4 Ways to Refresh Your Empathy for Teens


It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a teenager—whether because of the passage of time or the amazing power of the mind to block out unpleasant memories. But if you take some time to return to a teen perspective, it can be hugely beneficial for your teaching practice.

Here are four ways you can refresh your memory without having to break out the old middle school photos.

1. Chaperone a middle school dance.

The other night, our school had its big End of the Year Dance. The kids were ramped up to a level 10—not just because it was the end of the year, but because for many of them, this was the last chance they had to get that special dance.

I had students busting into my classroom throughout the day because they thought we were selling out of tickets. (This has never happened. It’s not Coachella. I can just print some more.) But it didn’t matter to them that this was just a dance or that there would be plenty more. To them, this was THE MOST IMPROTANT EVENT OF THEIR LIVES.

I can’t remember much about my middle school dances—again, selective memory—but watching my students that night, in all their sweat and glory, I couldn’t help but root for them. It’s not easy asking someone to dance, or to not be asked to dance at all.

They demonstrated courage, resilience, and some pretty sweet dance moves whenever a fast song came back on.

2. Watch a TV show about kids.

Most of the shows that adults like are about other adults doing terrible things. Try taking a break from all of the carnage that is “Game of Thrones,” and relive some of the carnage that was 7th grade.

If you haven’t watched "Fresh Off the Boat", a sweet sitcom about a Chinese-American family trying to figure out suburban Orlando, now is the best time to catch up. Not only will you remember what it was like to be in middle school, but since it takes place in the 90’s, many of us teachers can relate. It’s like "The Wonder Years," but with hip-hop.

3. Read a Young Adult book.

YA contemporary fiction is an incredible genre, and I try to read at least one or two of the more popular titles each year. Often quick and engrossing reads— perfect for the summer—these books help you remember what it’s like to be a teen, with all the heartache, angst, and excitement…and none of the vampires.

Try: What We Saw, Eleanor and Park, The Crossover, or ask your students for some suggestions.

4. Check out a teen podcast.

"Eliza Starting at Sixteen" is a podcast by Eliza Rubin, a fun and open high school junior from New York. Her mother, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has a popular podcast of her own, so she’s learning from the best.

Each week, Eliza muses about what’s stressing her out, what she’s currently obsessed with, and whatever she thinks adults should know about teens. It’s like getting a teenager to sit down talk to you for fifteen minutes, which isn’t always easy to do.

With the majority of our professional development revolving around standards, assessments, and learning, it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re here—for the kids! And in order to help them learn, we need to remember where they’re coming from.