Teaching English abroad: a guide on teaching teenagers

Teaching English abroad: a guide on teaching teenagers

Whether it is something you actively pursued in your teaching career or a class that you were delegated at your school, teaching English to teenagers is no mean feat. Be it a group or one-to-one, maintaining engagement with the class content, as well as energy, can seem a never-ending struggle. However, it is important to remember that every class will have its own individual needs, and teaching teenagers is no different. The first step is identifying what those are. In the same way that you would when tackling a difficult grammar point in class: break it down.

More often than not, if you are not working within a high-school environment abroad, these teenagers are turning up after a full day of school. They have been focused on Maths and usually other languages, too. They will amble in five minutes late, phones in hand, chattering in their mother-tongue and it will be down to you to prompt them to get their books out, along with a pen or a pencil. You are one of their teachers. This should be another lesson in their day, which is no less important than the others. However, it is also another additional responsibility added to their weekly workload- and not one devoid of a lot of pressure, either.

Be the energy

These teenagers will be aspiring to work or study abroad one day. Failing your class is not an option if they want to achieve that goal and create those future opportunities. The weight of their future will be felt by them with every mispronunciation or misuse of tense in an essay. It is your job to teach them with an awareness of these factors. Moreover, with an understanding that the workload and pressure must be absolutely exhausting for them. As a TEFL teacher working with teenagers, your job is not only to help them open doors for their futures but also to bring the energy they simply won’t have to every lesson. You are both teacher and support. To an extent, also a performer. And through a combination of these things, that energy you share will lift some of that weight off of them, and all of their heads off their desks.

Be on their level

Getting to know the teenagers you are teaching will have endless benefits for your classes. A good starting point: learn their names. Teenagers want to be heard. They want to be understood. Showing a genuine interest in who they are as individuals, and their interests, will not only get them talking about themselves in English, but you will also be able to start incorporating more creative activities based on what you learn about them. This will guarantee a lesson full of engaging material, guided by the students, themselves. As a teacher, the hit-or-miss additional work of hunting for resources you think they could like is replaced by team-work and active learning. 

The students get to shake off their usual passive roles in learning and take control, to a point, of the way in which they approach learning English. They get to give suggestions and see them implemented in their class in a structured way. This continual reframing of their ideas is just one example of you, as a teacher, maintaining clear boundaries in this approach to teaching teenagers. You are listening to them, whilst also asserting your responsibility to lead the class in the most constructive way possible. This balance is crucial. You can still respect their voices without abandoning the need for their respect for yours. 

Be reasonable

Is one piece of unfinished homework really going to make or break their grade? Know when to pick your battles when teaching teenagers, but also keep an eye on patterns. In the same way that they can actively help shape their learning, they must also be held accountable for their role beyond class time. For repeat offenders, gently remind them of the value of homework in solidifying their understanding. On weeks when you know they’ve been under other school pressures, go light or get more creative with the homework.

Showing a willingness to compromise will encourage them to get the work done. It will also render any excuses, for any students continually failing to complete tasks, useless. At this point, remind yourself of your role. Are raised voices useful in these situations? What will they achieve? You have been clear about your expectations of the class from the start; you have compromised; you have flagged their behaviour, prior to its escalation. At this moment, the role of the parents in a teenager’s learning should be acknowledged. Teaching English to teenagers is a team effort. Be reasonable with yourself with the understanding that, as a teacher, you can only do so much.

Be the adult

Ultimately, we must remind ourselves that, despite how much more responsibility we are able to give to teenagers when teaching English and online courses, they are still children. Their brains are still developing and maturing, and they are likely to have more emotional reactions as a result. TEFL teachers working with teenagers are responsible for not taking those reactions personally. More importantly, they should strive to react with as much sensitivity and professionalism as possible when they do occur. Teenagers, like all children, still need guidance in the classroom and the stability of an adult role-model.

This does not detract from how much more TEFL teachers are able to do in a classroom of teenagers: from debates, group presentations, even to class research projects. Teaching teenagers is exciting because of the sheer level of involvement in the content that occurs, and the varieties of opinions. In fact, this is an age when young people are forming their opinions about the world around them, and that process should always be encouraged within a TEFL classroom. Nonetheless, we remain teachers, not their friends.  A TEFL teacher, first and foremost, is the adult in the room.

Teaching TEFL to teenagers abroad transcends teaching. It is an opportunity to make their transition to adulthood as smooth as possible. To recognise that whilst teaching teenagers can be demanding, being a teenager is no easier. And so, teaching teenagers can actually be some of the most rewarding work for TEFL teachers. It both challenges us and grounds us. It is a reminder that even teachers never stop learning: teenagers have just as much to teach us. If this is a challenge you’re up for, you can start this cycle of learning by getting qualified with a TEFL certification. 

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