That age-old question.

I was having a conversation with colleagues last week about whether we preferred teaching older or younger learners. What was remarkable was that there was clear demarcation between those who chose ‘young people’ and those who chose ‘adults’. Few were sitting on the fence.

A few years ago, as a teacher of apprentices, I much preferred teaching older learners, simply for one reason; behaviour. I didn’t really have a clue how to deal with some young people who – as I saw it at the time – didn’t want to learn. I saw it as a nonsense, as an annoyance and often got hooked into emotional responses out of frustration that some learners just wanted to disrupt!

I look back now and see that I was having exactly the same problems with older learners – but it was because of my different response (kinder, more understanding, more patient) that I was able to deal with it better and so enjoy the relationships with my learners more.

Why was my response different? Possibly because the adults who were exhibiting difficult behaviour were more self-aware of their behaviour and the reasons for it. An adult learner who has no self-confidence with maths will often readily blame things such as bad experiences at school for refusing to attempt a task, and be quite apologetic about it. A young person without that awareness might also refuse a task, but feel angry and confused because they haven’t made the link with previous experience. That anger then gets directed at the teacher and results in unwanted behaviour – unwanted by the teacher, the other students and the learners themselves.

Understanding some young people is hard. When someone doesn’t have the emotional maturity or experience to understand why they are feeling scared or frustrated or angry, they are in no position to help you, as a teacher, find a route through it. That makes it even more important to be willing to show unconditional acceptance of the person, and to separate them from their behaviour.

That can be a massive challenge. Showing relentless positivity and energy in the face of a room full of sceptical, negative, maths-hating teens is tiring. But it’s definitely worth it.

Most of the time, there are no quick wins. But there are those moments – those watershed moments – when that confidence you’ve been trying to instil starts to show – when a frowning face starts to crack more smiles, perhaps, or when an entire lesson’s work is no longer just the date at the top of the page, but some nicely laid-out answers too.

I’m not saying that teaching older students is easier. One of the reasons some colleagues felt they preferred teaching younger people is that they ‘don’t come with as much baggage’ or ‘they’re not so set in their ways’. My own opinion is that the baggage is just different baggage and the ways are just different ways. The strategies are essentially the same – it’s just that with young people it’s more coded; you just need to break through. With adults, it might be more obvious what’s needed, but then the break-throughs are harder to win because of years of negative reinforcement.

Whichever we prefer, it’s good that we’re allowed to specialise and build the types of relationships with our learners that we enjoy. It allows us to become more skilled in helping learners and to help in ways that suit our personality and our strengths.

What we must do, in surely one of the most difficult jobs around, is look after ourselves. Our well-being allows us to be strong enough to help those learners who struggle with a subject they’ve come to see as a monster. It’s our responsibility to help them slay that monster without getting bloodied ourselves.

So, whether you’re teaching teens or educating elders, look after yourself. Your students – whatever age they’re at – depend on it.

For more information on ‘unconditional acceptance’ – see

For more information on ‘behaviour management’ for young people, see

For more information on teaching older learners, see