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Teaching Adolesence

Reflection on my role in the classroom: A decade in review

If your schedule is anything like mine, summer provides the time and the space to really reflect on my teaching. I step back, read the evaluations again, and take stock of what went well, and what I can improve in the future. I also revisit things that I tried in previous semesters, which is what led me to the following reflection.

When I first started teaching adolescent development in graduate school, I still felt a little like an adolescent myself (or maybe an emerging adult). In my first few semesters, I used myself as a “case study” for the class to spark discussion on how to define adolescence and adulthood. First, I asked them if they considered themselves adolescents or adults and why (which I still do every semester). Then using the “criteria” generated from that discussion, I asked them to categorize me. “Am I am adult? How do you know?” This always sparked really interesting discourse. They seemed to want to categorize me as an adult (I was, after all, their teacher)—but they struggled to give “evidence” to support that decision. They couldn’t easily ascertain if I had met any of the traditional criteria of adulthood by looking at me (e.g., was I married? did I have kids?), and it was even harder for them to discern if I met any of the criteria that most adolescents consider to be markers of adulthood (e.g., was I financially independent? did I take responsibility for my actions?). The debate was sometimes a little embarrassing for me, but it did spark valuable discussion about the definitions of adulthood and how we apply them, so I felt the pedagogical value was worth a little embarrassment.

After a long hiatus, I decided to reprise this activity in my class recently (although partly in jest)… and when I asked them if I was an adult my question was met with laughter. Not the under-your-breath kind of laughter, but a chorus of out-loud laughter. It has been about a decade since I first used this activity, but their response still made me think. Am I too old to even be considered an emerging adult? (Ok, yes). But, does that mean I am now too old to really relate to my students, and effectively teach adolescent development? Am I too old to really understand their perspective, and to present issues from an “insiders” perspective?

Although years of reading, researching, and teaching about adolescence has since usurped my own adolescent experience—my memories of it are still salient to me, and that aids me in taking an insiders’ perspective on the topic. My experiences also help me build rapport with my students. We were all adolescents once right? We have this shared experience, and that is a place to start. Some things may have changed (e.g., Facebook), and my pop-culture references occasionally garner blank stares, but the essence of the adolescent experience is still very similar. In fact, without a doubt, embracing my inner adolescent has helped me be a more effective teacher of adolescent development. And that almost makes my awkward adolescent years worth it… right?

Finding the right balance of professionalism and sharing of your self in a genuine way in the classroom is always a challenge. But it is a challenge that is worth attempting. It helps the students see you as a person, it helps keep them engaged, and it helps to apply and explain material in a way that students can relate to. So, this summer I encourage you to reflect. And perhaps get on Facebook, and watch a little TV, so that you can update your pop-culture references.

By Renee Paltz Dennison

Image by majesticca/AdobeStock

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