Advice for teaching middle school

I know many teachers are terrified of middle school. Elementary teachers see the kids as annoying and willful. High school teachers think they are immature and annoying.

I have joyfully taught middle school for 16 years now. I find them aggravating and delightful. I think the key is to see them for what they are “childish wanna-be adults.” Middle schoolers want to be treated like adults but act like children. At the same time they are confused about all the changes happening to their bodies, minds, and relationships. When I am most aggravated by my students, I stop and remind myself that middl schoolers are scared out of their minds and make poor decisions. That allows me to have more compassion toward them and also be as consistent as I can.

Here are a few general principles that guide my teaching and help me to successfully teach middle school students.

1. They are not here to learn they are here for each other

This is the mantra my mentor teacher taught me. (She taught middle school for over 20 years and was invaluable to my development as a teacher.) 16 years later, it’s still true. If I can build in structured “socializing” I can get more content covered.

What does this look like and sound like?

I always have student seats in pairs. On the first day of school I inform students that I know they love to talk to each other. I will give them time to talk but it will be class focused. Oddly, to a middle schooler that makes sense and is fair.

I teach my students what partner talk looks like and sounds like. The first few days of school we practice partner talk. I use Kate Kinsella’s “4L’s of Productive Partners” to give students clear directions for partner talks. Below is a sample (not my  room poster).  I also have a poster that clearly explains noise levels for the class. I give students non-content based questions to discuss with partners to practice partner talks for 60-90 seconds. At first I tell students who goes first and who goes second (“Door side talks first then clock side talks second”) but eventually they regulate themselves.  I then give praise to partners that did an outstanding job of partner talk.


I also countdown when I want students to wrap up their conversation. I learned to do this from one of my most challenging classes EVER. After repeatedly fighting for control with that class, I stopped instruction one day and we had an honest conversation about what needed to change. The students told me that they felt it was unfair that I told them to talk to their partner then suddenly expected them to shut-up. They were right. 12 years later that conversation still sticks with me.

Now I count down from 10 when I want students to wrap up their conversation. For extra challenging classes I use a woven rattle that I shake about 5 seconds before I count down. This is a non-verbal signal to wrap up. Oddly, challenging students will pay attention to the warning of a rattle more than my voice. Whatever works.

Once students are trained, I frequently use partner talks to give students a chance to talk but I give them the topic. I use partner talks to have students discuss a main character or what is a good adjective to add into a boring sentence. It takes less than 2 minutes from my instruction but adds time in the long run.

I have to reset student behavior for partner talk about every 10 weeks (6 for challenging classes). I feel it is worth it because they don’t take time socializing since I give them a structure in which to do it.

2. Knees under the desk


This book has good ideas but is can be overwhelming. Take what helps you and leave the rest for someone else.

I read this in the book “The Essential 55” 10 years ago. It has transformed my classroom. From the first minute of class I tell students they are expected to keep their knees under their desk. I expect this because their attention follows their knees. If they sit sideways they get distracted and end up in trouble for being off task. I police this more than any other behavior in my class. Because it eliminates most of my behavior problems!

If I set it as a standard from the second they sit down, my students fight me less on doing this. My more vocal students will argue with me and I simply repeat my expectation and point out that I noticed they were not sitting correctly BECAUSE they started chatting which proves my point. If they keep arguing, I repeat my expectation.

I have explained my policy to a number of parents and they all (no matter how hostile) will agree that it makes sense.

3. Set clear boundaries

In the original Jurassic Park movie there is a scene where they are discussing the Velociraptors. The old guy explains that they have to keep them in a special area because they kept getting out due to the dinosaurs repeatedly “testing the fence.” This describes middle schoolers, perfectly. They are constantly “testing the fence.” This means you need to have a strong fence or they will run wild and destroy your world.

Set boundaries and stick with them. Make sure you can hold the fence. Consider: entrance/ exit procedures, sitting in seats, late work, progressive discipline. What is reasonable to expect from these “child-adult” hybrids. How will you teach students what you expect (they aren’t going to guess)? What will you do when they don’t follow the rules?

4. Firm but fair

This is another mantra of mine. It comes from my father and his philosophy of raising kids. Be firm but fair.

What does this look like in a classroom?

teachingwithloveandlogicWhen dealing with disrespectful and argumentative middle schoolers – be firm but fair. Speak in a calm voice (as much as you can – I lose my tempter more often then I want even after all these years). Do not argue, repeat expectation. Middle schoolers want to know why before they will comply. I think that’s true of adults as well. However, I’m not going to engage in a debate about it. I will explain why once.

A book that helped me with this idea is Teaching with Love and Logic. It gives practical ways to deal with a variety of student behaviors.

5. Go slow to go fast

I learned this in a curriculum training. It really frees me from feeling that I’m wasting time by teaching behavior or that I’m not covering enough content.

It is really hard to teach right now because district and state people are breathing down our necks demanding we slam through a prescribed curriculum and then blame teachers when kids don’t magically learn everything.

That said, I carve out time the first week of school and the first week back from Winter Break to cover classroom expectations and procedures. Even a quick 5 minute lesson and practice on entering and exiting class can gain me time in the long run. If my students know what to do they waste less time or at least can’t pretend it is my fault when they waste time.

When I’m trying to teach a challenging grammar idea I remind myself “go slow to go fast.” This goes back to credential program where we all learned to scaffold learning.

Honestly, we can cover every idea poorly or teach a few key skills well. As much as I can I try to teach lasting skills well. There are content standards I have to teach (even though most of my students are not cognitively ready) and I do not beat myself up over them. However, there are a few key skills that I know they must have in order to survive in high school. Those I repeatedly come back to or at least cover 3 times during the year.

6. Dangerous, gross, or slightly illegal?

Middle schoolers love when they think something is dangerous, gross, or slightly illegal. With this in mind, at times I will introduce ideas or activities that I tell students meet one of these criteria.

For example I rarely let me students all get out of their seats at the same time. If I want them to interact with a number of students or do a gallery walk I introduce it by telling students we are doing something dangerous today. They are hooked! I then tell them they are getting out of their seats. They of course tell me that’s not dangerous. I respond, “It’s dangerous for me!” They think that is hilarious. Before they do the activity, I clearly explain what I expect and tell them it if because this is so dangerous. They buy in because I made it seem dangerous.

Another example is when I show a video related to a lesson. I introduce it by saying we’re not supposed to watch movies so they can’t tell anyone we did. Or if I do an end of unit activity, I tell students that they can’t tell the Principal about it (in reality the Principal doesn’t care). I’ve now made the activity slightly illegal. They are hooked.


Those are six of my tried and true philosophies for teaching middle school. I like teaching middle school because I know they need a calm and reassuring person in their life. Someone who’s not going to lecture them (they get enough of that) or going to let them run wild.  Despite what most people believe, middle schoolers can be a joy to teach.











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