A Letter to Teachers: Stop telling teens that you don’t like them!

Excerpt from a text message conversation I had with a 17 year old friend:

There are so many things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it’s all too familiar. I’ve heard teachers, administrators, counselors and others say things like this. Basically dismissing things that teens like. I don’t know what prompted the teacher to make this idiotic declaration, but I don’t think it matters.

YA isn’t a genre. It’s a category. YA can be science fiction like Ender’s Game, historical fiction like The Book Theif  and Code Name Verity, realistic fiction like Catcher in the Rye, fantasy like Harry Potter or (my husband argues that Frodo was an adolescent Hobbit so The Lord of the Rings qualifies in his mind)  or any other kind of story. Like the classics that English teachers have deemed “acceptable” or worthy of reading and of study. If you’re an English teacher, I have to think that you enjoy at least one genre of literature or you wouldn’t be teaching English. YA can be literary like A.S King and Jason Reynolds, it can be hilarious like Jesse Andrews and E. Lockhart, it can be touching and important like Jaqueline Woodson and Matt de la Peña, romantic like Gayle Forman and John Green, or anything else that “adult” books can be. There is great literary YA and there is silly, goofy, popcorn YA that’s just fun to read. The best of it makes teens, or the teen selves inside of adults, feel understood, heard and less alone.

What is YA? YA is a subset of books written about teenage characters and deals with the issues, problems, thrills and triumphs of teenhood. So, these are the books that speak most clearly and directly to a high school teacher’s students.  These are the books that your students want to read, choose to read and in which they find there are people who understand what they’re going through and in reading them, your teen students feel less alone.

So, what are you saying to your high school students when you say you don’t like YA? You might as well stand in front of a group of teens and say, “I don’t like you people, and I don’t care about what’s important to you. I am certainly not going to spend my time learning about what’s important to you or remembering what used to be important to me.” What a betrayal!

The last text is the most disappointing. “She seemed so promising,” meaning that up until that point, this teacher had the potential to be trusted and respected – maybe even liked.  She squandered it all on that one self indulgent statement, “I don’t like YA.”  The student who may have heard her the loudest and who sent me this text is one of the all time great people in the world. She’s curious, a voracious reader, has a wicked sense of humor, and is terrifically smart.  She’s just the kind of student this teacher and all of us wish we could clone and put into every one of our classes, but she’s been turned off by a teacher who dismisses the very books, writers, characters and worlds that mean the most to her.  I doubt that her teacher realizes just what she’s done.

There are plenty of middle and high school teachers who genuinely don’t like teenagers. Here’s a news flash – those teenagers know you don’t like them. Apparently, this teacher went on to say that she spends all day long “dealing with teenagers” and has no interest in thinking about them outside of her job. Even if she feels that way, WHY WOULD YOU TELL THEM THAT? What, you’ll talk to them when they finally grow up? Guess what, they won’t speak to you by then. They’ll realize that you’re one less person who is willing to help them, listen to them and take them seriously and they won’t forget.

Nobody forgets how it felt when an adult cast them aside and made them feel unimportant. Think for a minute. You can probably remember every adult who cast you aside and told you literally or effectively to “grow up” or to “get over it” or some other dismissive and damaging message.

Now, think about the adults who actually cared about you and listened to you when you were struggling.  I remember mine.  I am still close to a few of them: Mr. Wilson, the greatest US History teacher in the history of teaching, who let us eat lunch in his classroom every day and talk about whatever we wanted and just be with our friends in a safe and comfortable place.  It was a great physical and emotional place that he held for us and that we cherished.  He would never dismiss whole vast swaths of books, music, or anything else that we loved.  He remembered being young.  He was curious.  He was always too busy talking about all of his own passions for plants, and music and old films.  He saw us – really saw us.  We trusted and loved him.

I don’t know why some teachers, administrators, counselors and others like to be dismissive of the things that teenagers love.  It’s mean-spirited and counterproductive.  Meet teens where they are and find out what they love.

It’s the only way that we’ll ever be able to speak to the teens – not at them and that is the only way that they will ever trust us enough to tell us what’s important.

8 thoughts on “A Letter to Teachers: Stop telling teens that you don’t like them!

  1. I hear what you’re saying. As a secondary English teacher, I have sadly come across too many who are quick to cast aside teenagers. I have such a soft spot for them and went into teaching because I wanted to work with teens. I am at least one English teacher who loves reading YA literature (I have a rather large collection), and there are plenty of other like me around (at least I know quite a few). Every reading list I hand out includes YA books, and I always have my students my book recommendations to add to my reading list for the year. Whilst I won’t read all of them, I do read most of them. We all want to read stories where we find ourselves represented, past or present.

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    • Yes! That is a very good point. There are many of us who love teens and who love YA. I read mostly YA books at this point, and have found that good books are good books whether they’re picture books or very erudite esoteric novels.

      Finding any book that resonates with you is such a gift, so why eliminate a whole category of books that might strike a chord?

      Teens need to more adults like you who listen.

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        • Exactly. I had a HS Literature teacher who hated American literature. No one interpreted that to mean she hated Americans or that we as American students should hate that literature as well. It was her personal preference. Pretending that we all like or dislike the same things for politeness’ sake or to keep kids from ‘feeling bad’ gives them little opportunity to develop the coping skills needed to deal with interpersonal conflicts as teens and adults. Certainly, its helpful if teachers like their students but it isn’t necessarily a requirement. You can work with someone, learn with someone, and even teach someone without liking the same things they like. In fact, that can make for even more interesting and reflective discussion!

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          • I agree that you can absolutely have a vigorous discussion about preferences and merits of literature. Of course I don’t advocate pretending to like or dislike anything as “pretending” is transparent to teens or children. However, I don’t think that they get practice with coping skills if they are dismissed. Teachers who dismiss students’ interests, passions and preferences as unimportant do their students a great disservice and teach teens that their opinions don’t matter.

            Teachers who discuss books, authors and ideas with their students are just what students need. If a teacher doesn’t like their students and their students know that, then in my experience, it’s impossible to have a productive discussion. I think that we agree on more than we disagree here. Having disparate life experiences and taste does make for more interesting discussions and classes.

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  2. Not all English teachers feel this way. I’m an English teacher who has taught both high school and middle school, and not only do I like YA, I write it, too! Yep, that’s right. I’m a YA author AND an English teacher. Your friend and her favorite books are welcome in my classroom. 🙂

    In fact, I’m doing my doctorate program in curriculum and instruction right now, and I’m writing two different papers on YA literature in the classroom this semester. One paper will focus on the use of YA books as part of the reading curriculum in middle schools and high schools, and the other will focus on the impact of including multicultural YA books in the classroom.

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  3. I would have felt so much more accepted in high school if someone had bothered to take the time to say, “Hey, what you appreciate is legitimate.” Teachers, friends. YA is not just a good category, but it’s so helpful. And ANYONE can learn from it! Thank you for this post.

    Also… 😦

    “(my husband argues that Frodo was an adolescent Hobbit so The Lord of the Rings qualifies in his mind)”

    I mean, Frodo was 50 years old when he set off to destroy the ring. (He turned 33 on Bilbo’s 111th birthday and then Gandalf took 17 years researching the ring and coming to the conclusion that it WAS the One.) Fnerr. :c

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