Posted by: Emily | November 19, 2008

Surly adolescents, redux

Much to my trepidation last week, I faced session two with the group of surly teens. I felt so defeated by our first session together that I didn’t know how in the world I would ever deal with the same group for another 75 minutes. They obviously didn’t want to learn, so why was I being asked to teach again?

But then I learned something.

The session was rocky, I’ll admit it. I wanted to step right up and re-grab my authority, so had all the computers locked down with our classroom control software. Except that I didn’t. I had only locked down one of the terminals, and heard everyone typing away while I talked, and couldn’t stand to take more class time to try locking them down again. So much for that strategy. The professor had asked me to go over the ins and outs of bibliographies, so I had some examples and I talked through them a bit but was largely ignored until I turned the students loose to do more work while I hovered and helped one on one. About twenty minutes in, the faculty member said, You don’t need me here anymore, do you? What can I say to that? So she left, but not without saying one more time that these students really need training in bibliography.

Then they looked at me, a classroom of almost-frightened faces. And they said, Can you please show us how to do these bibliographies? She wants us to write annotated bibliographies, but we don’t know how and nobody has taught us. At which point it dawned on me: These students weren’t surly because of something I said or did; they were surly because they were expected to do something they didn’t know how to do. The way I lose it when putting together furniture with incomplete directions, or the frustration that erupts in a rage when I’m asked to bake. Or the way I’ve been struggling along in this new job, sad and angry an uncommon amount for somebody with such a sunny personality, in large part because admitting my ignorance and asking for help dozens of times a day is agonizing. When you can’t do what you’re expected to do because you simply don’t know how to, it’s easy to fly off the handle.

I can’t say I successfully taught these students to create bibliographies. Or that I ended up keeping them for the entire class session after the professor left and their minds wandered. But I do think we parted with a grudging respect for each other, and I learned something important about not taking student behavior personally, and remembering to think a little more deeply about what might be causing blank and sarcastic faces in my library classroom. It might actually be something I can address, by teaching.



  1. WOW. This is a great post, Emily, and what an important thing to learn. Sometimes I get so one-track-minded about following my own agenda that I don’t stop to consider what my students want or need or what they might expect from me and how that might affect their behavior. And we can all benefit from the reminder to not take surly adolescent behavior too personally, too. Thanks, Emily, for such a thoughtful and honest post.

  2. I was thinking this morning in the shower that maybe this entry was too pollyanna. I mean, maybe some teens are surly, they just are, and it isn’t a cover for deep in their hearts wanting more library instruction.

    But then I thought about how much depends on ones theoretical orientation, the ideas we have about the people we work with and the work we do. As Kate often says about capitalism, “Too bad it’s not just an idea.” So even though I’m sure I would read as eye-rollingly naive to some library teachers, I’d rather start from this position: Everybody comes into my library sessions wanting to learn, and we all have things to teach each other.

  3. HA! Yes, some teens are indeed just surly. But I agree that it is useful to recall that that learning and teaching are the primary motives behind both my and my students’ presence in that classroom.

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