Witness for the Defence (of Teens)
By Kristine Klassen
It has happened countless times.
I am at a gathering where I’m meeting people for the first time. We juggle glasses, napkins, and hor d’oeuvres to shake hands, and exchange pleasantries; invariably we arrive at the question of our work lives.
Stranger: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I am a high school teacher.”
It’s pretty much a conversation stopper. Well conversation staller, for sure. Most of the time, my new acquaintance’s response has, at the very least, a whiff of… surprise – she seems so normal…or disdain – how could a well-balanced individual choose THAT path?
In these countless first encounters, there is a sense of disconnection and puzzlement. People can imagine what it is like to be a restaurant manager, a lawyer, a bus driver; they can’t grasp what it is like to be an adult working with teens.
Each time, I feel I have to defend. I defend myself and my choice: I love my work. But much more importantly, I find myself defending my students. In the beginning, I would get tongue tied when people said, “yes, but kids these days, they’re so _____” (I won’t fill in the blank because that would be perpetuating a stereotype, something I caution students about daily.) But over the years I have worked to articulate why this generation is redeemable and full of promise, and how its members are ultimately an absolute joy to be around everyday.
Let me tell you what I know about “kids these days.”
The impact of media is ubiquitous and insidious. The Participaction website says that the average kid spends 7.5 hours in front of a screen. Add 6 hours of school and 8 hours of sleep, and you are already getting close to 24. The afternoon and evening hours when they are in front of their screen are portions of the day when, before smart technology, kids were having conversations. When I was a kid, these were the hours when we were detailing our days over a family meal. We were hanging out in the park. We were hiding in closets, talking on the phone when we were supposed to be doing our homework. We were talking. A lot. And in those shared experiences we were telling stories, excitedly talking about our favourite songs and books, learning about each others’ hopes, fears, and dreams.
If kids in this generation are limiting their interactions to snapchat posts and online group sessions of Call of Duty, where are they trying out creative ideas or learning from the people in their lives? Can two people really know each other, really love each other, if the majority of their interactions are through texts and instant messaging?
Kids and their adults must work hard to cultivate the arts of conversation and storytelling. Finding these opportunities is tough given that friendships are everything for teens. They can meet up anytime through text, snapchat, FaceTime, Skype, and the myriad other ever-emerging platforms, all of which offer instant gratification. Their adults, on the other hand, need actual face time to nurture a relationship which plums the time-consuming depths of values, aspirations, family history. Is it any wonder the adults are losing ground?
Another crucial impact of media is that many of our young people have lost their childhoods, far too soon. When I hear 15- year-olds talking about Game of Thrones, I blanch. (I ask if their parents know they are watching, and I have to admit, sometimes the answer is yes.) The unencumbered online access to explicit images, videos, news footage deeply affects me – as an adult with experience and critical thinking on my side. Imagine how seeing the sexualization of women in most music videos and video games, the footage of a suicide bombing, the graphic murder scenes in PG13 films, is shaping the world view of our young people. Without a conversation to unpack what they have seen and heard, kids will not have the language to express what is potentially harming them.
As far as the language they do have, the complaint I hear most often is that teens are “rude” and “vulgar”. Well, consider that during those 7.5 hours the language they are learning is through music videos and youtube clips. Have you checked out a 2 Chainz or Future video lately? And the conversations they are witnessing are in films like Dirty Grandpa and Deadpool, the top 1 and 2 films on Teen Vogue‘s “Top 12 Movies You Can’t Miss in 2016.”
So I cut them some slack when the occasional F-bomb slips out. First of all, because they hear it all the time, and they don’t know how it sounds to us. But secondly, because I’ve decided that is not the hill I am going to die on. Rather, I take that opportunity to talk about how I hear that word. I help them to find a new one, and we move on. It is a conversation, and once we have hashed that out, they use the word less.
In all things, I work with my touchstone. I have learned over the years that with teens, it really is all about relationships. I make them talk, and I make them listen to each other. I encourage them to share their favourite things, and as a community, we honour their identities and their accomplishments. We can do this because we get to know each other through discussion, and that is a joy and a privilege for me.
Do I see snapchatting and texting every day? Absolutely. But I feel it is the job of adults to teach kids how to use their devices effectively, and I am working on that all the time. They can live without their phones – but they have to be given something pretty compelling to tear them away. AND they need help understanding respect for their environment – in our case, the community of the classroom.
Ultimately, like all of us, teens want to be liked, they want to be valued for their ideas and for who they are. They want to be known and understood by the adults in their lives, and this can only happen without judgement. Without judgement and with a lot of face to face conversations where we listen and let them try out their ideas, their ever-changing identities, their beliefs.
This is what I know: teens take time.
We must slow down. Talk and listen. Show them how we appreciate their passions, and help them find the language and the avenues to pursue them in healthy ways. As a teacher, once they know I respect and like them, the road is paved for learning. And this process, which is admittedly painstaking with some young people, is what fulfills me.
How would my students feel about being championed by a no longer young English teacher who had them to sit through videos of both David Bowie and Prince this year (some of them rolling their eyes and checking their snapchat while they silently pleaded for it to end)? Would they think I have the right to speak for them?
I don’t know. We should ask them.
Kristine Klassen has been a high school educator for 17 years in Ottawa, Canada. A Guidance Counsellor, English, and Film Studies teacher, she has worked with thousands of young people in the school setting… and two very busy boys at home. You can follow her on Twitter @klassensroom.