Could embracing your inner teenager make you a better teacher?

Graphic novels can help future teachers deal with emotional challenges in the classroom—and within themselves, says education researcher.


David Lewkowich knows something about the stress teachers can experience when they start out. He’s been there himself.

“When I worked as a high-school teacher, I had a year of insomnia,” said Lewkowich, now a secondary education professor and researcher at the University of Alberta.

“Since that time I’ve been trying to understand why I had such an emotional breakdown when I was teaching high school, and I think it was because I hadn’t done enough emotional work to recognize how my own adolescence still persisted within who I am.”

That experience, along with Lewkowich’s interest in graphic novels, led him to explore how they can spark reflection and conversation with education students about the teenagers they were and the teachers they want to be.

“I really want to prepare my students emotionally for the challenges of teaching,” he said.

“I think that going back and allowing them to think about adolescence through the lens of literature allows them to somehow access that—knowing that they can never access the past directly but that somehow they can touch the feelings associated with their adolescence, so they won’t be so surprised when they see it again in others.”

Using comics to elicit teenage memories

Lewkowich’s research focuses on the reader experience and the way in which reading comics constitutes a unique experience in the mind of a reader.


To elicit recollections of their adolescence from his research participants—all of whom are education students who plan to be English teachers—Lewkowich selected graphic novels that dwell on adolescence and often take place at least in part at school: Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim; Lisa Wilde’s Yo, Miss; Lynda Barry’s The Freddie Stories; and Drama by Raina Telgemeier.

Rather than just discussing the content and structure of the texts, Lewkowich has participants identify a frame from the story that resonates with them and then create their own visual response, which becomes part of the discussion.

Becoming empathetic educators

Lewkowich noted that the combination of imagery and text in graphic novels and in the visual responses he sees provide a richer site for reflection than imagery or text alone might provide. This process of reflection enables aspiring teachers to reconnect with what he calls “the adolescent disavowed”—a connection that could help them become more empathetic in the classroom.

“There’s something about our own adolescence that, in order to grow, we’ve had to disavow, we’ve had to forget, but reinhabiting the adolescent disavowed can allow teachers to prepare themselves emotionally for the task of being a teacher,” Lewkowich said.

Lewkowich’s research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada.