Teachers are not therapists: Five tips for dealing with teenagers

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One of the dangers that we face in education is when we jump on the latest idea from the field of psychology and try to deploy it in the classroom. Teachers are not therapists and the more we venture into an area for which we are not trained, the greater the chance that we mess it up. That is not to dismiss productive attitudes and mental health as unimportant because they are a vital to students’ academic and social success. It is more than we should recognise where our limits are and where other professionals should take over.

For instance, many teachers and school leaders have developed a genuine interest in the idea of promoting a ‘growth mindset’ and yet evidence is emerging that our strategies for doing so can backfire. So what are the reasonable steps that teachers can take when dealing with students?

Be honest

We can gain some insight into what goes wrong by looking at the way that growth mindset can backfire. Teenagers can be canny and cynical and they know when a teacher is feeding them a line or trying to manipulate them. If you praise Jane’s effort but not Afsha’s, and you do this in a formulaic way, Jane may gain the impression that you think she is stupid. As it is commonplace to point out, humans are complex and they don’t always respond well to simple interventions.

Instead, it is better to say what you believe. And if you’re not sure what you believe then it is better to say that too. In my experience, students respect a teacher who explains, ‘I’m not quite sure what to do here – I need to take some advice,’ and this is always going to be far superior to giving bad advice or advice that appears insincere. Teenagers are at a point in their lives where they are starting to realise that the world can be quite dark. Life is not a 1980s American sitcom with a neat resolution and a moral every 30 minutes.

Ask questions

It is often necessary to intervene swiftly, particularly in the middle of teaching a lesson. You don’t have time to have a one-to-one conversation and you just have to act to confiscate an item or move a student in the seating plan. However, it’s usually going to be worth having a discussion about this later.

My advice is to factually describe what happened without using judgemental language and then ask the student about it. “I have asked students to complete the starter activity as soon as they enter the room, but you went over to Jay and had a conversation. Why was that?”

Often, you don’t learn anything much: you just hear a mumbled nothing or a half-hearted excuse. Sometimes, however, you learn something critical to how you will proceed; something that may even stop you in your tracks to seek advice.

Plan the geography of your interventions

Sometimes, it will be possible to have a quick chat outside the classroom door as the rest of the class is busy with a task. Sometime, you may ask a student to stay back at the end of the lesson, although this can be messy if other students want to see you. You are trying to balance two contradictory priorities here: to have a private conversation but to do so in as public a way as possible to avoid putting yourself at risk.

Leave the classroom door open. Have the conversation near the door but never place yourself between the student and the door. If your classroom is in a secluded corner of the school then find another place to talk such as outside the staffroom.

Focus on the future…

One response I am pretty sure about is that most people, teenagers included, become defensive if you highlight their flaws. Sometimes this is necessary; the situation needs blowing-up in order to move on to catharsis and the chance of a new start.

But for most students, most of the time, inducing a defensive reaction about typical teenage behaviour is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, I would suggest focusing on what needs to happen in the future. ‘You need to start doing… in order to…’.

For instance, ‘You need to complete every homework I set. The homework is well thought-out and will help you prepare for your examinations. If you don’t complete this homework then you won’t do as well as you are capable of doing. I have a responsibility for your progress and I will have to organise an after school slot for you if you cannot work out how to manage this yourself.’

…but avoid making hard predictions

Don’t be the teacher who tells a kid that he will never amount to anything. That kid is guaranteed to go on to start a successful business before giving a TED talk about the teacher at school who said he would never amount to anything. Academic success is certainly correlated with later economic success but there will always be outliers.

Essentially, we cannot make accurate predictions about individuals. If you have a data system that spits out target grades then these should be treated with extreme caution. They represent the average outcomes for many students and the possible outcomes at the individual level are diverse.

None of this is intuitive and so we do have a responsibility to help students understand. I once taught a student who refused to do any work in a science lesson. When I discussed this with him, he told me he didn’t need to learn science because he had a cousin in America who was a rapper and he was going to become a rapper too. I wished him luck and I expressed the hope that he would realise his dream. However, I pointed out that lots of people want to be rappers but very few end up making a living from it. And so the competition is high. I suggested that he needed his school subjects as part of his back up plan. I pointed out that it was my responsibility to ensure that he learnt science and that, for this reason, he would be staying back after school if he didn’t complete his work.

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2 thoughts on “Teachers are not therapists: Five tips for dealing with teenagers

  1. Speaking to kids outside the room is very important in many cases. I’ve often found that it’s also quite important to ensure that once outside the room, the kid in question is not even potentially in view of the other kids, which can happen if the classroom door has that little window in it. (The doors at my current school are all solid wood so this isn’t an issue.) Otherwise there’ll be a bloody crowd forming by the door in five seconds.

  2. I always made it a point not to cultivate ‘relationships’ with individual pupils. One of the joys of a ‘no excuses’ discipline policy is that it allows the teacher to relax and treat all pupils pretty much the same. When you visit Michaela, you are immediately struck by the energy generated by teachers who are in total control, yet are able to exert that control with enthusiasm and good humour. The key, as always, is that when children know that their teachers can convey useful (or even interesting) knowledge and skills, they respond eagerly. It is always crucial to confirm learning formally so pupils have proof of their achievement. Competitions and measures that allow children to top their ‘personal best’ will focus even the most truculent pupil.

    The problems start when you have pupils of widely varying abilities in the same class, and when you go charging up Bloom’s pyramid too fast. And there can be no doubt that NQTs in a school with an indifferent behaviour policy will have their work cut out for them no matter how much B4L has been pumped into them.

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