Alan Sitomer, author of Teaching Teens and Reaping Results, has 8 core tenets for teachers to keep in mind when working with teenagers, reflecting his values and experience as a three-time Teacher of the Year in California.
1. Teach Teens to Bounce Back
Look, life is going to punch you in the mouth. It doesn't matter who you are, how much money you have, what color your skin is, or whether you have more athletic skill than any other human being who ever walked the planet. At some point, in some way, in some manner, life is going to roll up and blast you with a straight right cross to the chin.
And it is going to hurt.
The real question each of us must face is, "How are we going to respond?" That's why the very first thing I teach teens is the need to bounce back!
Society and our schools, in my opinion, misrepresent the way the real world works. The messages they frequently send to teenagers are to "avoid" problems, "steer clear" of trouble, and "keep a safe distance" out of harm's way.
Ha! Nobody escapes harm's way. Not Abe Lincoln. Not Albert Einstein. Not even Mother Teresa. This is why I strongly believe that stripping teenagers of the delusion that somehow they are going to be spared from facing tough times is one of the best gifts a parent or teacher can offer to kids. Be straightforward. Tell your teens what I tell them, "Life will knock you down." The real question is, "Are you going to get back up?"
2. Teach Teens to Craft a Vision
Maybe more than any other group of people on this planet, teenagers are at a stage in their lives where they are perpetually operating under self-fulfilling prophesies. Kids who see failure, violence, and poverty in their future eventually find it, much like kids who see accomplishment, accolades, and highly-compensated employment in their future typically find a form of that as well. The inner vision teenagers hold for themselves will dictate more about their future than any standardized, fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice test they will ever take.
It's not a coincidence that teens who are in the top 10 percent of their class very often have the clearest, most positive, most hopeful inner visions for themselves of all the students in the school — and that the other 90 percent of kids all too often have very little or no vision for who, what, and how they will be. At best they're often "fuzzy" about this type of conversation. At worst they tell me they never even thought about it, don't want to think about it now, and to "Shove off, I have plenty of time to think about that stupid kind of stuff" (except their language frequently has a bit more salt to it). As we see time after time after time, this lack of inner vision far too often ends up sabotaging teens in harsh and unpredictable ways with dire consequences.
As adults we must recognize that a teen without a personal vision is a teen without the most fundamental tool a person needs in this world to eventually succeed. Abraham Lincoln had a vision. Martin Luther King had a vision. The landlord who owns three apartment complexes down the street also had a vision. Teens need to be taught the supreme importance of how their own inner vision ultimately becomes the foremost instrument that will steer the direction of their life. Otherwise, their existence too often resembles a rudderless ship.
3. Teach Teens to Tend to Their 'Tude
It drives me crazy that so many teenagers believe that their attitude is something beyond their control. Or something they are not responsible for. Or something which they can't do anything about.
It's just not true!
No, teenagers cannot change the color of their skin, the knock of their knees, or the disproportionate size of their left earlobes (though I've seen them spend countless hours fretting over similar dilemmas). But teens can change their attitude — and shift it, mold it, hone it, and craft it so that one day it develops into a finely whetted tool which will empower them to enjoy success in life.
A sign on my classroom door clearly reads, "Your attitude will determine your altitude." This sign is so important to my way of thinking that I have it posted in multiple locations around my room. Students can't avoid reading it no matter where they are in my class.
Really, do teens with a bad ‘tude ever really end up in good places? Do they win over teachers? Do they give their parents endless reasons to boast and feel proud? Do they have a stream of friends beating down their door to share good times with them? Of course not!
No matter how you view it, there's a direct relationship between a teenager's attitude and performance, whether it be in academics, social life, sports, etc. Truly, this idea strikes me as a principle so simple to comprehend, yet so fundamental in assisting teens to reap the benefits we all hope they do, that sometimes I am genuinely baffled by what our districts require us to teach. We give all sorts of math instruction year after year to teens without ever mandating that they learn one of life's most simple, yet critical mathematical formulas: A Bad Attitude ≠ A Good Result.
4. Teach Teens to Be Tenacious
The fact is, like most teachers, I've had plenty of kids with brains and talent sitting in the chairs of my room, kids who never reached their potential because they were missing what is without a doubt a critical element to success in both school and life: a sense of dogged tenacity. The fallacy that we promote to far too many kids is that the God-given gray matter inside a teen's head is the primary reason that a student will one day attain success. It's simply not true.
Heart, soul, guts . . . these are the vital ingredients to success in life. Plenty of incredibly smart students have amounted to zilch in this world while scores of kids who may not have had the highest IQs ever have amounted to spectacular successes. That's because without a sense of perseverance, a sense of work ethic, a sense of roll-up-your-darn-shirt-sleeves-and-do-what-it-takes-to-get-the-darn-job-done, kids in this day and age will be cooked. Perseverance matters. Resolve is essential. Doggedness opens windows of opportunity that simply can't be pried open by talent, brains, smarts, or charm. Coasting on natural abilities in this world will inevitably lead to a ship that runs out of steam. However, a student with a driving motor focused in a singular positive direction with a sense of iron determination and will, now that's a kid who is going to be tough to stop. As one of my favorite presidential quotes says:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan "Press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Teach teens to be tenacious. From the examples given to us through the children's fable of The Tortoise and the Hare to the grit exemplified by Gandhi, time and again it is tenacity that often proves to be a deciding factor in achievement. As my beloved grandfather has repeated many, many times to me over the course of my adult life, "Chop wood, chips fall."
5. Teach Teens That Educations Pays
Simply put, having an education opens doors; not having an education closes them. I know this. You know this. But the teenagers who are sitting in the chairs of our schools do not — at least not well enough.
Incumbent upon us, therefore, as teachers, leaders, parents, and adults is passing this message along because right now we are witnessing an overwhelming distaste for school and education by teens in a way that is historically unprecedented: teens are disengaged and dropping out. In my opinion, they don't recognize and embrace what owning an education can mean to the rest of their lives.
We need to take responsibility for better communicating this message to them in a more clear, more direct, more immediate, and more powerful manner.
School is not a punisher. School is not a jailer. School is not the enemy but rather it is a chance — a chance NOT to become yet another government statistic on the wrong side of the data. In my classroom, I illuminate my point by showing teens the hard numbers.
- You wanna make a million dollars? Over the course of your lifetime earnings, people with a bachelor's degree will make approximately $1 million more than people who only have a high school diploma. (Commerce Department Census Bureau)
- You wanna make MORE than a million dollars? Over a the course of your lifetime earnings, people with a master's degree will make approximately $1.3 million more than people who only have a high school diploma. (Commerce Department Census Bureau)
- Or maybe you don't like money... A high school dropout earns about $260,000 less than a mere high school graduate over the course of his or her lifetime. (Campaign for Education Equity, Teachers College, 2005)
If there's one thing true about all teenagers, it's that there's nothing they hate more than the thought of becoming yet another government statistic.
Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender, we must do a better job of teaching our teens that education pays, because over the next hundred years, the gap between those who have an education and those who do not is going to grow so expansive — and disastrous — that we're going to need a whole new series of metaphors to even discuss this chasm.
By teaching teens that education pays, we aren't appealing to their most base monetary desires, but are inoculating them against the disease of a lifetime of low wages. We all know that life is tough enough without being under monetary duress at every turn of your adult existence; America's uneducated overwhelmingly fall into this category. It's bad for them, it's bad for society, and it's bad for our nation. An educated populace is a prosperous populous and if we are going to usher in a new century of peace and prosperity, we need to clearly communicate the value of education in a way that makes teenagers recognize its importance — so much so that they feel compelled to seize it!
6. Teach Teens to Go Where Their Inner Fire Burns
Passion counts more than ever in our modern world. And every day that I work with teens I believe in this statement more and more.
When I first became an educator, I was indoctrinated into a system of schooling which implied that teaching kids to pursue matters about which they were enthusiastic was a touchy-feely type of methodology. It needed to take a back seat to teaching the more tangible (and testable) skills of class such as dissecting the subtext of a narrative poem or identifying the use of figurative language. It's as if liking what you were doing was some sort of luxury in school. Nowadays I am of the exact opposite opinion.
In order for students' work to shine — not just "make the grade" but rise to a level where the quality is supreme — kids must care about what they are doing. This is an absolute. I mean who is really going to argue the fact that teenagers work best when they are energized and excited by their pursuits? And, by extension, can we not, as educators, then expect better results and more productivity from teens simply because of the fact that they are enthusiastic about what they are studying/doing?
Of course we can. It's a proverbial win-win situation.
- When teens are passionate, they deliver better results.
- When teens are passionate, they are more willing to overcome obstacles.
- When teens are passionate, they frequently show a previously absent willingness to go the extra mile to deliver meaningful performance.
- When teens are passionate, they not only give more to their assignments, they get more from doing them, too.
The hard truth is that in our cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all system of education, finding and following one's passion is really the only defense against an impersonal, faceless, try-to-put-you-in-a-box school system. Who isn't immensely frustrated with the way that schools these days pound kids with drill-and-kill exercises as if the pot of educational gold at the end of the classroom rainbow is a high standardized test score in a narrowly constricted realm of academic content. But kids don't care about state tests. Truly, even my top students roll their eyes when it's time for the alphabet soup of testing to begin. This is because it holds no internal value to them. The rewards are (and that's assuming that there are some rewards, a mighty big leap) extrinsic at best.
Additionally, exacerbating the matter even further is the fact that our schools treat the inner drives of teenagers as if they are a problem to be overcome rather than potential we can tap to help our teens develop as people and grow. This is the great misstep of contemporary education. Desires are sources of energy, a passion generating furnace from which people draw creativity, determination, and oomph. When we encourage teens to pursue their inner fires, it works out better for everyone involved; the students, the teachers, the schools, and society.
7. Teach Teens to Take Ownership
Low skills are not the problem with our schools today; low skills levels are the by-product of the problem. The real issue is that the effort far too many of our kids give stinks! This is why I believe that the real key to teaching teens and reaping results in a wi-fi, hip-hop, where-has-all-the-sanity-gone world lies in motivating students to get them to dedicate to their own education.
Teens need to be vested — the more fully so, the higher their performance.
I can teach how to properly identify gerund phrases to practically any teen; any teen who really wants to learn it, that is. But the kid who tunes out, refuses to come to class, won't do his homework, or give me a lick of effort toward his studies is a kid who I am going to have just as much difficulty reaching as any other teacher in America. There are thousands of books out there that address how to teach "skills" in each and every classroom subject area, but none of them will do a bit of good if the teacher cannot get the students to take ownership over their own learning and try.
Yes, they need to try. It's an element of our national schooling dialogue that we pay virtually no official attention to on a formal level, yet it's key to helping us reap the results we seek to obtain in our nation's classrooms.
Study any successful inner city charter school in a dilapidated community that is delivering "uncharacteristically high" test scores and you will see that the core ingredient of their secret sauce is that their students are actually trying to do well. Conversely, examine the effort put forth by students at a "failing school" in a similarly disadvantaged environment and you'll discover that a heck of a lot of kids are simply not really trying. There is no effort, no commitment, no ownership.
When teens take ownership for their actions and behavior and authentically dedicate themselves to their work, good things happen. And if they don't, it gets ugly for all of us. Before I teach skills, I teach teens how and why they need to take ownership over their own lives because, as experience has shown us time and again, once they do, mountains move.
8. Teach Teens to Seek Excellence
Let's be clear about one thing . . . I LOVE OUR SCHOOLS! — even the hard-to-love ones!
I love the kids, I love the subject matter, I love the books, I love the energy, I love the look of the weird meats being served at lunchtime! And I love the way that when it's time for summer vacation, I long for another few weeks of class just so I can do a smidgen more work with my students before I set the little birdies free to fly away, most of them on their way to leaving my rectangular little educational nest forever.
So why, I ask myself, are our schools such a magnet for virtually relentless criticism from every flank of society? (And hey, I knock them, too. Yet why?)
After much deliberation, I've come to realize that it's because I want excellence. Not okay-ness. Not mediocrity. Not kind-of-all-right-ness. EXCELLENCE!
Excellence is, rightly so, the bedrock of all my expectations when it comes to schooling.
On one hand, I expect our classrooms to be supremely successful, but on the other hand I know they're underfunded, overcrowded, inefficient, poorly managed, and ill-equipped to handle the diverse needs society requires them to manage. Though our schools are not given the tools to do what I demand they do, I still expect them to meet the standards I mandate. Really, if anything, it's my preposterously high expectations that are the problem here.
My ideals are over the top.
And by holding onto them the way I do, I am perpetually setting myself up for immense disappointment. However, what am I supposed to do?
Should I lower my aims? Should I seek less from the kids at Lynwood High? Should we as a nation lower the bar for what we expect our schools to be able to deliver to the next generation of young adults in terms of their education, aspirations, or preparedness for the future?
Of course not! Teens today already have their backs up against the wall in so many ways that not to hold the highest expectations for them, or for our schools, is inexcusable. The point is nonnegotiable.
If there is one thing I've learned as a teacher, it's that I absolutely MUST always encourage my students to search for and embrace their own inner excellence no matter what circumstances they face on the outside. You just never know when your relentless drive toward expecting excellence from your students will make all the difference in the world to them.