Teacher and coach

Interactions with teens; low-key often works best

“Mr. Bledsoe, do you have any tissues?”

Seems like a fairly ordinary question, right? It wasn’t.

Up until a few months ago, the area right outside my classroom was blissfully deserted before school. There were several kids who hung out down the hall outside other teachers’ classrooms, but nobody gathered outside mine and I was fine with that. It meant that my room was reasonably quiet and I could get some work done before class started.

A few months ago, however, the area outside my classroom became the designated early morning gathering place for a group of ninth-graders, anywhere between five and twelve on any particular day. Their behavior was generally appropriate, but occasionally they would push the boundaries just to see what they could get away with and since they were outside my door it was my responsibility to address it when they got out of line.

I have had exactly 4 direct interactions with the teens outside my door over the past 4 months. They are as follows:

1. I broke up a particularly juicy kissing session. If you teach high school kids, this happens occasionally. My rule is: A quick good-bye kiss is okay, extended public face-sucking is inappropriate. As such, I have a relatively straightforward way to address any students who are breaking the rule: “Keep your tongue in your own mouth, please,” I say to them. They’re usually a little embarrassed to have an adult address them while so engaged, but they generally separate and, I assume, find another place to make out. That’s what happened here.

2. I asked a young woman to either turn her ipod down or put in some earbuds. You could hear it all the way down the hall. This student was annoyed and responded rudely, so I took her aside and explained the situation a little more clearly to her, whereupon she agreed to comply with a standard “Whatever.”

3. I asked the group to not talk so loudly. Simple request, and they complied.

4. I asked the group to not curse so loudly. Also a simple request, and they also complied. (My request in this instance consisted of me saying to them, “I understand it’s sometimes necessary to curse, but it’s not necessary for everyone in the hallway to hear you curse,” and they seemed to agree with my logic.)

With the exception of the ipod incident, each of these interactions was very brief and relatively low-key, and in each of them the students were generally willing to do what I had asked. (The ipod girl was rude, but not much outside the bounds of normal rude teen behavior.)

Then one morning a few days ago, something significant happened. One of the teens (half of the kissing duo, if I remember correctly) came into my room before school started and asked me, very politely, “Mr. Bledsoe, do you have any tissues?” I pointed her to the tissue box in my room, she got a few, said thanks, and left. Total interaction time: about 7 seconds.

Why was this significant? Because it illustrates how adult authority figures can help immature young people become a little more mature, in a very low-key, non-confrontational way. I think there are two important points here:

1. About 95% of the students’ behavior needed no intervention at all. Was their constant stream of conversations about hair and makeup and clothes and relationships tiresome? Yes. Were the students immature and annoying? Yes. But that’s what teenagers are supposed to be. It’s how they learn to grow up. And if the place they chose for it happened to be right outside my classroom door, well, I could put up with the inconvenience. I could share my space with them for a few minutes each day.

2. The behavior that did need intervention didn’t need very much intervention. A lot of teenage misbehavior is just kids trying to find what they can get away with. Many teachers respond to this sort of normal teenage boundary-pushing with unnecessarily heavy-handed scolding. While it’s true that teen behavior sometimes needs to be redirected, there are often more effective ways of doing this than the standard grown-up snarling that is so common among teachers, and which young people find so easy to ridicule or ignore. The kids outside my door needed to know what behavior was appropriate and what wasn’t. They didn’t need to be told to shut up, or to leave, or that they should be doing their homework instead of wasting time hanging out with their friends.

The payoff came when the one student came into my room that morning, called me by name, and politely asked if I had any tissue. A perfectly ordinary interaction between a teenager and an adult authority figure. Jackpot.

2 Responses to “Interactions with teens; low-key often works best”

  1. bledsoe says:

    Thanks Anonymous! I suspect a lot of students often wonder why teachers do or don’t do certain things. I also suspect that in this particular instance there were probably a few students who would have preferred that I simply told everyone outside my door to shut up or get out (or both), but everyone’s gotta be somewhere, and if I’d run them off from outside my classroom they’d have just found some other place to hang out. All things considered, I felt like the space outside my classroom was probably a pretty good place for them to be.

  2. Anonymous, A says:

    This is really nice to hear. I always wonder how and why you decided to put up with the loud morning crowds of the trailer hallways. I can clearly remeber pushing my way through the over passionate teens, music, and all together loud crowds in the morning and being really annoyed by them. Even though, as a student I didn’t get it at the time reading this in a way gave my loud 9th grade mornings some clarification. You’re a great teacher.

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