What I’ve Learned from my Students

This year I started teaching dance to a bunch of grade nine girls. I was bordering on terrified when I first had to face that horde of hormonally charged teenagers. Having taught them now for four months, I realise that as much as I am the teacher, I am also a student. Teaching girls has really been revealing about how they see themselves and their place in the world. My time spent interacting with them is invaluable to writing YA stories, particularly strong female characters. I thought I’d share some of what I’d learned from them with you.

  1. 14/15 year olds can be extremely empathetic. While watching a dance related movie, I thought the girls would ‘ew’ and ‘ah’ over certain male physiques and get all giggly at the few instances of romance. Nope. Not at all. But the entire class gasped when the lead character’s brother suffered an untimely death. They felt the grief in that moment far more acutely than any of the other sweet moments between the MC and his love interest. This says to me that it’s not all about romance for these kids. They can relate to emotion that goes beyond the normal, hormonal reactions of teens.
  2. These girls are culturally aware. When asked which dances they enjoyed the most during the course, the girls unanimously agreed that African and Latin dances which exposed them to different cultures and a different kind of music were by far the most enjoyable for that specific reason. These girls are not Euro-centric and want to know more about the world around them.
  3. Most teenage girls are shy and concerned about being criticized. Whether this stems from upbringing or social grooming, almost all of my girls wanted to hide in the corner at the beginning of the course and were afraid of being watched, of being judged not by me, but by their peers. Funny thing is, is that they all feared the same thing. The wonderful thing is, is that after four months these girls realise they all share the same fears and are starting to get over it, coming out of the corner and out of their shells. One girl has been so bold to say she couldn’t care what others think of her, she’s just going to dance and have fun even if she looks silly.
  4. These girls are smart. These girls know their stuff and aren’t shy in correcting me when I make a mistake (like which way to turn on a pirouette). They’re technology savvy, socially aware and able to discuss tricky topics like how much the government should be spending on social benefits for the unemployed. These girls are open-minded and do not subscribe to cultural or any other form of stereotypes.
  5. These girls know they need to be brave. A recurring theme in the classroom is courage – having the courage to dance in front of others, to not care what others think, to be yourself, to take risks and to try something new. The journey for them is only just starting and if they want to carve a place for themselves in this world then they definitely need the courage to overcome their inhibitions and claim their spot centre stage.

The most important thing I’ve learned from my girls is that this time in their life isn’t about growing up. I read a recent article on YA saying that YA stories are inherently about the transition from adolescence to adulthood. I disagree. While that may be a theme and the essence of some stories, it certainly isn’t what’s most important to my girls. They’re not worried about growing up just yet, they worried about being who they really are, about finding that authentic self. And that’s what I think YA is about: young people exploring life in different ways so that they can discover who they really are.

Have you learned anything from a teenager today?

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