Docent Educator Logo

TEENAGERS: One Tough Audience

Like thousands of others, I arrived well before the museum doors opened and stood in line waiting to be admitted to the Claude Monet exhibition at the Art Institute. I’d picked a gorgeous day—blue sky, low smog, sun rising over the lake. With latte in hand, I braced for what turned out to be a not-so-terrible wait. I passed the time watching a group of teens ahead of me in line.

There were about twenty students. They looked like sophomores or juniors. Like me, some enjoyed their breakfast of choice as they waited. In their case, a can of Dr. Pepper and an iced cake donut with sprinkles. They pushed and jostled each other, they teased and joked, their voices carried well above the morning rush traffic on Michigan Avenue. More of them preferred to sit on the sidewalk than stand in line. They averaged two visible pierced holes per student, and urban grunge best describes their fashion sense.

I marveled at their goofiness. What a mixture of self-confidence and self-consciousness wrapped up in low-slung baggy jeans and flannel. At first, I wondered if I was ever like them. Then I wondered if this loud, raucous group would (hopefully) rush through the exhibition galleries quickly enough so I could commune with Monet in relative peace.

Even though I had spent the better part of my professional life working with youth in informal settings, I found myself hoping I wouldn’t have to share these teens’ exuberance on my busman’s holiday. Was I a hypocrite?

When I’m being more generous, I forgive my brief episode of selfishness, saying that I had waited a long time to see the exhibition, I’d awakened extra early to ensure a good spot in line, and I deserved to have the best museum experience possible. My less generous, niggling self ends up responding with a comeback like, “well, didn’t the teens deserve the best museum experience possible, too?”

Every guest at every museum, zoo, historic house, botanical garden, conservatory, and science center deserves the best, most satisfying, enriching, and inspirational visit possible. The problem is, that which defines a quality experience is different for different people.

What defines a quality experience for teenagers? It’s hard to say. Most of us don’t see enough teens at our institutions to accumulate even enough anecdotal information to influence programming and policies. And, even if we do host a fair number of teens, it’s just not cost effective to put a lot of resources behind programs when we know we can get a bigger bang for our institutional buck if we program for families with children under age twelve, affluent young professionals, and grandparents.

And since many institutions offer curriculum-linked programming just through 6th grade, we often only have a general tour to offer teen visitors. But even that’s easier said than done, because many docents prefer not to work with junior high and high school students.

One Tough Audience

What makes some docents uncomfortable about working with teens? Well, for starters, teens are bigger, stronger, and louder than other school-aged kids. They know more (maybe than you), they show off, they sulk, they’re irreverent, silly, over-sexed, easily hurt, and easily tired. They’re shy, full of bravado, and full of beans. They’re hungry all the time for everything; they’re discovering their own interests; they’re learning their own moral code. They’re introspective. They’re flamboyant. They pay more attention to their peers than their parents (or any adult, for that matter). They seem out to push our buttons. They’re developing a sense of their power and their powerlessness. They talk funny. They’re not fully formed like adults and yet they’re not controllable like children.

Not controllable. That seems to be a key factor in why some docents prefer not to work with teens. Why waste your breath talking when no one is paying attention?

But, I believe that, for the most i part, most teens are paying attention. It’s just that paying attention for teens , looks different than when younger children or adults pay attention. Young children will show they’re paying attention with enthusiastic cries and cheers or rapt silence. For teens, paying attention usually manifests itself somewhere along the behavioral spectrum ranging from jostling, teasing, and noise-making at one end to brooding, introspection, and distant regard at the other.

In any case, teens are not an easy audience. They make our job of developing and presenting programming for informal settings pretty challenging. As educators, we need to figure out ways to tap into the angst and energy of teens so our teaching becomes relevant, provocative, and enjoyable for this bypassed audience.

Sphere of Influence

As docents, we can influence programs and policy matters at our institutions indirectly through our supervisors or volunteer councils and directly by developing ways to reach out to teens.

Before developing or altering programming for teens, host one or several informal brown bag lunch discussions to get a feel for unpaid and paid staff attitudes and knowledge about teens in general and about those who live in your community. Spend time discussing your programming strengths and weaknesses concerning teens. Brainstorm some possible programming ideas. You might invite a high school or junior high counselor, coach, or teacher to get the discussion rolling. You might also consider inviting some teens to a discussion to give you feed back.

Customize Programming

Are you reaching out to teens in any special ways? Has there been an attempt to make programming more meaningful and relevant to your teenage constituency?

Career Connections: Teens are being required to make life decisions about college and career choices. Are there ways to incorporate a career connection piece into your pre-existing programs? For example, could tours be redesigned to include a brief segment introducing teens to museum professions and the educational paths leading to these positions? Can a tour be created that examines the careers of the artists, historians, scientists, or other professionals represented in your institutional collections?

Service, Please: Many colleges, high schools, and junior highs are requiring students to complete a certain number of service project volunteer hours as a requirement for graduation. As this trend continues, more and more volunteer organizations are caught scrambling to throw something together when they get the call from a student on Friday saying that he needs to volunteer 50 service hours by Monday.

Rather than piecing together some make-do job or, worse, being unresponsive to these calls, institutions can prepare for this trend by actively developing meaningful service project jobs in collaboration with area schools, churches, youth and Scout groups. Is there any portion of a pre-existing volunteer job that could be tailored to meet the specific needs of a service requirement for the students at a nearby school?

Interacting with Teens

A few years ago, a study documented the fact that students do remember salient aspects of their school field trips years after the last museum shop souvenir is gone. Unfortunately, what students remember wasn’t always what their instructors had intended. Nonetheless, the take home message is kids do remember field trips and docents have the ability to help make those memories positive and meaningful through quality interactions with students.

If you’re new to working with teens, remember that teens do react and interact much differently than a group of adults or a group of third graders would. They may be loud or they may remain silent, but either way, trust that some of what you do and say will reach some of the group some of the time.

From the start, set clear limits of what you expect from the students. Include how you want to be addressed, where food and beverages can be enjoyed, any house rules, and any other information they need to know in order to be able to enjoy your facility. Make sure they know you expect active learners.

Create an atmosphere for learning. Ask good questions, not silly ones. Ask for help pronouncing names that are unfamiliar to you. Think through the examples and anecdotes you use so you can be certain each one is inclusive. Remember, teens sense fear. You can avoid being nervous by being well prepared for the group. (It’s not a dress rehearsal!) Also, no matter how technically advanced your group is, you will undoubtedly know more about the institution than anyone else. Share that! It’s okay for others to know more than you do about certain things. Allow them to share their information. After all, your role is that of facilitator, not autocrat.

Show teens you respect them. Most teens hate it when adults try to be their buddies or force being funny. Being your best, warm, professional self is what teens will respond to. If at all possible, let teens self-select their small groups. Most students find interactive learning more enjoyable than passive learning, but don’t force the issue. And, if you use any type of worksheet, be certain it is meaningful (leading to insights and/or discoveries) and not just busy work.

Teens look to their peers for approval, so risk taking is not one of their strong suits. Reward all questions and answers by demonstrating your interest and taking them seriously. That’s not to say you reward wrong answers, but you do need to reward the fact that the teen took a chance.

You can help by wording questions so that you don’t unwittingly back a teen into a corner. For example, you are standing in a gallery and ask your group, “When was this painting painted?” That kind of question backs people into a corner—either they know the answer or they don’t. However, you can rephrase the question to free up thinking and discussion by asking, “What do you notice about the painting that might give you some clues as to when it was painted?”

Final Thoughts

It used to be that we could take for granted that people found museums and other related institutions to be important and therefore worthy of their time and money. We can’t take that for granted anymore. We need to cultivate relationships with our changing constituencies in order for them to discover the relevance, the splendor, and the magic we offer.

Teens are an audience worth cultivating. But, we must be assertive in our efforts as teens stop coming to our facilities when their lives become filled with so many other competing activities (as evidenced by the fact that family memberships drop off precipitously once kids hit that magic age of twelve).

Once they’re young adults, we try to lure this group (and their disposable incomes) back through our doors with the promise of jazz music, young professionals gatherings, and wheels of brie. But that may be too little, too late. The true challenge is to develop programming relevant to all ages, especially teenagers, so that we always provide for our audiences, and we never have to “win them back.” And docents, who are at the vanguard of this effort, can lead the way.

Jean Linsner directs Operation SMART, a science, math, and technology Program for low-income children through the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. Ms. Linsner earned her M. S. in Education at Indiana University. Prior to joining the YWCA staff, she worked as an Education Specialist at the Brookfield Zoo, managing 300 volunteers in the Docent and Guest Guide programs. Ms. Linsner has over 11 years of experience working in informal education settings developing programs for youth and adults. Other articles authored by Ms. Linsner and appearing in The Docent Educator are “Volunteer Program Mechanics” (Volume 3, Number 3) and “Building Bridges” (Volume 4, Number 2).

Linsner, Jean. “Teenagers!!! One Tough Audience,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 12-13+.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *