3 Tips for Teaching Middle School

Part 1 of this series introduced you to the wonderful perks of middle schoolers and my own personal journey to the middle. Perhaps you’re moving to middle school after being an elementary or high school teacher. Maybe you’ve stumbled upon this because you’re a first year middle school teacher out of college. 

I’ve taught middle school for five years out of my twelve-year teaching career and I must say, I am still learning. Teachers are lifelong learners, and I am forever reading articles, blogs, and gleaning wisdom from more seasoned and experienced middle school teachers. The following tips are from five years of experience with this awesome and interesting age group.

Tip #1: Give Respect & Offer High Standards

Middle schoolers have moved up a notch and they feel like little adults. They may not always act this way, but they have a certain air about them once they move into the middle grades. I find that they respond best to respect (of course mutual respect is key) and being treated with high standards. They do not want to be “babied.” They want to be treated like little grown-ups behaviorally and academically. 

Hold them to high expectations, high standards, and high goals. They will rise to them. Middle schoolers are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you show respect to them as the mini grown-ups in training that they are, they will fulfill that goal.

Some ways I show respect to them is by modeling good manners, being cheerful and kind to them, and by not treating them like elementary kids in my discipline and academic expectations. 

Disclaimer: Of course, sometimes middle schoolers will grow too comfortable and not be humble in their new roles. They may not show you respect. They’ll believe they’re already adults, and that’s when it’s our job to rein them in and help them understand they’re in training to be adults. It’s our jobs to train them in the way they should go.

Tip #2: Understand Executive Functioning Needs

We should hold middle schoolers to high expectations, but we should know what we’re working with. It’s a delicate balance. Middle schoolers struggle immensely with executive functioning. Executive functioning is the cognitive processing abilities needed to stay organized, hold attention, keep up with items, memory, time management, and self-control. Executive functioning is not fully developed until students reach between the ages of 18-20 years old. 

Middle schoolers struggle more so with executive functioning because they have so many changes to also adapt to. From their bodies changing to their schools, to the number of teachers they have, to adapting to more rigorous content, it can be a lot all at once. 

Understanding that they are going to naturally struggle with executive functioning in the first place, coupled with all of their changes, will help you to know how to best help them.

Tips to Aid Executive Functioning

Here are some ideas I do with middle schoolers to aid executive functioning:

  • Constant, Repetitive Reminders-Verbal and Visual
  • At the end of the day, my homeroom goes through the list of every homework assignment they have from my class and their other classes.
  • Encourage organization. Have a system with the other middle school teachers in which you decide on how they will organize their materials. Can all of the students’ work go in a large binder? Will every class have a folder and notebook? Will all of the English folders be red and all the math folders be blue? Come up with a system to help them stay organized and hold them accountable to it.
  • Frequent locker, desk, backpack and binder clean-outs. Middle schoolers love to stuff papers everywhere and never throw them out. Do a monthly clean out or as needed.
  • Frequent locker, desk, backpack and binder clean-outs. Middle schoolers love to stuff papers everywhere and never throw them out. Do a monthly clean out or as needed.
  • Encourage students to utilize homework agendas and planners and teach them how to use them.

Most Important Tip to Aid Executive Functioning

  • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Not sweating the small stuff is something that you must do as a middle school teacher, or you will drive yourself crazy. One of my most favorite education professors who was a middle school teacher and principal for years, Dr. Roukema, once said to my class, “Don’t worry about it when they don’t put their name on their papers.” She explained how so much is going on in their brains and their lack of executive functioning will contribute to this. Instead, have a “No Name,” wall where you can put their work up and they can claim it. It’s not good to always punish behavior in which they’re learning. We should hold them accountable, but allow for learning as well. 

Another “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” is pencils. Middle schoolers forget pencils and lose them all the time. I’ve learned to shop the school sales or ask for tons of pencil donations at the beginning of the year. I have a jar that I’ll place a couple of pencils in weekly. Sometimes all the pencils are gone in a day and I wait to replace them. Sometimes kids will ask where the pencils are and I’ll say, “Well, we ran out. Borrow one from a friend.”

I don’t want them to get used to my continuous pencil supply, but I also have back-ups in case there aren’t any to borrow from a friend. I would rather them have one of my pencils than not be able to do any work. How would you like it if you had one of those days where so much is placed on you, and then you walk into a meeting and forget a pencil or pen. It’s a horrible feeling, right? I don’t want them to feel that.

On the flip side, I don’t want them to expect to always have something provided if they are continuously deciding NOT to be responsible, which is why my pencil jar can be empty sometimes.

Tip #3:  Don’t Embarrass Them

This goes along with the first tip about respect. Do your best NOT to embarrass your students during disciplinary issues. Disciplining a student in front of the entire class makes them feel humiliated and that’s not a good feeling. 

I have heard some teachers say that humiliation is part of the punishment. I do respectfully disagree. Students should be given a disciplinary action or some sort of consequence, but remember that they are children. They are still learning. We are still training them. They are bound to make unwise decisions. We should hold them accountable, but humiliating students can negatively impact the student-teacher relationship. They will lose trust in you. 

According to Counseling Today, “ ‘The research is pretty clear that it’s never appropriate to shame a child or to make a child feel degraded or diminished,’ Grogan-Kaylor said in an interview with MyHealthNewsDaily. He asserts that these kinds of punishment can lead to problems such as anxiety, depression and aggression in children in the future.”

Middle schoolers are at that age where every little thing embarrasses them. They find everything “cringy” and hard to handle. So, when a student makes a mistake or chooses an unwise behavior, embarrassing them during this teachable moment is not the best way to reach them. 

I like to ask a student to step out of the classroom so we can talk and give appropriate consequences privately. Some teachers may say this is humiliating to them, and maybe it is a little bit, but I think it’s the best option to handling discipline in a private manner. Sometimes I have students step out in the hallway to discuss something not even relating to discipline, so it’s not always synonymous with being in trouble. By keeping the matter private, yet still giving consequences, it can help preserve the student-teacher connection and relationship. They will appreciate that you did not embarrass them in front of their classmates.

Conclusion

Showing respect and giving high standards, understanding executive functioning, and avoiding humiliation during discipline can greatly help you succeed as a middle school teacher. Come back for Part 3 next week in which I give more tips on how to conquer the middle school world. 

Author of Blog