Teaching the teenagers

I moved into a new ward about six weeks ago, and the first week the bishop came by and asked me to take a new temporary calling: teaching gospel doctrine to the older teenagers for a few weeks because the usual teacher was going out of town. He called me back today to ask if I needed to be relieved of duty, and I told him I felt a lot like Lt. John Dunbar in “Dances With Wolves” — abandoned at the “soldier fort,” never to see civilization again.

And the natives are not nearly as friendly as the Sioux.

OK, I’m kind of joking. Actually, the older teenagers (16-18) in the class are quite good — interested in learning, knowledgeable about the scriptures. When you ask them provocative questions, they respond and are interested in discussion.

The younger teenagers (14-15) are, for the most part, very difficult. They pop gum, giggle, crack jokes, steal my notes when I have my back turned, send each other notes, play with their cell phones, laugh hilariously for no reason — complete disruption. They never have serious answers to anything, never read the assignment, never have anything positive to add. The worst part about it is that they are ruining the environment for the rest of the class, and there is no sign of the Spirit in that classroom — the Holy Ghost has apparently fled far, far way back to civilization.

To be quite frank, I love teaching, but there have been times the last few weeks when I have had to stop myself from packing up my stuff and just walking out.

My wife has suggested I take the most disruptive of the younger kids and drag them away to their parents. That’s not my style. Instead, whenever they are causing a scene I call on them to answer questions: “So, Joe, why do you think Ammon and Aaron and the Lamanites keep on passing out — what is the purpose of that? We don’t see people passing out today when overcome by the Spirit — why did it happen to them?” Usually Joe will mumble something about how he doesn’t know. But at least I have him engaged for 15 seconds.

There is, as always, a lesson here. I have had my problems with rebellious teenagers over the years. The lesson I have learned personally is that I can only win them over with humility and long-suffering. I am way too gruff and mean to get away with being the bad guy. Instead, I have to be the very calm, patient good guy, the guy who just takes all of the arrows the teenagers can fire at me. I just need to stand there smiling and try to soldier on until the bitter end.

And maybe over time I can win the natives over. Who knows, maybe I can even learn their language and make friends — John Dunbar did it, why can’t I?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “Teaching the teenagers

  1. What does the 16-18 year old group do when the younger teenagers start goofing off? What would it take for them to be the role models in the class? Is it possible the younger students could start learning from the older students?

  2. Good luck! And bless you.

    When I was that age, living in a small Mormon community in Arizona, our class drove out several teachers, some of them in tears (I, of course, had nothing to do with it). I thought that class of teenagers must have been the exception to the rule until I married and learned that when my wife was that age in an east bench ward in Salt Lake City, her class did the same (she, of course, had nothing to do with it).

    However, with the exception of those two Sunday chool classes, and your own class, I think youth of that age in Sunday School classes throughout the Church are uniformly attentive, focused on the scriptures, obedient and considerate of teachers, and just thrilled to be in Sunday School.

    Again, the Lord’s choicest blessings upon you.

  3. Three things:

    1 — Team teach. Get your spouse, a random YSA, whatever. Two sets of eyes means that a) when you tell their parents what this behavior is like, you have a witness, and b) if you do decide someone is being sufficiently disruptive, you have the freedom to send them away to someplace besides the hall (which is a fun place to be.)

    2 — Kick them out, and kick them out early (and often.) I never lasted more than about two weeks in an environment where other kids were disruptive; at best I tuned it out and at worst I started hiding out in other places (such as the hall.) I uniformly resented the adults for not stopping the behavior. My younger sisters report the same thing. And it stinks, incidentally, to have an adult tell you that while s/he doesn’t intend to do anything to fix a situation, they expect you to take up the slack. I hated it when it was me giving my math partner all the answers so we’d be done before a deadline, and I hated it when I was supposed to be the “good” kid somehow shaming/educating everyone else into behaving properly.

    3 — I don’t know how it works with teenagers, but forced assigned seating has worked miracles with my CTR-8s, if for no other reason than that it’s (correctly) seen as a punishment for poor behavior. They beg not to have to get switched around, and acquiescing (especially if the privilege is swiftly revoked upon noncompliance at least once or twice) has bought me many, many hours of actual participation.

    Uh, I should probably point out that when my mom said we were going to homeschool, in the middle of my sixth grade year, my first thought was “thank goodness, it means I don’t have to be around all those kids anymore.” And my sister gave up entirely on church classes years ago, thanks exactly to this phenomenon. When class members lack respect for what’s happening in the room, it’s not only the actively disruptive (or obviously disengaged) who suffer.

    And I definitely recommend returning class members, teenagers and older kids especially, directly to the custody of their parents. I’ve only had to pull that once per class: they would rather suggest (really quite horrific) punishments than be taken to Dad in Elder’s Quorum.

  4. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have when you teach the youth. Your patience and forbearance can end up bearing significant fruit.

    Many years ago, I was called to teach the older teens. Up until then, I had no interaction with LDS youth not in college. Teaching these high schoolers opened my eyes: how wonderful they are, and how difficult they have it in this world.

    Fast forward a few years, and I begin adding people I recognize to my friends list on Facebook. One guy adds me, his name looks familiar but I don’t remember him. According to his friends list, he is friends with many kids I taught, so I figure he might be a student.

    He contacts me by phone and we start talking. He remembered me from when I taught him (and I taught for maybe two or three months). He told me that After coming back from his mission, he left the Church. His family, who were active members until he left for his mission, delighted in his departure from the Church. But he and I talked about it.

    If it were not for the fact that I taught him once, and that he trusted me, and that he believed he could talk with me, it would have been more difficult for him to return to the Church (which he is now in the process of doing).

    Be firm, caring, and spiritually focused. They may not need you now as a spiritual adviser, but they may need you later. And for that matter, what you teach now may prick and reform them later.

    Your students are lucky. I hope you can find a way to engage their attention.

  5. I quit attending SS as a teenager because of the discipline issues and teachers’ and leaders’ unwillingness to assert control. This was easy to do before the block schedule and we lived in Utah where walking home after Priesthood Meting was easy enough.

    I haven’t kept perfect track but most of the troublemakers are no longer active. Perhaps a bit of a shaking back then would have served a useful purpose.

    I suggest that you be adamant about discipline and that you ask the Bishop why he phrased his question to you the way he did and what he will do to support you in getting control of the class up to and including asking disruptive class members to leave.

    BTW, my wife teaches this class in our ward. The first couple of weeks were difficult but by and large the youth are responding to her firmness and the rich and meaty content of her lessons.

  6. Get rid of the cell phones and assign (or threaten to assign) seating Geoff, both worked wonders for me. I teach the thirteen-year-olds, and if they bring phones to class, they know if I can see them then they have to be turned off. Otherwise they have to leave. And at thirteen they still don’t like assigned seating, maybe you’re younger kids won’t like being divided up between the older ones?

  7. Instead, I have to be the very calm, patient good guy, the guy who just takes all of the arrows the teenagers can fire at me. I just need to stand there smiling and try to soldier on until the bitter end.

    Yeah, you’re dead. Assign seats. If someone misbehaves, identify the miscreant clearly and call them on it. Have consequences and execute them. Also, tighten up the curriculum so its relevant to them and interesting — talk loud and move fast unless the spirit directs otherwise.

    This is a web page I recommend for new teachers. Some of it applies to church classes as well.

  8. Great comments, all. I agree with the assigned seating comments. I also agree on the talking loud and engaging the students. Not dead yet, but it’s looking grim on the prairie.

  9. The humiliation of being returned to Dad or Mom for being disruptive will have a positive effect, especially if followed by a “showing of greater love” by you as the teacher next time.

    Even better might be the neat trick I learned from President Monson’s stories years ago:

    Identify the worst miscreant, arrange to meet with this person privately. During the meeting, express your hurt feelings and pain about the state of the class. At the right moment, ask the miscreant to help you keep the class in order so that the Spirit can be there.

    As Pres. Monson noted, after he agreed to help keep the class in order, there were no more problems. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized that *he* was the instigator and that the teacher was wise indeed.

  10. Are there enough adults in the ward to call another teacher and split the class? Why have a Sunday school class with students ranging from 13 to 18? There’s no advantage to having a larger class–and there’s a huge difference (by any measure you choose) between 13-14 year-olds and 17-18 year-olds.

    Then, make sure you get assigned to the older group!

  11. I am 18 years old and I was the troublemaker for most of my years to date. Sometimes I still am.

    I’m trying to piece together my thoughts so maybe I can be of some help.

    Most of the suggestions here so far are like fighting against the youth. Changing their seats, sending them out of class, or sending them to their parents. Youth from 14-18 are not “kids” and they won’t appreciate being called or treated like one. If anybody questions that statement, you need to talk to some of them, even at 14 years old. Don’t forget how old Joseph Smith was when he was trying to figure out what religion to join.

    The last thing you want is for the youth to be your enemy. They will stop coming. I’ve seen it before. It may seem like a good things at first because they aren’t there to disrupt the class anymore, but in the long term they may go down various dark paths that you could have led them away from.

    You need to know them, to be their friends. Participation is one of the most important things. You’ll find you’ll be learning from them almost without exception. Ask them a lot of questions and not word for word from the book. I don’t even know why they put those questions in there because they always say the answer right before. Ask for personal examples and stories.

    At those ages, and a lot of times at most ages, the youth want to maintain a good image so it’s hard to get them to open up and express spiritual experiences or emotions. I think that is one of the tricks. Something neat my old young men’s president did a year or so ago was ask everybody to bring in one thing that meant a lot to them and share it with the “quorum.” I got to know my fellow young men more even though one is my brother and the other I’ve known for 10 years. I know that we all loved it and grew closer.

    Ultimately, sending a kid out of class won’t help much, it’ll usually result in resentment. Sending a kid to their parents will leave them feeling betrayed. If you change their seats they won’t want to come anymore.

    Many of those youth have testimonies and they have had spiritual experiences. They all have questions and insights. If you get them to open up you won’t have these problems anymore. Most of them should be able to recognize the spirit and in their hearts they know the importance of reverence. Tap into that.

    Sorry if I’ve been a little long winded. Hopefully I got at least some of my feelings across.

  12. Somewhat in the spirit of D&C 109:7 and D&C 90:15, I’ll share this. In one of my MBA classes, we learned a way to build relationships of trust (called “building high-value relationships” in the class), build rapport, and establish an understanding of a person, by asking a question often abbreviated as WIMI: “What is most important…?”

    So you can ask:
    What is most important to you about this doctrine or experience or teaching?
    What is most important that you feel or learn or experience?

    You not only understand them and learn their values, but they feel valued. Additionally, a connection or link is established between you and the student.

  13. Jonathan, I’m learning every week that your approach is more effective — the last two weeks the trouble-makers have calmed down, and I seem to have earned some respect.

    I’ve noticed a lot of teachers feel like they have to be the teenagers’ babysitters, telling them to stop slouching, straighten up, etc. That is exactly NOT my approach. I treat them like adults for the most part. The only thing I do that I don’t ever do with adults is tell them to quiet down when they get rowdy and are not paying attention.

    Anyway, my approach seems to be working for me. Jonathan, thanks for your suggestions. I will be spending a lot more time in the coming weeks getting to know them one-on-one. Every time I’ve done that, it’s helped a lot.

  14. That’s ideal. 🙂 I’m excited for you. I hope you keep us updated.

    One of my coolest sunday school teachers took the class to a professional wrestling show one time. LoL. 😉 Not that that’s something you should do. Hehe.

  15. I agree with jjohnson, have them give up cell phones at the door. At one of my son’s secular extracurricular activities, there’s an in-box on a table by the door where everyone has to drop their phone. It sets the tone for focus.

    My husband has many of the same problems in his youth SS class. He has gotten some traction by talking to the worst offenders outside of class and asking for their help in improving the situation (works for a week or two). Youth don’t respond well to being humiliated or called out for behavior in front of their peers.

    He also has, reluctantly, resorted to bringing treats every non-Fast Sunday. They get them at the end of class if they’ve been attentive. (Fruit or cheese & crackers some weeks, it’s not always sweets).

  16. My Sunday School class is the essence of evil, I swear. Those who don’t skip, only come for the promise of little candy presents. We barely get past the first five minutes of a lesson without someone screaming something, or someone else start talking about TV. (I’m guilty of Olympics announcements and texting in class, sometimes) Our teachers think it’s rude to ‘separate’ us into places where we should be separated.
    One of our teachers quit last Sunday because he was so fed up with our class.
    Another one of our teacher’s has a mantra that is “Kind. Forgiving. Loving. Ignoring.”

    You can’t let teenagers walk all over you, it’ll just teach them to walk over others. Move them! Drag them to their parents.

    Or have the Bishop come in and teach a lesson on Reverence.

    I have to go to talk to someone about Sunday School already. Church is a time for spiritual growth, not play time.

  17. When I taught the Teens we made a truce…they be attentive to the lesson and behave appropriately and contribute real (not quacky, trite, expected answers or goofy answers), I would strive to have good lessons, no preaching/lectures…but I would keep the less short…about 1/2 the time allotted 45 usualy, so a sweet 20 to 25 min lesson and then they could visit the last minutes. We later gave 10 minutes at the beginning of class for visiting, what have you done this week, getting to know you, what are you worried about at the Start of class time..20-25 min less followed and then ‘free time again.” This really worked very well…after Sacrament meeting’s quiet stretch they want to catch up with their friends, etc.
    I got to know them all better, too and could start relating what they shared to the lessons and make it more relevant. They also sat on the floor instead of chairs..IF they wanted to. Too casual? maybe maybe in some folks eyes, but the the distruption and disrespect, etc. stopped.

  18. I just started teaching the “to be” 15 and 16 year olds. Too many 15 year olds and not enough 16 year olds make for a too big combined class.

    As I read through these comments, I started to realize there is really one thing that can get through to these youth: love. Yes, it IS all about love. The love I have for them, which for some is easy since I’v known some of them before they were born. There are others, however, who more difficult to love. But that is exactly what they need to feel, that an adult truly cares about them and loves them. It really is true that they won’t care what you say until they know that you care what THEY say. And feel. Even if it’s acting out behavior that tries the most patient of souls.

    Does this mean tolerating throwing tithing envelopes to a Bishopric member across the room? Or making silly faces? Or talking when I’m talking? No, it doesn’t. There has to be order or the they will miss an opportunity for a spiritual experience. But they will really miss the opportunity if they feel the teacher doesn’t really care or love them.

    Unfortunately, it’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do, to truly care and love them! I’ll be listening carefully during General Conference for ways to increase my Christ-like love for these students. They certainly need it!

  19. Well, I can relate to you. I don’t know the perfect answer, but I do feel there are many teens that are there because mom and dad said they have to be. A break down of teaching in the home. Unfortunately, there are a few that acutally do want to learn. We are told to try to invite the spirit of the Holy Ghost, but the spirit can no be in attendance and teach if there is no spirit present. I believe this is no fault of the teacher. I was talking to my wife, and I think I’ll try to separate 2 rows of seats further from each other. I will invite all of them to listen, share, and learn, but for those that wish and chose to be less attentive, let them be, but let them be separated a little further, so those that actually want to learn can at least hear.


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