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8 Lessons I Learned From Teaching Teenagers That Apply to Travel

Australia Student Work
by Steph Glaser Aug 4, 2014
1. Nobody cares that you knew the place when it was            [more ‘authentic,’ undiscovered, etc].

High-school students don’t care that the riff in Rihanna’s “SOS” originally came from Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Mentioning that I grew up during the 1980s and listened to the original on a Walkman doesn’t impress teenagers. Not at all. It’s also not a big deal to them that I composed my papers on a typewriter and used whiteout to ‘delete’ my mistakes. What they take in? “Blah, blah, blah, I’m old.”

Nostalgia’s great, but sharing details in a tone that makes everything sound better, more authentic, or harder in your days of yore doesn’t fly. Basically, teenagers can’t relate, and you end up sounding somewhat bitter. You lose them at, “When I…”

Teens and travelers aren’t so different. Most people don’t want to hear that you experienced the cooler or more ‘real’ version of            before tourists came and ruined it. Also, mentioning that you traveled before the internet and travel apps were around always seems to elicit glazed expressions.

2. It’s okay to crack; just remember to say you’re sorry.

It happens. It’s a hot day; I’m tired; I’m an American exchange teacher, and my Australian ninth graders aren’t listening to directions. Then, one kid relentlessly tells me how “bloody unfair” I am for taking points off his assignment because he didn’t have his name on it. I react by saying: “Just put your f**king name on the paper, Zack!”

At the end of class, after I apologized for my outburst to Zack and the rest of my ninth graders, they responded like this: “No dramas, Miss, we say f**k all the time.” And Zack’s response was: “Actually, Miss, I was being a bit of a wanker.”

The same goes for traveling. Experiencing heinous humidity, jet lag, miscommunications, missed trains, and culture shock can build up and prompt us to lose it on someone, whether it be a travel companion, a train ticketing clerk, or a street vendor. It happens — we’re human. But we shouldn’t forget to apologize for a travel-weary tirade.

3. Your attitude sets the tone in your classroom.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made with a class was starting off the year with lots of sarcasm. Teenagers can dish it out, but they can’t always take it. It was challenging to establish trust with my students or get a convivial vibe going, since they thought I was always making fun of them.

A trip is what you make of it. Travel is an adventure, and you’ll encounter the unexpected regularly. Mishaps and misadventures are bound to happen, and it’s our attitude with these experiences that can make or break the journey. For example, if you end up in the wrong car on the TGV from Paris to the south of France, and the only seating option is a cramped, metal slatted luggage rack, laugh and take a selfie.

4. Just because you know how to flush a toilet in your own country doesn’t mean you’ll know how to do it in another.

As an exchange teacher, I thought I’d have no problem teaching English in Australia. I’d taught in the US for nine years. Americans and Aussies speak the same language and share the same semantics and grammar rules, right? Not always.

Australians, I discovered, have one main connotation for “period,” and that would be menstruation — not a punctuation mark that ends a sentence. A “full stop” does that in Oz. That’s problematic for an American English teacher who’s trying to teach kids to avoid run-on sentences by using proper punctuation. You can imagine what kind of reaction you get after telling Aussie eighth graders they need to work on their commas and periods.

5. Laughing at yourself is key.

A teacher will rarely survive without a sense of humor. Making mistakes and having embarrassing moments are inevitable (see lesson 4 above). Whether it’s accidentally spitting on an overhead projector and having my saliva magnified on screen, or beginning my syllabus with the typo (“Pubic Speaking” in bold letters), I’ve made some mistakes that deserve to be made fun of. The kids are definitely going to make fun of me; I’ve learned it’s better to bring the ridicule on myself.

Humor is an international icebreaker. You inquire about rooms at a Rotterdam hotel and find out the rates are charged by the hour. Instead of saying you’re very “tired” (cansada) in Spanish, you inform total strangers you’re very “married” (casada). Find the humor, and laugh with the locals.

6. It usually doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned.

I can spend hours trying to perfect a lesson plan only to discover that it crashes and burns in the classroom. Or circumstances beyond my control put the kibosh on it. For example, I’ve organized an online scavenger hunt only to have the internet go down indefinitely.

According to a study by Thomas L. Good and Jere E. Brophy, authors of Looking into Classrooms, teachers are confronted with 1,000 decision points per day. Consequently, sometimes I have to jettison my original agenda and wing it.

Being flexible is essential for successful travel. If I miss getting off the ferry at Mykonos because I’m taking zillions of photos of the island’s stunning whitewashed buildings, I know it’s time to check out what my Greece guidebook says about Tinos, the next stop.

7. Sometimes you have to prove yourself.

Teenagers are a tough crowd. As inherent eye rollers and loud sighers, they’re not afraid to let it be known when I’m not reaching them. It’s important to pay attention to what they already know, to find out what they need to know, to listen to feedback, and to take into account their learning styles.

Teenagers, naturally, will size you up. So will travelers and locals. It may take a while to win over a new group of people. You may be up against negative stereotypes of your nationality. But being receptive to people, trying to communicate, and learning the local customs will go a long way.

8. You need to care.

Teaching teenagers would be miserable if I didn’t like them. They can be insufferable, dramatic, feral, and all-around nightmares, but, of course, those pulsating hormones have something to do with it. Also, some students have horrific lives at home. School can be a safe haven, and I know I might be the only person who acknowledges them. Getting to know students, along with valuing their thoughts, opinions, and contributions, is part of the deal.

Finally, it’s critical to have passion for what I teach. If I’m not enthusiastic about Gothic literature from the 1800s or free-verse poetry, chances are my students aren’t going to be psyched on those topics either.

With regard to travel, why spend time in a location if you don’t care about the land, language, culture, or people? Yes, some places can be challenging and, initially, may leave an unfavorable impression, but it’s still important to be open-minded and give the area a chance. Do some research, learn some facts, and practice useful phrases that’ll help you appreciate a place.

And about the passion for travel — if you don’t have it, it’s probably time to book a return ticket home.

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