This school year was my first one working with teenage students. One day a week—every Friday—I spent as a guide (or coach, as we call it) at vocational IT education in my city. It was different from any training I've given before, and here are some of the lessons I've learned.
Teaching students is different from training juniors
I've been training junior (new, inexperienced) developers for a few years now. Despite teaching both juniors and my students in IT topics, that is where the overlap ends.
My students are mostly aged between 15–18 years, with some being older. My juniors are usually university graduates starting from 22 years old. According to Dutch law, the former group has to go to school, and their presence in my classroom is not entirely voluntary.
So, where juniors are often happy to have someone guide them, the young students seem less thankful; emphasis on "seem" here, as their attitude is not as bad as it looks.
Learn and protect your boundaries
Students are primarily hormone-driven teenagers, and a teenager's job is to stand up against adults. The first-year students will also test your boundaries and try to stretch them.
As the coach, you have to be the responsible adult and enforce your boundaries. You must also work to ensure that the classroom is a safe space for every student, including those who make a scene.
I had to learn a lot about my limits. For a big part of my life, I've been in situations where I was taught that my boundaries don't matter, and I had to accept abuse to stay afloat. This led to insensitivity to sexism and not even recognizing some bad behavior until my colleague pointed them out.
Let go of the reigns
While learning to protect my boundaries and being new to the classroom, I made a big mistake: trying to control the whole situation.
It is impossible to keep an entire class under control for a whole day, especially on Fridays. I started with the idea of having a class full of productive students, much like in an office. Unrealistic expectation alert!
The best thing you can do is let go of the reigns. You still have to ensure productivity and good behavior, but you shouldn't react to everything.
For example, the students are a bit rowdy when entering the classroom. I will only say hi, ask them how they are, and let them be. Generally, they resolve themselves within five minutes and without conflict.
By giving the students freedom, I provide them with trust and autonomy. Building rapport with students takes time; sometimes, you have to take back control, but it is good to work toward mutual trust and responsibility.
Communicating with colleagues is key
Do you know how children set up their parents against each other to get what they want? Students will do that with their teachers big time. I wish I got paid every time they tried to convince me that my colleague would let them get away with certain actions.
Communication with colleagues is essential to prevent the students from taking advantage of our unknowing. It also serves a greater purpose: keeping track of students' well-being. We each notice different things going on with our pupils and together we can decide to set up extra help for them.
Stuck between childhood and adulthood
Adults: do you remember being a teenager? I am glad that part of my life is long over. Puberty is wild, with teens transitioning from being a child to being an adult.
We try to treat our students as adults as much as possible. This means that we give them a lot of freedom, autonomy, and consequences for their actions. This usually works pretty well.
Where students are generally quite mature, there are moments where you are reminded that they've only just stopped being children. This usually happens when they have to deal with a personal situation that even adults would struggle with.
You must remember that these young people haven't had many life experiences yet, and every adult experience is new to them. They learn quickly, but sometimes they need an older person to help them navigate a situation.
Professional distance is paramount
You must keep a professional distance from students, both physically and emotionally. I'm strict on not touching them and will not come closer than necessary.
I also keep in mind that my role is to teach these students professional skills and make sure they are learning and productive. I am not their social worker, therapist, or parent.
Interestingly enough, too much distance is also wrong. Teaching students remotely during COVID was terrible, for one (let's not get into the details).
I also want the students to know they can come to me if they have an issue, even if it's only to refer them to the right care team within the school.
And to be honest: sometimes the distance is hard.
I've been in moments where a student shared their frustration or sadness privately. With friends, you would offer a hug; with young students, you just can't. I would thank them for their trust, tell them it's OK to feel what they are feeling, recommend seeing the school's care counselor, and hope that is enough.
I don't think you can prepare for having a teenager crying next to you at the table, but it is precious to have gained their trust.
Teenagers are pretty amazing creatures. Sometimes they're completely unreasonable, but they have a lot of qualities that make them great to work with.
I love the teens' ability to think out of the box. They are adults whose opinions haven't been colored by too many life experiences yet, and they come up with new solutions to existing problems.
Attention-span-wise, though, you need to let them go sometimes.
We went to an amusement park on a school trip, played games at school, and shared music and videos. We also just finished the school year with a group photo of the students scattered in a climbable rope pyramid.
Not only did having fun take off the stress from school work, but I also think it made the students like us more.
My goodness, what a year. I knew it would be a wild ride, but it was hard to imagine how exactly.
I thought my experience teaching juniors would help me, but it didn't. Teenagers are in a league of their own, especially when the law forces them to get an education.
I also underestimated how much I would learn from the students—actively thinking about my limits and practicing patience.
Where I thought I was going back to basics with my junior colleagues, the actual basics happened in the classroom. The students are still learning how to behave and resolve conflicts, and you have to guide them. These are subjects I didn't actively think about until a year ago.
It's strange sitting here knowing I won't see them for two months, and I will miss them a bit. No matter the occasional attitude, they are amazing people, and it's been great being their teacher.
Curious to see what next year will bring.