Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

I’ve always found it easier to work with adults than teens, so at conferences I often look for sessions which have ideas for improving what happens in the teenage classroom. At IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool, Sofia Leone presented activities to build teen self-esteem, inspired by her work as a language coach. Here she shares two of them, and I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did!

For the past eight years I have worked closely with secondary learners in southern Italy. It was clear from day one that the only way I could make a career in EFL work for me was if I could make it meaningful. After numerous conversations with teens over the years, it is apparent that many of them are missing supportive teachers at secondary school who give them space to express themselves. I realised that the reason teenagers have always enjoyed themselves in my classroom is that I give them a gift they don’t often get at school: a chance to be heard.

My coaching journey started a few summers ago when I started researching the role of a coach in sport and how those skills could be transferred to the EFL classroom. What started as a hobby (and a lifetime obsession with Rocky!) turned into a learning development project and is now my career as an EFL teacher, materials developer and qualified life coach for young people.

When I talk about my great passion for working with teenagers, I often get very strange reactions from stressed out teachers who are tired of trying to get teens on their side. They ask me how I do it and the answer is always the same: I give young people permission. Permission to express themselves in a supportive environment. Permission to discuss the topics they feel strongly about. Permission to make mistakes and learn from them. This permission empowers the teens which, in turn, leads to increased self-esteem.

I combine a supportive classroom space with a variety of materials which I have branded Activities with Purpose (AWP). These are activities which I develop and use throughout the year with a strong focus on self-improvement, self-exploration, resilience and building self-esteem in young people.

Class cone

An activity that I love kicking off the academic year with is one of my Activities with Purpose entitled class cone. This came about after my first lesson last September with an upper secondary group preparing for the Cambridge Advanced exam. I genuinely love spending my life with young people, but I will admit, it is always nerve-racking walking into a classroom of 14 brand new faces on the first day of term. I had started the lesson with a simple get to know you mingle and as I came over to Vincenzo and his partner to listen in he turned to me (in perfect English) and said:

“Sofia, can I ask you a question? Why do we do the same activities every year? It’s just so boring.”

Ask the teens to be honest - they're actually honest (meme photo of woman with hand on head)

I could have taken offence at his honesty, but I thought it was a fantastic and accurate insight and I later thanked him for inspiring this activity!

At the start of the lesson, students are given a blank scoop of ice cream and I give them time to think about their perfect English class (pace, teacher, amount of homework, activities etc). They then take their time to draw and colour their ideal class. The students then mingle and share their ideas with each other and this gives me the chance to listen to everyone’s requests. I take in everyone’s scoops and make a nice wall display without saying too much about the activity. The best part of this is the challenge that you can then set yourself: to try and fulfil as many of the requests as possible without making it too obvious. The teens want personal topics? I can easily make lessons about sport and nightlife. They want time to dedicate to their passions? We can dedicate a whole lesson to “my passion” presentations and learn from each other in the process.

This worked incredibly well for me this year and on the last day of term I gave my students back their scoops and asked them to write me a letter answering this simple question:

Did I meet your expectations?

This may seem like a simple activity, but a teenager who feels listened to will give you so much more than one who is told what and how to learn.

Me, My Selfie and I

Another AWP which I’ve developed sheds a positive light on something which is often branded superficial and detrimental: selfies. I ask students to take out their phones (brownie points with teens!) and find a selfie they don’t mind showing to their classmates. The students mingle and ask each other questions about where they were and how they felt on that day etc. The students then get a chance to see my not so typical (hey, I’m not 17) selfie.

A selfie of Sofia, with the adjectives determined, motivated, loyal, resilient, written around it

I model four positive adjectives which I would use to describe myself and I then ask students to take some time out to reflect and do the same. Once the students have got at least four adjectives I show them my selfie poem and I ask them to create theirs.

I am proud of all I've done // Even though there have been some // days when I felt I couldn't do it // but no matter what I will never quit

Some students will jump at the chance to try writing a rhyming poem in English and others will need a helping hand. I always tell them that copying the first two lines is a good start. This activity can then lead on to a mingle activity or an even longer poem. Some of my students this year wrote longer poems and asked if they could present their selfie poems to the class! What started as a mini poem ended up as a class celebration of our wins and I feel that the learners had a real chance to show that selfies can be meaningful when given the chance.

Maria Francesca’s beautiful poem which she then presented

Why is building self-esteem important?

The real question should be, why is it not important? I love building up teenagers, but I am also an EFL teacher at the end of the day with deadlines and exam courses to follow. I therefore understand the pressure to ‘fit it all in’. I do, however, believe that by supporting teens to help develop their strengths and cultivate new habits, I am in fact helping to create the right environment for solid language acquisition to take place. By bringing the teens’ lives to the classroom, I bring the classroom to life and my students’ feedback and exam results are testament to the power of active listening and positivity.

I can’t wait for you to try out these activities and watch your teenage classroom vibe go from good to amazing!


Sofia Leone has worked in southern Italy for the past 8 years and is dedicated to helping young people achieve their potential both inside and outside the language classroom. She is a British Council teacher and qualified life coach for young people and her mission is to incorporate meaningful life coaching activities into the upper secondary classroom.
For more information you can visit her website:  www.fiercelifecoaching-awp.com

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