I wildly underestimated the maturity of 12-year-olds!

I’ve never taught a class like this before. Seven students, fresh from passing the PET exam, aiming to achieve the full B2 level within the next two years. They always arrive on time for class, are incredibly polite, work impressively well with each other, and have fantastic memories to boot. On paper, it’s my dream class. There’s just one small detail to reckon with: they’re 12 years old.

I knew, going in, that it wasn’t going to be easy. Their teacher from the 2016/2017 academic year had briefed me on the challenges of preparing such a young class for such a high-level goal. Even one of the students’ mothers had warned me about the potential pitfalls: how the students weren’t used to explicit language focus, struggled to focus on the same task for a long period of time, and didn’t know how to take the initiative in their own learning. I knew all this going in. Well, I should have known all this going in. 

My first lesson with them was, by my own standards, mildly disastrous. Relying on an old faithful ‘first lesson’ I’ve used countless times with teenage students at the B1 level, I strode confidently into the classroom on the first day, ready to build some quality rapport and generally teach the hell out of that class. There are lots of reasons why that didn’t really happen in the end, including but not limited to the fact that the air conditioning and computer both decided to break not two minutes before class began. As I frantically tried to remember what exactly was on that PowerPoint slide – WHY hadn’t I prepared something that morning instead of using old materials from the year before?! – we all started to gently bake to death inside the 30°C classroom. 

I did eventually remember what I’d planned to do, not that it was much help at all in the end. You see, it turns out that there is a whole world of difference between the ages of 12 and 14; a vast chasm of maturity and self-awareness and even minimal levels of global consciousness that those 12-year-old students just didn’t have. One of my questions (“What’s your favourite thing about this city?”) had half the class in peals of laughter for a full seven minutes. I know it was seven minutes, because I timed it. “How can we possibly answer that question?” they screamed, hysterical tears in their eyes. “We live here! Hahaha! HAHAHAHA!”

A younger, less experienced version of myself would have balked at that, but I didn’t drag myself through hell and back (read: Delta M2) this summer just so a bunch of 12-year-olds could laugh me out of the classroom. I rallied. One or two classroom management strategies later and I’d more or less got the group back on track; they left the lesson with a good amount of speaking practice, some discourse-based sandwich correction to look over, and lots of new vocabulary to learn. (Their personal favourite: the word ‘highlight’.) Not the life-affirming, heart-warming bonding session I was expecting it to be, but not a train wreck either. Which is a sad standard to be holding myself to, if I’m honest.

I slumped back into the staff room and wallowed in self-pity for as long as I could professionally manage, before a colleague reminded me of one of my favourite things about teaching YLs: they have ridiculously short memories, especially for classroom experiences that didn’t go as intended. I plunged myself into preparing lesson two. There was nothing I could do about the lesson just gone, but that didn’t stop me whining about it to my boyfriend, flatmates, colleagues, and that nice old lady who lives downstairs. Deep down, I knew it didn’t matter; I was fully aware of the score now, and the second round was going to swing in our favour.

And I’m happy to say, it did. In fact, lesson 2 went bloody fabulously, and by the end I really felt we’d crossed a bridge in terms of group rapport as well as classroom expectations. We listened to each others’ opinions. We had a real, meaningful debate on a topic we could all contribute to. We told some absolutely cracking ghost stories that I’m sure will have parents calling me up in a few days’ time, wondering why their kids refuse to go to sleep. And most importantly, I actually started to understand who I was teaching. A very young class aiming for a very high-level goal, yes, but also a group of expert language learners with seven years’ experience at the school, coming out of the cocoon of childhood and reevaluating the world that was once so simple and familiar.

Of course that first lesson seemed so strange and unpredictable. How could I, so unwilling to see things through the eyes of a 12-year-old, possibly have understood what was going on from their point of view? How could I have prepared a perfect first lesson for a group unlike any other I’d taught before? How could I have planned for students who are rewriting the very definitions of who they are? Being 12 is certainly a wild ride, and one that I’ll have the privilege to bear witness to twice a week for the next academic year. 

But it’s not all smiles and kum-ba-yahs; at the end of the day, I’m still a teacher grappling with an adult textbook (shove off with your extreme interview questions and your signature psychoanalysis, New English File) and one of the youngest B2 classes the school has ever seen.

I’m not going to pretend I have some kind of master plan; at the moment, my strategy is getting to know them a little better every week and constructing a piecemeal syllabus for the next few lessons. Just maintaining that is going to take a huge amount of personal commitment and professional bravery, especially if every high and low ends up documented on this blog for the world to read. However, at some point I do hope to have a more cohesive, long-term plan that will allow me to really move forward with these students, as opposed to drowning in a tide of inappropriate resources and extremely high expectations. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation or you’ve got any tips, leave me a comment below. I need all the help I can get!

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Sanchia (@sanchiadanielle)

EFL teacher in southern Italy.

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