Motivating teens: as easy as finding a snowflake that won’t melt.


Waiting for the bread sauce.  Image by Dace Praulins at eltpics 

December 2015’s TeachingEnglish blog topic was motivation. And in particular motivating teens.That is, I guess, ‘my area’ – I’ve been writing on it, working on it and reflecting on it for well over a decade and recently even studying the neuroscience of it. But I’m not an expert, because at the theoretical level it’s as simple as the ice crystals it takes to make a snowflake (ironic tone on ‘simple’). But on another level, it’s only as complex as making bread sauce (which is incredibly easy – see below).

On the snowflake level, all of the following are vital ‘crystals’: emotional engagement; non-intrusive, non-threatening lessons, both in terms of environment and content; genuine personalisation (not ‘talk about the clothes you are wearing’ – see ); meaningful, memorable lessons (ie that produce an emotional response) with a challenge and investment; multiple stimuli for processing and to encourage that emotional response, processing time, and so on and so forth. But here’s the bread sauce: you. The teacher.

The teacher is the key. And you know that. Look back to your own days in school as a teen – what do you remember as motivating? A teaching style? A methodology? A subject? A lesson? Or was it a teacher (also true of ‘demotivating’)? We always say it about History, for example – it can be as dull as dishwater but, if you have a good History teacher, it can come alive. I remember that being true of Geography, Latin, Maths, English… the subject changed wildly, depending on the teacher. A methodology or approach is neither idiotproof nor one-size-fits all – it depends on the teacher who’s putting it into practice. It depends on you.

I’ve been travelling a lot in the last year or so, meeting teachers and listening to what they say. Teachers are more likely to come up at the end of a session and tell you what they liked (or didn’t) than teens come up and tell you about your lessons. Some adult students will also tell you what they like(d) (which is code for what motivates them), so rather than blush and say thank you and move on, make a mental note. What is it they like? Teachers and adult students, admittedly, aren’t teens, but the basics are the same – with teens you just have to add some extra layers on top. (Trifle as well as snowflakes and bread sauce – guess what the date is when I’m writing this!) I would say, on reflection as this year nears its end, and between festive cooking sessions, that, like bread sauce, there are four things you have to put in.

1. Involvement (the milk)

The first stage of your bread sauce is warming up milk. This translates as involvement. YOUR involvement. As a teacher, you need to know your subject in terms of content, and you need to keep yourself up-to-date with methodology, cognitive psychology, linguistics and so on, so that’s one level of involvement, but you also need to be involved in your classes on a personal level. Involved with your students. No, not THAT sort of involved, but remember birthdays, notice everybody, take a moment to speak to each student individually in each class as you go round monitoring (not easy if you have 60 students in your class, ok – but you can get round 20-30 this class, 20-30 next class etc.), and speak about their pets, their new shoes, the logo on their Tshirt etc not about where their homework has been for the last three weeks.

Also, weave your classes as you go, to show you’re listening. Listening to your students (rather than listening at them 😉 ) is all part of involvement – weave their answers into your comments, show you noticed their contributions and that they’re valid (everyone likes validation). Don’t just memorise a lesson and deliver it as a package to four or five different groups. Listening, responding and picking up threads thrown at you by your students and weaving them into lesson are ‘good magic’: ‘As Laurent said earlier…’, ‘this reminds me of Freddy’s idea…’, ‘ok, let’s recap, we had ‘field’, we had ‘donkey’, Charo gave us ‘lonely’…’ and so on. You teach groups but you also teach (or train or give conference sessions to) individuals. Make them matter. Warm the milk.

2. Laughter (the onion)


‘Ogres are like onions; they have layers’ … it’s a Fiona thing. Pic by Puffin Ganin at eltpics

Laugh with students. Not at them, of course. Laughter is good. Earlier this year, I gave about 200 hundred teachers a Post-it each and asked them to write down one idea that they’d picked up at the conference we were at and would be sharing with their colleagues. I noticed a couple of Post-its said something to the effect that ‘You can laugh and learn at the same time’. I think laughter is vital. Not utter hilarity nor irrelevant laughter at the teacher’s ‘obvious wit’ or joke repertoire, but the type of laughter that indicates that the students are enjoying themselves. Positive emotional response. That they are engaged in the learning and are enjoying it. Laughter can reinforce memory – unless the thing they are laughing at eclipses the learning, which is why I don’t mean crack endless irrelevant jokes. ‘Funnies’ should reinforce language or instructions. (If you’ve seen me imitating a helicopter recently, you’ll know what I mean). Laughter, like the onion that you leave to infuse in the warmed milk, adds flavour.

3. Thought (the bread)

Apart from fun activities, good interclass rapport / relationships, engaging content, laughter etc., you also need to encourage students to think. Really think. The cognitive bit. I’ve noticed that serious content or information often ‘sticks’ better in fun classes, partly because if you suddenly do or say something more serious, it stands out. If your lessons are generally quite serious, dry affairs, the meaningful stuff is more likely to get lost amongst the dryness. In a session I’ve been giving recently, apart from interactive activities, audience participation and all the ‘funky stuff’, I throw some statistics on teenagers and mental health into the mix. The ‘harsh reality’ becomes more noticeable, more memorable. Remember the sudden shift in Benigni’s Life is beautiful? All the more memorable for being in amongst laughter. The red coat in Schindler’s List. Contrast. So don’t throw the rules for the present perfect into a dry class on the present perfect – throw them into something fun, so they stand out.

And plan activities that, as well as being fun and engaging, actually force students to use their brains and imaginations on some level. I’m not giving examples here, because… well, there are conferences and articles and blog posts to come and not enough space here. Too much bread (dry and/or serious stuff) makes a lump, not a sauce. But milk and onion with no bread is just….oniony milk. So you need the right amount of bread to bring it all together.

4. Energy and pace (the seasoning) 


Energy ‘n’ pace  Image by Chiew Pang at eltpics

You, the teacher, need energy. You need apples and water energy, not sugar and coffee energy. You need mental and physical energy. I used to be involved in the dogme group. Dogme works. But not when you’re tired. Very little works well when the teacher is tired. Think of conference sessions with a tired, energy-less speaker and then think of speakers who have energy. Not necessarily over-whelming nervous energy, but the sort of energy that allows the speaker or teacher to move around the room, notice everything, be able to pick up on everything, tune into the mood, remember the plan without constantly checking it, smile and encourage, listen, chat…… do all of the above. Like salt, pepper, and nutmeg, the amount of energy you have will vary from day to day, lesson to lesson, but you need it. Bread sauce without seasoning is dull, insipid stuff. Lessons without energy are flat and unmemorable. So look after yourself. Sleep enough, drink water, get exercise, get daylight, smile, laugh, dance and enjoy your job. You need your energy; your students need your energy.

And the motivation in a teen classroom is you.

Happy holidays, happy solstice season, and ‘see’ you in 2016.








Ah, you see?! Some snowflakes don’t melt.

First published on TeachingEnglish, December 2015



Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Motivating teens: as easy as finding a snowflake that won’t melt.

  1. Wonderful post and spot on!

  2. Pingback: Teaching Teens (Energizing Posts) | Wednesday Seminars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s