In my opinion, it is essential to have a positive relationship with a student in order to be able to teach them well, and with no group is this more important, or more difficult to achieve, than with teens.

Some of them stare at you with such loathing, sniff and sigh at everything you pull out of the hat, or are simply downright rude – how could you ever survive a year with them, let alone teach them anything? This article will give you some ideas on how to get on with difficult students and get the best from your class.

You can only make a first impression first

Start the year with a friendly but firm attitude. We are lucky to teach a subject that will be of direct, practical use to our students in their future lives and jobs, so point this out to them. We are also fortunate to be surrounded by the English language: on the internet, in music and on TV, so play on that – find out what your students like and incorporate it into as many lessons as you can.

A fun way to do this is to ask the students to write a phrase about themselves on a slip of paper, something that no one else knows or that they are particularly proud of. Put these phrases into a hat. The students then pull out a phrase and must go round asking the rest of the class questions to find who wrote the phrase. They then write the name of this person on the paper. Keep these slips of paper and use the ideas when choosing your lesson topics.

A good way to get to know your students is to ask them to write you a letter, telling you about themselves; accept L1 if they can’t express themselves in English. This is also a discrete way of finding out if there are any sensitive subjects they would rather avoid. On the subject of sensitive issues, it is interesting to note that most coursebooks contain chapters about describing your family. Many students are at an age when their parents are in the middle of a divorce! Before starting this unit, I always remind my students that we are here to learn and not to spy on each other; if they don’t want to share information, they should do what every good language student does: invent the information! I then remind them that I am married to three different people, have 14 children and enjoy embroidery in my spare time. This is also a good technique to get reticent pupils to speak, no longer will ‘I’m an only child’ be an excuse to avoid participating – get them to invent some siblings, and while they’re at it, make them famous!

It’s never too late to make a good impression

Wherever you are in the school year, it’s not too late to make a good impression. Keep the doors open, and always be willing to start again. Always remember that you are the adult in this relationship, and start each new lesson afresh. In order to do this, avoid phrases such as ‘Typical!’ and ‘I knew you wouldn’t do the homework’. Never tell a student off in front of their peers, but don’t hesitate to have a quick chat after the lesson. You don’t necessarily have to do this immediately after a lesson that went badly – when you risk the student walking out on you. Instead, it may be a good idea to wait a couple of lessons until things have calmed down, then explain your objective – that they learn useful English skills – and ask them what they need from you and how you can help them.

Be watchful: everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about

You don’t know what is going on in your students’ lives: many live in difficult situations or suffer abusive or neglectful relationships. Even for those who seem to have everything in their favour, things aren’t always easy. Many adults today remind children that ‘they don’t know they’re born’, but an iPad and the latest cool bag isn’t everything. Growing up has always been scary; our teenage students have left the warmth of ‘carebear’ land, and are aware that soon, all too soon, they will have to choose a career (a job, me?), find accommodation, pay taxes, and do all the things they see their parents getting stressed over. For many, this is very difficult. Add peer pressure and the fear of failure to that, and you have a potentially dangerous mix. And by dangerous, I mean very dangerous: look out for your students. If you see any signs of self-harm or worse, then talk about it with colleagues or superiors. Suicide is the primary cause of death amongst teenagers in many Western countries.

Be informed

While nothing beats experience in most situations, and teaching teens is no exception, there is something to be said for finding out as much as you can. If one of your students is dyslexic, find out how you can best help them. If your class is hyperactive every Tuesday, find out what lesson they have before (I bet you it’s either sport or double maths!), and deal with this information appropriately.

Give choice

Young people are told what to do by everyone around them. However, teens are old enough to want their freedom and will cause trouble in order to get it. Offer your classes as many choices as possible:

  • Do you want the test on Tuesday or Thursday?
  • Do you want to do these exercises in class or at home?
  • Would you prefer to start with the vocabulary exercises or the listening comprehension?

Every opportunity to power-share will help your students take control of their learning.

Lead by example

Remain calm, explain what you expect, and always have high expectations: give your students a mark to step up to.

Model the kind of behaviour you want from them. To avoid shouting, I recommend the following:

  • A well-established reward/sanction system: I give each student two ‘jokers’ per term. These can be used for ‘forgotten’ homework or equipment. After they have played both jokers, the school sanction (detention) kicks in. There is no need to tell them off. At the start of every lesson, I ask who has forgotten something. The students put their hands up, and jokers are crossed off or detentions noted. There is no grudge-holding.
  • A ‘neutral’ noise: I have a small hand bell which I use to close a speaking or pair activity. This is much better for my vocal chords, and makes it easier to get attention than yelling louder than a roomful of teens.
  • Have a clear idea of acceptable behaviour, and deal with anything unacceptable immediately. For me, this starts with a look, followed by one warning, then the student moves places, then they have to leave the room. However, you need to balance this against the fact that everyone can have an off-day. If you spot a student who is really not comfortable with an activity on a particular day, get everyone started and then go up to them and say discreetly ‘I can see you’re having a bad day, why not just do these exercises quietly today?’ If the circumstances are exceptional and they recognise that they can’t get away with this every lesson, they will usually play the game, and so – surprisingly – will the rest of the class. If they see you dealing kindly with someone who is not doing well, they will respect you all the more.

Finally, as with any teaching, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ miracle problem-solver that will work all the time. However, if you can keep calm, get to know and respect your teenage students, and also let them know you and what you want, then teaching teens is definitely the best job in the world.