Taking Teens Seriously
Eleanor Bralver: Sylmar, CA
NEA Member Eleanor Bralver was the oldest full-time teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and possibly in the entire country, when she retired in 2006 at age 92.
Throughout her 35-year career as a high school health teacher, Bralver demonstrated a remarkable ability to empathize with her adolescent students, to win their trust, and to help them deal with a wide variety of serious teenage issues.
In 1974, Simon and Schuster published a collection of her students’ stories of coping with life troubles titled “Teenagers Inside Out.” Bralver, now 94, says passion drove her to try to help so many over so many years, and she continues to assist as a volunteer at her former school almost every day.
I first taught in 1935, during the Great Depression. When my husband went off to World War II, I quit work to raise my children. As it turned out, I didn’t return to full-time teaching until 1969, at Sylmar High School in the San Fernando Valley. Youth culture had completely changed.
I walked back into the classroom at the height of the psychedelic period—a time when kids were disillusioned by the Vietnam War, dropping out, running away, getting into the drug scene, and, in Southern California, partying and often living in makeshift villages all along the beach.
Every day, an ambulance would pull up to the school. Kids passed out in class from reactions to drugs. They distrusted adults, saw no point in coming to school. As a health teacher, I had to find an effective way to respond.
I’d come from a dysfunctional family myself, and I sensed that the kids felt invisible, that no one cared about their thoughts or feelings—even at home. I decided to make my class a place where they felt safe, where they could trust me, and where they’d participate actively in their own learning, so that it truly helped them.
These were uncharted waters in 1969, but the problems were urgent. I proposed lesson plans, and got them approved, that let us put aside textbooks and turn health class into a forum.
Immediately, the kids saw that they were helping to shape the curriculum so that it was more relevant to their daily experiences, and they began to open up, talk to me about their lives, and I talked just as openly about mine.
The class became so successful that I put together an elective course called “Coping With Adolescence,” and for that, some semesters we had standing room only. I used the same format, a forum where they could talk about anything from drugs to sex to sexual abuse.
The students truly opened up, and in 1974, students let me collect their stories of adolescent pain, anonymously, into a book, so that we could try to reach kids all over who were hurting for similar reasons.
In the years since, the issues have changed, but I think the book pales compared to more recent the stories I’ve collected. I still hear them as a volunteer in health classes.
Sex and drugs remain issues, but they’ve become complicated by new ones such as gangs, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the rise in teen pregnancy, and many other social and emotional stresses.
To this day, kids know I take them seriously, and I insist that they take me seriously. I tell them, “Learn health as though your life depends on it. It does.” I think many students heard the message.
I run into them today, some in their 40s and 50s, and they tell me my class changed their lives. That’s a pretty good incentive to keep teaching until age 92.
What “Any Teacher Can Do”
Active teachers as well as NEA-Retired members who are still working around students can find effective ways to reach adolescents, according to Eleanor Bralver.
“It doesn’t matter what you teach,” says Bralver. “Teaching health gave me some unique opportunities to reach students, but I’ve seen chemistry teachers do the same thing by working global warming into the class—a common concern—and create an atmosphere where students feel their ideas matter and they can make a difference.”
“You don’t need special training to reach students,” she adds. “If you’re truly concerned about helping them, and committed to openness with them, they’ll see it and respond.”