Back to School: Your First Lesson with Teenagers

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Are you feeling daunted about the first lesson of the year with a new group of teenagers? Read on for some tips to help it go smoothly.

 

Get everyone to talk to everyone in the first lesson

Teenagers, even the ‘cool’ ones, are concerned about being judged by their peers. They can be shy, and in my experience tend to try and ‘hang back’ until they get an idea of who is in the room with them. They also don’t want to embarrass themselves- so if they lack confidence in English, they may not be eager to use the language amongst people they don’t know yet. So you may be faced with a very quiet group who are reluctant to do what you ask of them, in the first lesson! What can you do about this?

In your lesson plan for the first class, include stages which will get different learners working together. Try and include something very early in the lesson, so that students already ‘know’ someone in the first ten minutes.

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I try and avoid any whole-class warmer, such as ‘find someone who’, because if you think about it, standing up and talking to a roomful of strangers is quite intimidating! Especially in a language you may not be confident in speaking. Some adults struggle with this, so imagine being a self-conscious teen. Try and include a stage where learners can work with one or two others, and then another stage where they work with another one or two learners, and so on. My goal in the first lesson is for every student to have conversed with every other student, at least once. I find that when I do this, about halfway through the lesson, almost all the learners seem more comfortable, and are more willing to contribute and participate in the lesson.

 

Teenage Kicks (in the teeth)

Teenagers come to their first lesson with you with baggage. They have already been in the education system for long enough to have been labelled in some way, and they are aware of this. They already think they are ‘good’ at studying or not; that they are ‘good’ at English or not; that teachers ‘like’ them or not. They may come to their first lesson with you already thinking they will fail, or that they won’t enjoy it. They also may be dealing with a lot of peer pressure, or even bullying.

When you greet the students, be genuine with it. If you ask how someone is, really listen to the answer. Try to come from a place of understanding.

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Include an activity in the first lesson in which you get to know something about each learner. I like to make a note of this (not obviously!), and then in the next lesson, I make reference to it. For example, ‘How did that Science exam go, Omar?’ or ‘Wissam, you like K-Pop, right? I read something about BTS doing military service soon!’. Again, I do this in a genuine way. I can’t tell you how, even the most surly teenager, lights up when you actually remember something that is important to them.

Go into the classroom yourself with a smile- if it’s clear you don’t want to be there, then of course your students will mirror that.

 

Let them get to know you

Not all teenagers seem curious, but they are. They want to know their teacher- if only to find out how strict you’re going to be!

It makes sense that if you are asking learners to participate in getting-to-know-you activities in the first lesson, then you should also be a part of that. It’s only fair that if you’re asking pupils to share something, that everyone in the room is doing so. You are asking human beings to open up, after all.

I like to start the lesson with a little bit about me. Usually, I find pictures of seven or eight things that are important to me, and I put them on the board. I then ask pupils to guess why I selected those images, or to ask me questions about them. I then answer openly and invite any follow-up questions. Yes, this is very teacher-centred, but I think it’s an important stage in the first lesson.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Teenagers want and deserve respect. They also respond positively to being given respect.

It’s hard to explain how you can show respect to your teen learners, but a good starting point is to look at the rules you expect them to follow in your lesson and follow them yourself. For example, if pupils aren’t allowed to eat or drink in the classroom, then why are you sipping on a cup of coffee? If your students are expected to bring all their books and stationery to the lesson, then why are you nipping out to do some extra photocopies during the lesson? If your students have to hand in their homework within a week, why do you take weeks and weeks to get it back to them?

I remember once I had a class of teenagers in Poland. I had a cold, so I asked the class if it was okay for me to have a throat sweet during the lesson. They all looked at me, astounded, and said yes. I explained that, since I didn’t allow them to have sweets in class, I wanted to ask if it was okay for me to do it, this time. I can’t describe the look on their faces. It goes without saying that I had a great relationship with the learners in that group, and I loved teaching them.

Showing respect gets respect in return. The classroom can become a warm and respectful learning environment, where everyone- including the teacher- is part of a dynamic learning community. But it’s difficult to create that if the teacher is at the top of the totem pole, and the students are at the bottom.

 

Set expectations

The first lesson sets the tone for the rest of the year. If you come to class unprepared, or plan a lesson in which learners don’t really do much thinking or participating, you have set the expectation that just turning up when you’re not ‘ready’ for the lesson, and sitting passively, will be the norm. In setting this expectation, that is exactly what you will get from your students.

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Instead, prepare your lesson thoroughly. Go into the classroom fifteen minutes before if you can, to set up the room as you want it. Plan a lesson that includes lots of opportunities for learners to think, speak and work together. Go to your lesson knowing that it won’t be a lecture, but an active experience for the students. If that is what they experience in the first lesson, then that is what they will expect the following lesson- and they will be ready for it!

 

What are your first lesson tips for teen groups?

6 comments

  1. Great post Helen! You’re so right about everything.-I’m so tired of find someone who.. And yes a lot of Ss come with baggage and we should really listen to what they say and truly connect with them. Great tips!A lot of teachers also create a sort of classroom contract on the first day. What I prefer to do with upper secondary ss (who are a bit more mature) is ask them to reflect on their previous English learning experience and share what they liked/disliked or what expectations they have from the course. Maybe talk about their goals and share their learning preferences. Then I also tell them what I expect from them in terms of behavior.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Rachel. Yes, class contracts are a great idea! If I do that with a group, I always make sure they include some things in the contract that I as the teacher promise to do, too. Then we all sign it.

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  2. Great post Helen! Respect, rules, getting to know the students and they get to know their teacher, sharing each other’s interests are fundamental to build up trust and rapport.

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  3. I agree with what you say about us having to do as we ask them to do. And the genuine interest too. I share a lot about myself too and have found that at first, they found that quite strange as they didn’t seem to have had that from other teachers! But if we are asking them to share quite personal things, then we have to do the same!

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