My Teenage Students Are Ignoring Me! What Am I Doing Wrong?

A Heart to Heart about an Educator’s Role Today

“Doesn’t anyone know the answer to my question?” you gently sigh, as half your class simply ignores your presence. You desperately direct the question to a specific student - a last attempt at rectifying the uncomfortable predicament you find yourself in - receiving an answer which will only add salt to injury. “I don’t care if I learn English or not. So, stop insisting.”

Does this sound all too familiar? No, this is not an 80s teen movie, featuring disgruntled, directionless teenagers who are in desperate need of a leader who will motivate them and, in the end, will bond as a family unit. This is a harsh reality most of us are dealing with. You might be scratching your heads wondering if this was always the case or not. Admittedly, teenagers have through the years consistently exhibited a rebellious nature, rendering it a constant challenge to keep them motivated and focused on their obligations, inspiring them to set goals to pursue in life. However, society has fundamentally changed and although our teenage students do remind us of our own adolescent years, there are many acute differences which have led to their dismissal behavior.

Text by: Katherine Reilly

Freedom of speech is without a doubt a prerogative that has been bestowed upon them, but at what price? Are their voices truly heard? Or are they drowned in the immense ocean of information and political correctness, rendering their freedom nothing but. To be more precise, how many of our students aspire to build a brighter future for themselves, both professionally and personally? Do they have the financial capacity to do so? Education is not a privilege many reap. The modern world does not cater to their demands and parents are in many cases, only capable of providing the basic needs required. To make matters worse, the new norm of socializing has been scientifically proven to stimulate depression and angst. Comparisons and false representations of reality do not do their ambitions justice. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has taken a whole new meaning, as ‘the neighbors’ in question present an unreachable status quo which is impossible to achieve. The sense of hopelessness as well as social exclusion is more than enough to harden even the most eager of students who would be otherwise more than willing to make an effort in class.

Having said this, they must handle the repercussions of integration in a challenging and unattainable social network, while at the same time deal with their own troubles and everyday turmoil. It comes as no surprise that most students of the post-pandemic world, have no aspirations and lack the clarity to understand the gravity of their ominous future. Thus, their dismissal – although morally unacceptable – is in fact justified. The burning question though remains. What are we supposed to teach them? Obviously, the English language, however, one might wonder if this is what they truly need. No, we’re not social workers or psychologists and most of us aren’t certified or have the experience to tackle such serious issues. Another concern is, how friendly can we get? Showing compassion is one thing, but becoming close is another. The latter could lead to complicated and in many cases precarious situations which should best be avoided.

Therefore, as educators of a second language, who must adhere to our responsibilities in class, can anything be done? Fortunately, yes. After two decades of teaching countless teens, I can wholeheartedly say that we must look beyond their discontent attitudes and divulge the source of their frustration. Yes, I know. We’ve heard this before. “Be their leader, not their boss.” Nonetheless, this is all too true. The point of being a leader is to allow your students to speak their minds; respect their opinion and have them dictate their concerns. Simply brushing away their bitterness, will only alienate them more, causing an already tense situation to exacerbate. Upon receiving the aforementioned answer, or one of similar disregard of or indifference to our lesson, it’s best to bring the lesson itself to a halt. Of course, management and parents should be informed, however, allowing students to blow off steam by showing simple concern for their well-being can ease tensions to a great degree. Insisting on the continuation of a lesson for which there is no investment on behalf of students is a lost cause. Any forms of reprimand will too, add oil to the fire and that is when we will have completely lost control of the situation.

Straying from the lesson, albeit in an educational fashion, is the way to go. One must adapt the material in such a manner, as to allow for conversation, via which students will enjoy a bit of freedom to be creative, to express themselves and come to the realization that even for a small window of time, their voices are actually heard and that they can rely on our support. Being able to alter one’s lesson on the spot to accommodate a tense situation is no small feat. Such an effort requires dedication and experience. More often than not, one would say trial and error is unavoidable. Nevertheless, offering students alternatives to a lesson they would have either way disregarded, renders such a venture a necessity.

If you’re wondering what you should take away from what you have just read, just remember that it’s not your fault if your students might ignore you. Many a time we blame ourselves for any if not all mishaps in our classes, when in reality we should focus on what truly matters; our students and how we can be the guiding light in their darkest of hours.