Updated: Jun 18, 2020
After eight years of teaching middle school aged students, I’ve learned a thing or two about what works, what definitely doesn’t, and how to survive in the adolescent classroom. I’ve had the opportunity to teach both four years of 8th grade science on a middle school campus and four years of 6th grade (multi-subject) at an elementary site. I’m not going to lie, whenever someone asks what grade I teach, my response is usually met with a face of apprehension and the question, “But HOW do you do it?!” or “That’s such a tough age!” or “It takes a special soul to teach middle school!” Quite honestly, I get it. It is a very unique time in a child’s life. I held the “middle school teacher” title as a badge of honor. But you guys, middle schoolers are some of the coolest kids out there. The stereotype about them being tough, disconnected, uninterested, hormonal, and rude is just that. A STEREOTYPE. There are tricky components to navigating the world of middle schoolers, but that is just true about ALL teaching. Every age you work with has its own mountains and valleys. Teaching is a calling and we’re born to do it… so if you find yourself lucky enough to be hired into a middle school position, REJOICE and get ready to have some fun!
This year, I am taking on a new challenge and heading back to third grade. I realized that I needed a new adventure and that’s just part of the job. I was at a point where I didn’t feel like I was growing anymore and that I was stuck in a rut, but it was not an easy decision. I love my teaching team and genuinely believe that have a knack for meeting the needs of middle school age students. So I figured I’d take a beat to share what I’ve learned over the years. Much of this is just good teaching practice that students at all ages would thrive with. If you find there is something that needs to be added to this list, please share in the comments, below. My goal is always to provide a place for conversation and collaboration.
So here you have it... everything I learned about how to succeed as a middle school teacher:
1. Relationships are Absolutely EVERYTHING
This shouldn’t even need to be stated, but I believe so strongly in this idea, that I must! Building relationships is at the core of my classroom management style, personal pedagogy, and belief about everything in life. Let’s also focus on the fact that you have to BUILD a relationship over time. It certainly does not happen overnight when your name is posted on a middle school student’s class schedule. Creating a strong relationship with your students takes energy and dedication to making a connection with every kid filling up a seat in your class, each class period.
As is true with all relationships, everything will not always be perfect. Your students probably won’t walk in super stoked to do that “first day ice breaker” you might have planned. As a matter of fact, it’s likely they’ll be stand-off-ish as they try to figure out if you’re a big, cheesy, phony that’s going to force them to do things that they deem to be totally lame… but getting to know every student that walks through your door should be a cornerstone in your year plan. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to watch
Rita Peirson’s TEDTalk where she states “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” and ain’t that the truth?! If you haven’t seen Rita speak, go ahead and do that right NOW. Every educator should. I’m serious. Even if you go watch and then get lost in the wondrous black hole of YouTube and never finish reading this post, that’s okay. You should see her speak.
My point here is that as an educator, relationships truly are everything. As a matter of fact, I wanted to do a little crowd-sourcing for this post and so I threw it out there to my #instateacher community. When I asked teachers what their biggest advice was for success as a middle school educator, EVERY SINGLE ONE said “Get to know your students” EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Do not give up on it. Understanding your students interests, things they despise, and maybe even the most recently trending Tik Tok dance will help you break down barriers that may be keeping you from having a connection with your students. Allow your students to get to know a bit about you as well! Your interests are valid and deserve to be shared. We are wired to make connections, it’s literally in our DNA, so why wouldn’t we use that as the core value in our classroom management plan? As you get to know your students better, you’ll be able to rely on the trust you build over time. Yes, it will take time.
2. Show Genuine Interest in What They Care About
To make connections with your students, it will be necessary to dig beyond your content area and show that you value to what they care about. I’m not going to lie… this may be hard. Middle schoolers looooove trends and trends change fast! Talk to your students and try to gain an understanding of what brings a smile to their face. And I mean every child here… not just the ones who come straight out and tell you what they like and wear their heart on their sleeve. It might take a little digging with those quieter students or students who might do everything they can to show you how little interest they have in anything you have to say, but every student cares about something. Show an interest in what they enjoy… at the bare minimum, develop a basic understanding. Validate them, even if you have NO interest in the topic whatsoever. What harm does it do to be educated on what makes your students tick? Or Tik Tok should I say?! Learn about these things and embed it in your analogies for instruction.
Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in playing video games. I am horrible at them. I like to say I was the reason the Wii was created because I was that child playing Mario with my big brother, attempting to get that darn guy to jump over little mushrooms by waving the controller around wildly in the air. I’m terrible! But you know what?! I can laugh about the fact that I might be the worst “gamer” on the planet. I know so little about them, but can you guess who does? My students. I can ask them to teach me a little about that gaming world and they will because they will take every opportunity to talk about things that compel them! Now we're talking (literally). Oh, and then just maybe, down the road, I can ask them to figure out a parallel between something they are interested in and the subject I teach (critical thinking anyone?). Guess what? Everyone is happy!
Use their interests in your analogies to find ways for your students to relate rigorous content to their lives. I’m not going to lie… My analogy of how the atoms of a substance going through a phase change are just like the students who attend a middle school dance was definitely a crowd pleaser and I’ve used it for eight years straight. It works every time.
I totally understand how it might feel like a daunting task getting to know 100+ student’s interests. I mean, you have CONTENT to teach, right?! Take advantage of little moments in your classroom. Did a student arrive before the beginning of the class period? Did they finish an assignment a little early? Do they look like they desperately need a break from the task you’ve given them. Little moments spent learning from your students are like planting a seed. Every time you refer back to what you’ve learned about them, your relationship with them will grow.
3. Lead With Love and Understanding, Always
Here’s the deal, when I was in middle school, I HATED middle school. Class, school, teachers, workload… they weren’t necessarily what made me loathe it so much. No, it was the uncomfortable feeling of it all. I am a person who appreciates consistency and tradition and I really don’t like change. It takes me a while to adapt to new situations. No joke, I cried when my parents got a new toilet seat. Yes. True story… I was five, but still. It’s true.
When it came to middle school, I was thrown into a new world, adjusting to a huge campus, the constantly-changing relationships, complex peer interactions and pressures, and the feeling of wanting independence, but not being confident in my own ability to do so. Oh, and then throw in the joy of being an adolescent girl adjusting to hormones and an ever-changing physical appearance. I remember being laughed at, getting the side-eye, losing student council elections and being absolutely mortified… and I know that I didn’t have it all that bad. I had (and still have!) a loving family, good friendships and connections, and a supportive community which gave me an upper hand. Looking at the whole population of our middle school, I know I was a lucky kid. And I still hated it. That intro to the tween and teen years is HARD.
When I was hired to teach eighth graders, I thought, "What did I get myself into?!" I was scared. How was I going to teach middle school when it was such a tough time in my life? Then I realized something… I made it through. I went on to graduate high school, get a degree, a credential, and an amazing job, but most importantly I had been in my student’s shoes before. Now, my shoes may have been maroon patent leather Airwalks (remember those, thirty-somethings?!), but I had been an eighth grade student and I went through the iconic struggles that many middle schoolers face. I couldn’t stop every negative experience from happening, but I could acknowledge the struggle, provide support, and most importantly, an open mind.
As students struggled, fought with others, broke into tears, and fell behind (because that's just a reality), I tried my darndest to look beyond the action and search for a catalyst. What happened to cause the problem or behavior? Was it possible that the student didn’t realize they were dysregulated in their response to tension and struggle? What could I do to help them through those moments? I can tell you the only thing that really works is a listening ear and providing opportunities to help them reflect and work through those tough moments. They have to work THROUGH it. There is no way to avoid struggle, but we can help them through it. Successful teaching is all about connection. I’m going to assume you are already an awesome-sauce content area expert (I know you are, actually!) and although providing compelling content for students to learn is pedagogically the most wonderful thing you can do to help your students succeed in your content area, the connection must come first. Talk with kids, not at them. Give them grace. Make eye contact with every child, every day. When you know your students and their habits and patterns, it will be much easier to notice when they seem off or at the verge of a downward spiral that you might just be able to help them through.
When I think back to why I struggled so much with middle school, I genuinely think it comes down to the lack of connection I felt during those trying years. Many days I felt invisible as the average student who didn’t cause problems and was probably lumped into the “I don’t need to worry about this kid because she is getting her work done and getting good enough grades” crew. But I do remember that one class was different. In one class, I was lucky enough to be blessed with a teacher who made me feel like he knew I was in his class every single day, Mr. Thomas Schy. Mr. Schy taught math (my least favorite subject of them all) and quite honestly, I couldn’t tell you a single score I got on a test or even a strategy for mathematical practice that I learned. Instead, I sit here with tears because I remember how gifted he was an educator. His sole purpose was not simply teaching content, it was teaching STUDENTS… and that makes all the difference. I felt the urge to do a quick google search and came across this lovely man’s obituary. His passing is not news to me (although I was devastated when I heard), but this line so eloquently states just how I feel about Mr. Schy:
“Tom was the sort of teacher that really connected with his students. They continued to come back and visit him. He truly inspired them as he inspired the rest of us to live life to the fullest.
And that's the truth. Thank you, Mr. Schy.
Teaching middle school successfully cannot happen unless relationships are built and connections are made. Recently, I was lucky enough to have the privilege of hearing the amazing Dr. Jody Carrington through a virtual professional development opportunity. She speaks right into the soul of teachers, parents, and anyone who interacts with children on a regular basis on exactly the power behind connection. Her book, Kids These Days, is one that I will listen to over and over (I am listening to it instead of reading it because Dr, Carrington is one of the most engaging speakers I have heard and simply put, she cracks me up). I cannot speak more highly of this book. It is a must-read for all educators.
4. Get Involved in Activities on Campus
I know teachers simply don’t have enough hours in the day, but if there’s one thing that makes a middle school campus an awesome place to be, it’s the activities that are always happening. At least, I sincerely hope that’s what your campus is like because mine was a blast! You need to get out of your four walls and go check out what’s happening.
Is there an opportunity to chaperone an event? Do it. Are there lunchtime activities happening? Participate. Does admin need help covering a supervision spot? Why not? I’m not saying to over-book yourself by any means (goodness knows there simply isn’t enough time!), but getting out of the classroom and finding a new opportunity to interact with students let’s your students get to know you as someone other than just a subject matter expert. Even if that means you might make a fool out of yourself playing students vs. teacher dodgeball or becoming a member of the all-teacher rock band... speaking from personal experience here. Get out of your classroom and go have some fun!
5. Your Classroom Environment Should Reflect You AND Your Students
This is another one of those core beliefs I have, but to be honest, I still struggle with it. I know we all love a Pinterest-ready classroom, but when you are designing your space, consider ALL of your students. I happen to love farmhouse and floral decor, but I’m positive that if I cover every corner of my classroom with themed furnishings, then I would be isolating many of my students who don’t share that interest. I want my students to walk into the classroom and feel like it is genuinely OUR room and not Mrs. Hansen’s room. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not at all saying ignore your interests and keep your personality out of the classroom, but be mindful to create space that your students can contribute to. Post their drawings, notes, and pictures they give you. Students will surprise you with their creativity if you give them a space to do so. Of course, the walls are prime real estate to also display subject matter that you are learning together (all the anchor charts please!) so try to think of your room in three sections. An area for you (pictures, college pennants, etc…), and area for your students to contribute, and an area for class resources and materials. Still have room? How about some student work (and I say this somewhat jokingly because I certainly struggle to post 140+ of ANY given assignment).
Finally, while we’re on this topic… I recommend choosing a color scheme that couldn’t be considered gender-biased. This was definitely something I didn’t think about until I attended an amazing Happy Go Teach conference a few years back with Jen Jones and Kayla Dornfeld. These fabulous educators reminded me to consider why we create a classroom. Who is it for? Me or my students? For years, I just filled my room with what I liked without considering my population of students. Now, I try to think about each student walking in my room. Would they feel excluded or distanced from me because of my color choices? Would they feel over-stimulated by every wall being covered in highly decorated and themed bulletin boards? Personally, I had to suck it up and do a classroom refresh to get to the point where I felt that I had a classroom that fit my personality but also allowed for my students to include theirs. Because of this, your classroom may not be perfect and “finished” day one. That's okay! Don’t let the #teachergram or Pinterest posts (as much as I love ya') sway you. I believe your classroom should grow with you throughout the year to reflect everything you and your students have done together.
So there you have it. All you need to succeed (IMHO) as a middle school teacher. Just remember to teach the person first and the content follows.
Do you agree? Have something to add to this list? What have you learned about teaching in a middle school classroom? Keep the conversation going in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.