The Teacher’s Biography and the Adolescent Experience

November 24, 2023

The bulk of my teaching career has been with adolescents. As challenging as it could be at times, I have loved that work. Yet, while I was in the middle of it, I often wondered how it would be when those youngsters would reach their forties and fifties and look back at those turbulent years. Would they remember their pranks, the arrogance of youth, the times they challenged us teachers to respond to them when we ourselves weren’t sure if we were doing the right things? To be a teacher is to be on stage every moment. We teachers are the main actors, and our audience of students watches us, analyzes our actions, makes fun of us, sees if they can outsmart us, and perhaps look up to us as adults who are worthy of emulation. This is what it is to live in the drama of adolescence.

High school teaching is a two-way communication between teacher and student. Although adolescents are not always consciously aware of their style and tone, they may look back on it decades later and ask, Why did I say that? Did I express myself clearly and respectfully? A teacher receives these messages, and depending on events in our own biography, we may be defensive, aggressive, empathetic, sensitive, or supportive. So much depends on our temperament and stage of life, the triggers from our own biography, and never really knowing what works and what doesn’t. These experiences provide high school teachers with opportunities to reflect on our daily interactions with our students. In this way, we are constantly learning to see patterns in our own behavior and attempt to make changes. However, life goes on, and our students leave school into their adult lives. We sometimes wonder if we made any difference in our students’ lives.

Just in the past month, thanks to the internet, I have received messages from five former students, some of whom I would not have expected to hear from. They reflect their gratitude, their interests, and their awareness of how differently they felt when they were teenagers. Now, as mature adults, they see their adolescence from a new perspective. 

When we teachers are in the throes of daily life, we don’t know if anything we do makes a difference. I’m sure many former high school teachers have received expressions of gratitude whether in writing or in person, often from students they least expected to hear from.

Aside from mastering the content of a subject, teachers interact every moment with their students. Once a student asked me why I was in a bad mood when I walked from one room to another. When I thought about it, I realized that I was not in a bad mood, but that I was thinking about my next class. I shared that with the student, and we were able to have a heart-to-heart talk. It made me realize once again how much we are being observed all the time.

On December 2, I’ll be doing a virtual workshop on the theme of the relationship between the teacher’s biography and adolescents. What is the difference between a young teacher who is insecure in their authority and a fifty-year-old teacher who has been through many situations with teenagers? Is the teacher concerned about being liked? Does the teacher want to be a friend to the students? Is the teacher exhausted and impatient? Is the teacher aloof? What triggers in the teacher’s own life propels them to react in a particular way? 

Are there teachers you would like to reach out to who were formative in your own adolescent years? What would you say? What gratitude do you carry even if you haven’t thought of it before?

To read more about the teenage years, see my book Between Form and Freedom, Raising a Teenager, available on Amazon or I can send you a signed copy (send me a note at [email protected]).