest think this way, but that most students will respond to and expect this kind of mutual respect.

  10. Norbert says:

    I have done this activity over the years with all kinds of students. Remember that this is not cold: we’ve been reading a novel about a young man who finds it difficult to connect with adults, and we’ve been talking about why that is. I’ve also avoided a common point, ‘Treat us like equals,’ by explaining that it is dishonest for a teacher or parent to treat a student or child as an equal: it’s an unequal relationship, so let’s start with that.

    Less reflective students are more likely to spell out demands: pay us for our work, don’t set curfews. I got some of those and didn’t include them here. (I also got items directly aimed at current teachers, like ‘Don’t talk too loudly.’)

    This class has a core of 5 kids who are intensely thoughtful and proactive. They approached me about their issues with their incompetent teacher, and I was their secret advisor. It was extraordinary experience; I’d like to write a novella about it, actually. But that couplet about authority and being patronizing was written by a girl who will probably be in the news someday in her home country.

    Matt W: I teach at an international school in Helsinki, Finland. Our school is made up of children of diplomats and international business people (mostly Nokia). There is a lot of money, but embassy employees are usually solid middle class. Many of our students go to school in the UK: St Andrews, London School of Econ, Exeter and the occasional Oxbridge. Our American kids go to state Us or smaller privates, like Georgetown or Vassar. We have 2 guys going to MIT this year. It is not your average bunch of kids, for sure.

  11. Helsinki Finland! I’m so jealous. I used to be a high school teacher, but quit when my youngest was in second grade. At that time we could afford for me to quit, and going home to kids, after a day of kids, was draining.

    Here’s a question to ask them for me– what a bright, creative kid who hates school and has no motivation on his own? Has no idea what he wants to do in life, and doesn’t see any point in school. What do the parents do? Let him fail and be in summer school the rest of his life? Nag like crazy? (This is my youngest. We got his PSAT scores, which were in the mid-90th percentile, in the mail, the same day we got the notice that he had Ds in two classes last fall)We have a mostly good relationship I think– in fact my friends have commented on how much more I know about his goings on than they know about their own kids– but he just doesn’t seem to even try at school. So I’m asking here. Back in high school, I remember I had a list of stuff I’d made myself that adults should understand about teenagers, but unfortunately lost it, somewhere, and not sure it covered this issue anyway.

    I do remember two rules, which I think that are still very good, and I try to follow them:
    1. Hair really doesn’t matter. Don’t fight that battle with your kid. (And then a few years ago, my kids got buzz cuts. Buzz cuts are what poor farm kids had where I grew up. Bugged the heck out of me. But I kept shut up about it.)

    2. Being too strict can be just as bad as being not strict enough. (But as a parent, I’ve figured out that it can be awfully hard to tell whether you’re hitting the right place on the scale. )

  12. Kevinf says:


    I had a son go through a similar situation. Contact me privately at kfolkman (at) gmail (dot) com, and I’ll share our experience with him. We made some breakthroughs, but it didn’t fix everything.

  13. If you ask a question, ask to receive an answer, not to make a point; listen to that answer; and don’t keep asking if the teenager doesn’t want to answer or you will never get answers to any of your questions.

    This is my worst pet peeve in Sunday School. When adults ask other adults questions to make a point, or when they’re looking for one specific thing and no other answer will do. And then I also hate when the teacher asks something so ridiculously obvious like “So, was Nephi born of goodly parents?” And no one answers because it’s too ridiculous, which creates an uncomfortable and equally ridiculous silence. But the teacher just waits for someone to say yes.
    No wonder teenagers hate it. It makes me crazy just writing it.

  14. Matt–I think you’d be surprised. Underachievers might not be this articulate, but I suspect their desires would be very much the same. I really think the desire for respect is pretty basic to humans, and I think that desire extends even to relationships that are inherently unequal, including that between teacher and student, or between a bishop and a member of the ward, or about anything else you can think of. Having respect produces an atmosphere of trust between the parties that is, I think, essential for a healthy, productive, mutually beneficial relationship.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m with you, Amri. I believe in treating youth as peers in the classroom. And I never ask catechism questions, whether of adults or youth. If I ask a question, it’s a genuine question.

    I remember when I was in seminary, and the teacher would ask a question, and one of the students would give a thoughtful answer, and she would say it was wrong because it wasn’t what was in the book. She wouldn’t actually listen to what they said; if it wasn’t the preordained answer, it was wrong. Drove me batty.

  16. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Paula, I was such a child myself. If you want to talk about it, you can contact me at harpingheather (at) gmail (dot) com.


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