In less than a month, I will complete my sixth year of teaching. The first two of those years were in a 10th grade World Literature classroom, and the last four I have been teaching 7th grade English Language Arts. When I told my high school colleagues that I would be moving down to middle school, the most common reaction usually involved the phrase “You’re crazy!” Over the past four years, whenever I tell someone that I teach 7th grade, I’m either told that I’m “brave”, or that they couldn’t imagine being around that many 13-year-olds all day.
I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled Eight Things I Know For Sure about (Most) Middle School Kids, and it got me thinking about the little intricacies and idiosyncrasies that I have decoded and come to understand about my students. I wanted to share these thoughts in an attempt to connect with my fellow middle school teacher brethern, or possibly to provide some insights into this age group for any potential middle school teachers. Without further adieu, here are some things that I KNOW for sure about middle schoolers:
“I hate your class!” If you teach in a middle school, then you have invariably heard this phrase either muttered under a student’s breath; or, it’s been hurled right at you with reckless abandon. As both a teacher and a human, one’s first response is to take offense to such an aggressive statement and jump on the defensive. Let me give you some advice: don’t. Any kid that has worked up enough moxie to shout out such a brash criticism is clearly dealing with something outside of the class or school that is impacting their emotional stability. They don’t hate your class; they hate whatever is disrupting their lives at the moment and they don’t know how to confront it, so the easiest way to vent is to target a scapegoat, i.e., your class. Whenever a student has offered me this review, I typically respond with a quick and semi-genuine “Thank you”, which I have found usually diffuses the situation (diffusing situations is a major part of being a middle school teacher).
“This class is boring.” If a kid says this to you, then take it as a badge of honor; I know I do. Any student who tells you that your class is boring is not actually referring to the lessons and content of the class; what they really mean is that in your class they don’t get to talk off topic and joke around with their friends any time they please. Also, they’re not allowed to leave their seat whenever the moment strikes them. “This class is boring” is code for “You have solid classroom management skills”, and you will usually only hear it from students that historically are more likely to push the boundaries of the classroom expectations. I have students that are completely wrapped up in the independent reading books that they are reading in my class, so much so that they will take them into the halls with them when we take restroom breaks, and yes, these same students have told me that my class is boring. Once again, don’t take anything a middle schooler says personally.
They need to move some during class. My favorite professional learning sessions are always the ones that tend to be more interactive. I’m not nearly as engaged in an hour long session in which I’m in my seat for the entire 60 minutes, and our students aren’t either. Middle school students are like overgrown elementary kids with bodies that are growing and surging with hormones. The boys literally cannot be still for extended periods of time. Plan for 5 to 8 minutes of class time that will allow the kids to be free of their chairs so that they can stretch out and move about. I’ve been known to hold “Rocks, Paper, Scissors” tournaments after our independent reading time as a way to get the kids’ blood pumping again before we move on to our next activity. These tournaments last for 2 to 3 minutes, and they serve as excellent brain breaks for these kids. Another strategy I’ve used a lot this year to get my students out of their chairs is at the end of the class, I have everyone stand up with their composition notebooks. I then play a song on the overhead, and they can walk, dance or slink about the room. When the music stops, they share one of their responses to something that they read during our work session. When the music starts again, they move, and when it stops, they share again. My kids absolutely love closing out class this way, and some of my toughest kids will be dancing their hearts out to Justin Beiber between sharing sessions.
Don’t take anything they say personally. Remember earlier in this post when I encouraged you not to take things personally? Yeah, that’s kind of a biggie if you want to survive in a middle school atmosphere. You see, these students’ brains are not fully formed, so they do not yet have the development that allows them to control some their impulses. The result: they can say some rather rude things to each other and to you. I just try to reteach and dialogue with them when they same something offensive. I’ve had huge success from just asking them to put themselves in my shoes and consider how I felt about whatever they said. It’s amazing how giving them a little perspective can help them understand the power of their words and actions. If you’re having a tough day or you don’t have time to explain to a middle schooler why they shouldn’t say how amazed they are by how old YOU ARE, just give them a quick “Thank you” and move on.
Use a lot of self-deprecating humor. Middle school students are the fragilest of fragile. They have zero tolerance for commentary on their appearance or intelligence. This is why they can be so quick to make fun of others at this age. But you know what will really get them eating out of the palm of your hands? Make fun of yourself! I do it all the time. I routinely act like I’ve never heard of wildly popular rap songs in front of my kids, even though I probably listened to said song 10 minutes earlier on the drive into work. They love it! There’s something about being lame while not knowing you’re lame that they find hilarious. Last year, I pretended in front of a class that I thought when they said something was “lit” that they were commenting on the lighting in the room. The laughter from my class could be heard from across the hall. However, my relationships with those kids grew tremendously because they would take any free moment to try to teach me things that they felt I must know regarding slang and pop culture. I became sort of a project for them, and they entered my class with a positive attitude and ready to learn.
Fellow middle school teachers – what are some things that you know for sure about middle schoolers?