Responding To A Frequently-Asked Question About Teen Behavior

Posted on April 28, 2018


I address a negative stereotype about teen behavior in this blog.

As a teacher at a public high school, I often get asked in casual conversation, “Are high school students really getting worse and worse as time goes by, like I hear in the media?” The people who ask use a certain tone in their voices–a tone they use when talking about other things they fear, like Michigan winters or public speaking.

In response, I shake my head and explain that no, in my experience, teen behavior is not getting worse. Today’s students are human beings with the same range of human behavior that we’ve always had. In the quarter century I’ve spent in the high school classroom, students have always had a range of behavior, but in general, my students conduct themselves in such a way that little learning time is lost to address behavior.

There’s never time for me to fully explain to those who ask how wrong they are about the teens I teach and who teach me, and sometimes I get the feeling that people who hold a negative view of teens aren’t interested in hearing my explanation, but if I could take the time to really answer the question, this is what I’d like to say.

I don’t know what people are imagining when they ask me about teen behavior, but the truth is, most days in the classroom are punctuated with surprises, delights, discoveries, and the full range of human emotions, hope, anticipation, elation, despair, consternation, compassion, pain, and empathy–in response to what we learn and to the members of the learning community. The truth is, most days pass in peaceful cooperation with a fair number of laughs and lots of language play.

I strive to create a classroom where all students feel safe to be who they are and express themselves. On the first day of school, I share a simple motto, “We are a caring circle of friends,” to set the tone for our behavior. Friends give life meaning, hope, and joy; they are life’s treasures; they help; they care. Caring is what friends do, and caring is one-tenth of the traits listed in the IB Learner Profile, the “ethical code” for IB Schools like mine. Along with caring, knowledgeable, inquirer, open-minded, thinker, balanced, risk-taker, reflective, communicator, are principled appear on the Learner Profile.

I strive to create a classroom community where students know their value and who are free to explore ideas in reading, writing, research, and civil discourse. I create space for students to explore their interests in Writing by empowering students to choose topics, audiences, and purposes for writing, and, when appropriate, their genre. I support my students in the choices they make, and I value the practice they are getting for more important decision-making they’ll do in life. I celebrate their decisions; I get excited about the possibilities they see in their decisions; and I LOVE to see their pride when they’ve completed a project. I’ve see students hug their compositions before they turn them in to be graded!

Conversation is central to our caring circle of friends. Every day includes both informal and formal conversation, discussion, and talking circles. We talk about what and how of language, literature, speech, information, argument, media, composing, grammar, and ideas, ideas, ideas.

In a caring circle of friends, when one talks, the others listen. We work together to improve our listening skills. We listen to stories, to poetry, to information, to songs, to plays, to argument, to bells, and to “our friend, Dr. Vo.”

Dr. Vo is the is a physician who has posted recordings of mindfulness meditations for teens that we listen to on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and other days by request, if time allows. (It’s a rare day when time does not allow for teens to take five minutes for self-care.) Participation in mindfulness practice is optional, and those who choose to engage in the practice are guided by Dr. Vo to breathe deeply, become aware of their bodies, emotions, and thoughts without judgement, and to return to the day with peace and self-compassion. Mindfulness is like yoga for the mind and offers some of the same benefits. Mindfulness has entered the mainstream and has been embraced by educators, athletic coaches, the medical community, U.S. Military, police departments, and prisons. Although some few Christians have rejected the practices as violating their faith traditions, other Christians have embraced the practices. At a workshop I attended with Dr. Caryn Wells at Oakland University, I met a group of teachers from an evangelical Christian school who wanted to learn how to use the practices in their classrooms. A quick web search finds The Mindful Christian. Mindfulness is one of the tools we explore for self-care. I introduce the idea of the “self-care toolbox” this way: you might not need it right now, but keep it in your toolbox for times when you might need it. The self-care toolbox also holds concepts like fire drills, tornado drills, and ALICE training. During mindfulness practice, students choose whether to do the practice, read, or sit quietly. Students could even use those three to five minutes to pray. Mindfulness practice is a time of quiet, a time to refresh our minds, a time of non-judgement, a time of peace, a respite from daily stresses.

At the center of our caring circle is reading. As a teacher of language arts, I love books, and it is my great pleasure to share my love of books with others. I help my students learn to select, read, reflect upon, write about, and talk about books. I encourage students to find books, genres, and authors that they enjoy and to read deeply and widely, following their interests and exploring new territories. Students read novels, memoir, history, graphic novels, memoir, nonfiction, folktales, fantasy, picture books, essay, drama, science, and poetry. At a time when many people see teens as non-readers, my students read widely, deeply, and with gusto.  Although it may take longer to settle into reading on some days compared to others, every reading session comes fully equipped with that magic moment when I survey the room and see that every student has “left the building” for the worlds in their books. I take a deep breath and smile; my students are becoming fluent readers. They are doing the single most important thing they can do for academic success, and they are enjoying themselves while they do it.

In my classroom, students know that they have choice, voice, and power to pursue their individual interests as readers and writers, and to share themselves, their stories, and their ideas in a caring circle of friends. The students in my classroom in 2018 have the same range of behaviors as their parents had in 1996–except they use cell phones. In spite of the negative stereotype of worsening teen behavior–which has persisted from my first day in the classroom until now, 25 years later–it’s not what I see. I see learners enjoying the learning journey in a friendly, caring community.

I know that the person in line at the grocery store who believes the negative stereotypes about teen behavior isn’t going to read this, but I needed to say it, and now I have. Thank you for reading.