Most people I know, when they find out I teach at high school, shudder expressively -“how can you stand it?” they ask with a wry grimace. I get it. Teenagers can be pretty exasperating at times. But I spent these last few days with 27 teenagers on a road trip through the beautiful Bay of Islands to see the history they have learned in our classroom up close, and I can tell you this – we can learn a lot from teenagers.
They have an unashamed joy in little things. The beach above is Opononi, in Hokianga. They knew we were stopping there for lunch but, apart from one student who’d been there before, none had any idea of the incredible beauty of the place. They were delighted; they skipped stones, paddled in the shallows, took endless selfies of smiling faces.
Selfies get a lot of flack but isn’t it great that teenagers, at the height of human developmental insecurity, still want to record each moment with those they love and in places they deem beautiful?
They support each other. I know there’s a massive bullying issue for youth at the moment and for me that’s what makes the majority of teenagers i know, and their care for each other, so special. Words of encouragement and praise drop frequently from their lips. They laugh at each others’ silly jokes. They check in on each other when they know someone’s going through a tough time. Sometimes this takes the form of banter but often it’s a hug, a handshake, a ‘you got this’.
They have open minds. Well, the vast majority of them do and certainly the ones I teach do. It takes longer for some than others, but I haven’t met one who hasn’t been able to change their mind about a long held idea in the face of new evidence or hearing the personal account of others. A large part of this I think is that they believe in justice. Like REALLY believe. They seem to have an innate sense of fairness.
Some teens certainly do roll their eyes and flick on their phones when they have to answer questions from a textbook, but even they really enjoy learning. They want to find out new things. When our guides dropped a nugget of unexpected history on them you could hear a susurration of ‘wows’ around the room.
They appreciate artefacts for what they represent and marvel at the privilege of being in the same room as them.
To be able to see an axe used at the battle of Ruapekapeka, a battle they had studied and the site of which we had visited the day before, captured more than one student who stopped for a moment to bask in the reality of what they had been learning. To see a replica copy of the Treaty of Waitangi was a thrill for me, but I got even more pleasure from watching the awed interest shown by my kids.
They show kindness to their teachers. Maybe this isn’t all teenagers – I do know the students at my school are pretty special; they are the kind of kids to write you effusive thank you notes and express their gratitude and affection openly. Sometimes it’s a blushing awkward boy thanking you in the last lesson of the year before he walks out the door for good because he really wants you to know that he loved your lessons, other times it is students bringing you coffee and offering to make you a hot drink when they can tell you’re tired and headachey from the long drive. The world needs more open hearted kindness like this.
There are things we can, and should, teach them as well:
How to be resilient in the face of setbacks and an uncaring world
How to truly love everything about themselves
How to not give up even if others have made them feel like they are stupid or undeserving
How to not care so much about others’ opinions
How to never get a credit card and to avoid debt
How to really listen to others, not just hear their words
How to be at peace with life
How to change things if they can’t be at peace
So next time you come across a teenager, just remember – they are in a phase of life when they are consolidating their identity – they are finding out who they really are, what they believe, what they no longer hold to be true. This isn’t easy. They’re also gauche and awkward and insecure. Despite all this, they have a passion for living and for the world and for terrible music. So give them a smile and cut them a little slack.