12 Tips for Teaching Teens

For middle school general music teachers, the difference between success and failure lies in connecting with, motivating, and managing adolescents. NAfME member Elizabeth Ann McAnally says that techniques from elementary school don’t carry over to working with unpredictable adolescents. In fact, “what works for Student A on Monday won’t work for Student A on Tuesday, or for Student B on any day of the week.”

Here are a few tips she’s picked up through trial and error:

  1. Talk like an adult, but remember they’re still children. Teens hate to be patronized, so use the same tone you do with adults. But still give step-by-step directions—including putting their names on the paper.
  2. Be proactive, not reactive. Don’t leave yourself to figure out how to respond to a situation on the spot. Anticipate potential problems, and plan their solutions. Remind students often of expectations and consequences, and apply consequences consistently.  Adjust your plans for possible logistical problems.
  3. Respond to the small stuff. If they can get away with mild attempts at rebellion, students may try getting your attention with more serious misbehavior. Make them throw out their gum, insist on full participation, and correct them for inappropriate language like “shut up.”
  4. Encourage appropriate self-expression. Allow students to do extra-credit projects on favorite recording artists, ask how they feel about a listening selection (after listening), and ask open-ended questions to encourage creative thinking. Insist that all opinions be treated with respect. Students will learn that their views are valued and how to treat others’ opinions with respect.
  5. Find the hidden reason for misbehavior. Students would rather get in trouble for breaking the rules than for being unable to complete an assignment. Be aware of students’ special needs, and adjust plans accordingly. Reward students for effort and make sure your directions are very clear.
  6. Hold your ground today, and tomorrow will be better. Adolescents hate giving in to the teacher in front of peers. However, stand firm, regardless of the student’s protestations. Tomorrow, the student may be able to meet your expectations without embarrassment or feel that rebellion just isn’t worth it.
  7. Beware of free time. Students are extremely creative in thinking up what to do during free time. Save yourself the dismay, clean up, and follow through on misbehavior, and keep your students very, very busy.
  8. Show sincere appreciation. Students want to be acknowledged when they do the right thing. Rather than singling out a student in front of the class, direct your compliment to a group of students, or use a hit-and-run method: speak to the student privately at the end of the lesson, then immediately send him or her to class. This doesn’t put the student on the spot.
  9. Model the behavior you desire. If you’re sarcastic and impatient, students will be sullen and resentful. When you use an angry voice or yell, conflict will escalate. The more we yell, the less our students listen and the more amused they can become.
  10. Graciously admit when you’re wrong. If you don’t, students can’t wait to prove you wrong. By admitting an error, apologizing, and moving on, we show our students how we learn from our mistakes.
  11. Make it fun. With testing and pressure to excel, students welcome singing a silly song for fun or a flash card game to review treble clef notes. Plan activities with active participation, demonstrate that being a musician is enjoyable, relax, and smile. Your students will appreciate it.
  12. Two short activities are better than one long one. Middle schoolers have short attention spans, so plan minilessons with careful transitions. If an activity is too long, students won’t remember what you said.

“Teaching middle school general music can be exciting and fulfilling,” McAnally says. “In my opinion, it represents our last, best hope in reaching students who are not already involved in a performance program.” She hopes these tips will help you make general music a meaningful experience for your middle school students.

Elizabeth Ann McAnally teaches at Wilson Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to writing “Motivating Urban Music Students” in Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom: A Guide to Survival, Success, and Reform, she rote Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day!

–Linda C. Brown, May 27, 2009, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)