Teaching teenagers and getting to know them is fascinating, and often makes me think about my own teenage years, and how defining they were for me.
When I was a teenager, I was extremely performance-oriented. I felt that I had to be the best student in class or even in school. What I enjoyed most about school were the exams, especially those that were more difficult than usual.
At the same time, I was extremely afraid to embarrass myself in any way. For this reason, I almost never said anything in class, even if I had elaborate answers and contributions to discussions in my head, because I was always fearing that people would laugh at me. At some point, I started to have problems to read texts aloud to the class out of fear of making a mistake or sounding strange. I began to choke on my words. I remember thinking every morning about in which class a teacher might ask me to read, and dreading it. I was not bullied, but I bullied myself.
I wonder how the teachers saw me. New teachers were usually surprised by my test results and asked me to participate more. I said yes, and I wanted to improve, but I continued to be silent.
I don’t think I looked motivated in class, because most of the time I was either afraid, or then started to get very bored, because things were moving so slowly and it is very boring if you do not participate, mostly. I did not know, as I know now, how much teachers can see how you feel in your face, and how easy it is for them to see an unhappy face as a judgement of their teaching.
I had three friends, but if they were absent, I felt totally alone and foreign in my class. I almost never talked to anyone except those friends, and since they were all female, I practically never talked to a male student, which in retrospect seems strange. When the friends were not around during lunch, I was horrified, because I did not dare to sit with the other students in my class, and I ate somewhere alone and was so ashamed of being seen alone that I almost cried. In breaks, I would sometimes hide on the toilet if my friends were not around.
In short, I had relatively serious social anxiety as a teenager, and I had no idea about it, and neither my teachers nor my parents ever realized this. Even when it became impossible for me to read, no teacher every checked on me. Some had mercy and stopped asking me, others did not care. I never really expected a teacher to ask what was going on, although I did hope for it.
Of course, all this meant that I did not really learn to discuss with others, or handle disagreements, or risking embarrassment by saying my opinion, or interact with different people. In fact, the thing that surprised me most about real adult life was how different people are, and to this day standing up for myself, and navigating disagreement, especially with self-confident people, is very hard for me.
And now I look at my students, and observe how many of them interact with each other warmly and well, and are not afraid to ask stupid questions. But in each class I also see 2-3 unhappy teenagers with long faces, and I notice that they annoy me a little bit, because it is hard to be enthusiastic as a teacher when I look at them. So I ignore them.
And that, of course, is what my teachers probably did with me. I guess in some ways I tried to be the best student to get them to notice, and like me anyway, to show them that internally, I cared, even if I was unable to show it in class.
In our only lecture about psychology that we are required to take as teachers, we had, to my disappointment, only one single lesson about special difficulties and needs that students might have, and the only two that were mentioned were anorexia and being highly gifted, as if no other problems existed. What if teachers would learn to recognize problems like depression, social anxiety, and if dominant kids terrorize the rest of the class? Why is it that we teach children all sorts of obscure knowledge, but not that if they are perpetually unhappy or scared, someone professional outside of school and of their family can help them? Why do we insist on people learning to understand the details of chemical processes but totally don’t mind if they are years behind their peers in terms of self-confidence and speaking in front of others, like I was? Increasingly I see in how many ways school failed to prepare me for life, and instead fueled and strengthened my obsession with performance and test results, and gave me the idea that if I only worked very hard, I could achieve anything without actually having to stand up and risk embarrassment in front of others. This way of thinking got me through a Master’s degree in Physics easily. But now I know that is not how real life works. At all.
I think a teacher that would have taken the time to talk to me for 15 minutes, and who would have been trained in recognizing social anxiety, could have made an immense difference. So why is it that we are not trained in doing exactly that, and instead spend hours and hours in learning yet another obscure party trick in how to make a lesson exciting, in the vain hope of making even those two sad and unhappy faces in the last row light up?