Tips from teacher: 5 ways to keep teens from frying your nerves

Guest post by Saltpincher
By: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe DistrictCC BY 2.0

I’m not the parent of a teenager. At the very least, I’m 13 years and 9 months away from holding that honour. I do, however, spend much of my time with the teenage offspring of others. Depending on your local lingo, I’m a “relief,” “substitute,” or “casual” teacher who teaches students from 8th to 12th grade.

Whilst I’m still learning how best to manage behaviour — and the results of my efforts are often far from perfect — I’m beginning to realise just how much I rely on some of the strategies taught at university or learnt from other teachers. Even when these strategies utterly fail me, at least I feel that I’ve done right by my students and maybe, just maybe, they’ll thank me for it when they calm down. These are the strategies that help me keep my sanity when dealing with difficult students. Hopefully one day they’ll help me to deal with the behaviour of my own children, if only by reminding me to stay calm.

Pick your battles

Every teacher has their own priorities when it comes to behaviour. For me, the highest priority is respectful behaviour towards others. I’m particularly fanatical about tackling racist/homophobic language and ensuring that students don’t carry on conversations whilst someone else is addressing the class. This means that at times I need to let lesser behaviour go. Although it can be hard to ignore the student who refuses to sit on a seat instead of the desk, or insists that ripping up a sheet of paper is more productive than writing a story, it’s generally not worth an argument.

Stay calm

In my experience, it can be hard to keep your cool when a student tells you they hate you, that YOU should have better control over them, or — in all seriousness — that whilst it’s fine for boys to be promiscuous, a girl who is must be “dirty.”
The comments that really set me off tend to be the ones which demonstrate an attitude that I dislike. Generally with these comments, there’s little I can do in terms of an official process and consequence. I can explain my views and my reasoning to students, but I need to remember to stay calm. Whether they agree or not, teenagers will generally consider the opinions of others when part of a genuine conversation. They won’t listen to preaching. In the end I can’t make them agree with me, but I can at least expose them to an alternative view.

Set consequences

Consequences are a highly variable thing. Some kids don’t need a teacher to set consequences for specific behaviours — they set their own. Whether it’s getting poor grades, being told off or disappointing the teacher, many students want to avoid the natural consequences of misbehaviour. However, where students aren’t concerned about these outcomes, teachers need to set consequences. There are some students, who without interference, would sit and talk their way through every class for the semester. They might regret their behaviour when they failed the subject, but wouldn’t give it a second thought up until this point. I was certainly one of these students in 8th grade. In these situations, kids need consequences which are relevant to the behaviour. For example, in my classroom constant chatting and no working would lead to a clear warning such as: “You have work to do. You need to stop focusing on your conversation and start working; otherwise you will be moving away from your friend.” Whilst I can’t force a student to act a certain way, I can give them a choice. If they choose that continuing the behaviour is worth the consequence, then that’s fine. At least they’re taking responsibility for their actions.

Try to be fair

This is VERY difficult in a classroom of 25 to 30 students. I’d like to think it’s easier when parenting teenagers, but I’m probably kidding myself. Kids have a keen sense of fairness — at least when they personally are set to gain from it – and will very vocally point out when they haven’t been treated the same as somebody else. I do my best when it comes to being fair, but for some students this is never enough. Whilst there may only be consequences for the two students who I SAW throwing pencils, I have to hope they realise that exactly the same would have happened to the others, if only I knew who they were. One of the toughest parts of treating students fairly can be getting students to understand that treating people equally does not necessarily mean treating them the same. The fact that the boy with Asperger’s is allowed to write about what Edward Scissorhands DID rather than how he FELT does not mean that he is being given preferential treatment. In the end, all I can ask is that even amid a chorus of “IT’S NOT FAIR,” I can still feel that I’ve done my best to treat my students fairly.

Don’t take it personally

No matter how hard a teacher tries, there will be times when students simply don’t give a crap. Whether they choose to sleep through the class which took you five hours to prepare, completely ignore every word you say to them or — as in a colleague’s recent experience — tell you they fucking hate you when you greet them, there are some things students do that can be hard not to dwell on. In these situations it’s important to remember firstly that teenagers often have a lot to deal with. It may be that that you simply happened to be there when they wanted somebody to take their frustrations out on. If it turns out that this isn’t the case, and they were specifically targeting you, all you can do is remember that you’ve done your best and not take it personally.

Comments on Tips from teacher: 5 ways to keep teens from frying your nerves

  1. A thousand times THIS! I taught junior high (ages 11-14) in inner-city Chicago for four years. Each of the rules you enumerated were exactly those I lived by. I determined that at the end of the day I felt far better if I kept my cool and did not take anything personally. Even if a student cursed me out or tipped over their desk three times in day I could resolve the situation reasonably well if I stayed calm.

    Fairness is huge to kids that age. You earn much more credibility and students are much more willing to accept punishment if they believe you are fair.

    I also joke that when I have teenage children they won’t know what hit them because I am so used to dealing with kids that age that I know how to avoid being manipulated.

    At the end of the day, adolescence is a confusing but also exciting time. Talents and passions are really beginning to show themselves at that age. If you can deal with all of the crap that teenagers sling out, it can be very rewarding age with which to work.

  2. I teach middle school in inner-city Philly. It’s not easy. Fairness is HUGE. Also, picking your battles is big too.

    For example, I may have been called a “tight ass bitch” by a student the other day. I turned, looked him in the eye and asked if he had something to say to me. He immediately began denying it. I just said “Good, because I know that you would never say something so disrespectful.”
    My basic tips are : Addressing something simply as it happens is often your best bet. Never make threats you aren’t willing to go all the way on and sometimes you have to “shock and awe” to make a point.

    Anyway, I’d rather be a “tight ass bitch” than allow disrespectful behavior and be walked all over. They can smell fear lol.

  3. I used to teach high school, 10th-12th graders and man would some of those kids get on my nerves. I think another important one is to know when to stage an intervention. I had one student that was physically violent to the point that other students were afraid to come to school because of him. Eventually myself and a few other teachers said enough was enough and we had to orchestrate this big plan to get him punished for his actions. Pretty ridiculous the school system I worked for didn’t already have something in place for situations like that but I guess that happens in small towns sometimes.

  4. From one teacher to another, thanks for these wonderful, absolutely-true suggestions! Too often are public school teachers seen as the enemy these days, so it’s really nice to see how parents, teachers, and teens can work together for student success at home and in the classroom. 🙂

  5. I love this! Fabulous! I teach lifeguarding classes and train high schoolers to be swim teachers, and was also a camp counselor for several years. One thing that makes the consequences and fairness even more effective is setting expectations up front, in writing, and repeat them several times. Most whining about consequences can easily be handled by pointing out the previously-mentioned rules and expectations. This also helps with fairness too, by preparing yourself for how you will react to a certain situations. Having a pre-game also aids in staying calm. I can only hope that someday I remember all this when I have my own teenagers!

  6. I don’t have a lot to add, but the topic of students falling asleep in class really hit home. I did that a few times in both high school and college, and I felt immensely guilty every time. After the third time in a week it happened in one class, I approached the teacher and apologized profusely. Explained that it really wasn’t anything to do with his teaching or the material, I was just way overworked and apparently my breakfast was running out before his class (which was right before lunch). He thanked me for clarifying and we worked out making up the info and assignments I’d missed due to my accidental napping, and I took one thing away from the conversation: That he was very grateful to know me sleeping really wasn’t him or his class.

    Every since, when I’ve taken what I like to call “accidental naps” in class, I tend to either directly approach or send a note to the teacher I fell asleep on. I never ask for anything from them, just to let them know that I meant no offense and apparently needed a nap that day. Often times it’s because I KNEW I should have gone home to sleep, but their class really was so interesting/I knew it was important that I had sincerely tried–though apparently failed–to push through. I’m sure sometimes teachers wonder, so my suggestion is to assume as much.

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