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Take the Great Middle School Challenge

I am constantly amazed by how people view middle schoolers. When I meet people and it comes up that I am a teacher, the response often starts with an Awww, that must be a challenging job, and then turns to a dramatic “Why on earth would you want to...?” when I tell them I teach in a middle school. No matter how passionately I explain how much I love this age of learners and that these students surprise me every day with their energy for learning, people never seem fully convinced. The early part of adolescence is a misunderstood and underappreciated age.

The truth that everyone knows, and remembers from their own youth, is that being a middle schooler is downright hard. It’s often a time when classes from multiple elementary schools come together under one roof, throwing off students’ familiar social ecosystem. It is a time of change and adjustment. Students have to acclimate to several teachers and must learn the physical landscape of a new building and curriculum. Friendships change or end. It’s a time when the adolescent has to start to figure out who he is and how he fits. This struggle is real and felt by every student, whether they reveal it to us or not.

What many middle schoolers crave are connections--strong, solid relationships, but they are not always sure what those look like or how to develop them. If we really take this to heart, it’s transformative to our teaching. Or rather, it’s central to our teaching.

We don’t think students listen to us or want to be like us, but we often have a lot more influence than we admit. You can see it in small, subtle ways, like when they want to sit in your chair or use the same pen colors as you use. Look for these moments, and you may realize the influence you have--for better or worse. Let’s make it for the better.

Here is my challenge for you: I challenge you to invest in your students and build strong relationships with them. For your sake. For their sakes. For humanity’s sake. Let’s build better humans and in doing so, better learners. Here are eight tips you might try that can help you on your journey. I have used them myself and have seen each of these used with success in many middle school classrooms. It won’t always be easy, and at times it will be downright hard, but it is necessary.

I use the word challenge in the spirit of play, like a sports challenge or a brain challenge, or some quirky dare middle schoolers might cook up. It’s also, however, like the ice bucket challenge in that it’s done for a mighty good cause: the welfare of middle school students and the joy of our teaching.

​Consider Proximity to Students

Students often feel removed from teachers as they get older. In too many middle schools, the students’ desks are arranged in rows and the teacher delivers instruction from the front of the room, which reinforces the outdated notion of teachers as authority as opposed to teacher as mentor. If this is the case in the school you work in, it’s time to rethink the room. Ask yourself: Does the furniture allow for a close relationship? Or does it say, “This is my space and this is your space”? You might rearrange your desks into clusters of four or even pairs. Rethink instruction too. For example, you might create a corner meeting area which helps small groups feel connected to each other and to you but ensure what you do there is collaborative. Research strategies for student-led discussions; the paradox is that middle schoolers often feel closer to their teachers when the teachers let them talk to peers. Another way to use proximity, is to sit side-by-side with students more often. This can happen in a formal conference or when providing on-the-spot feedback or support for students. Students feel heard and seen when a teacher spends time with them one-on-one.

Be Mindful of Language

Work to use language in a purposeful and positive way. We can be careful of the language we use, the tone we take, even our body language, to make sure that we show students how to act appropriately. How often have you said something to a student and then later was like, "Oh man! I should not have said that." Here is a great way to add a mindful filter to what you say to students, Would I want my principal to say this to me, in this tone? If not, walk away and re-evaluate. Peter Johnston reminds us in his book Opening Minds, “Changing our talk requires gaining a sense of what we are doing, our options, their consequences, and why we make the choices we make”. Be mindful of the power of your language. It could have a lifelong impact. I like to remind myself that my words teach. My tone teaches too. If I consider myself a constructivist teacher, and I do, then my language has to be constructive, not destructive.

Avoid Public Reprimands

In the moment, it can be easy to reprimand a student in front of their peers. For middle schoolers, who aim to fit in at all times, getting scolded leads to embarrassment, and even shame. Thomas Newkirk’s book Embarrassment reminds us of the damaging consequences of embarrassment in classrooms, and I highly recommend it. I like to use the “principal filter”, would I want my principal to reprimand me in front of my colleagues? Probably not. Besides, rarely does public reprimand lead to a positive change. Instead, try quietly asking a student to talk in the hall. Having a conversation away from peers shows the student that you are interested in helping them grow as an individual not just as a student. The dialogue also gives the student your undivided attention, which is much more likely to encourage positive behavioral and academic outcomes than a reprimand.

Listen

One way to help build stronger relationships, humans, and learners is by letting middle schoolers know they are heard. When a student wants to share a story, a concern, or even an answer, letting them know that you understand is key to building a connection. A powerful sentence starter for this is “So what I hear you saying is…”. Or, “[Student’s name] your comment is an interesting one because…”. Statements like these help middle schoolers know that you heard them and more importantly--that you understood what they said. There is no better way to show someone that you value them as a person than by validating their words and feelings. Build better relationships by having purposeful and meaningful communication.

Acknowledge Struggle and Make a Plan

Too often in schools, especially in middle schools, we do not normalize struggle. Effort, vulnerability, and even failure are strangely taboo in the very place these states of learning should be talked about and even celebrated. As a result, an adolescent’s struggle can wind up being expressed through unproductive behaviors. Let’s say Billy starts talking to his neighbor and breaks a pencil when it is time to write. By breaking the pencil, Billy is displaying frustration by avoiding the task of writing. A simple private conversation can help Billy negotiate these feelings in a more productive way. Try saying, “Billy, it is understandable to feel frustrated when you can’t get started”. Middle schoolers need to have their feelings acknowledge so that they learn that having the feeling is not the issue; it’s their reaction to it that can create an issue. We want to normalize feelings for Billy, but also help him realize that there are better ways to react to feelings. Using phrases like, "I know this can feel challenging" or "This is hard work," can be helpful in validating the feelings of a student. Using a prompt such as, "What can you do differently next time?" helps middle schoolers create a plan for the next time they confront these frustrations.

Reveal Yourself

I know that sounds corny and obvious, but in the rush of so many students in and out of your classroom, it’s easy to put up armor. If we take the time to open up, our students will share more of themselves as well, which helps us to be more responsive teachers. For example, you might share a personal interest like baking or fishing. Tell a humorous story about a relative, a new pet, or trying to learn something new. Students will respond my telling their own stories and open up about their fascinations and fears. Open students are more likely to learn. For more insights on the connection between openness and learner success, watch Rita Pierson’s TedTalk titled “Every Kid Needs a Champion”.

Refrain from Taking it Personally

I am the first one to admit that students can push my buttons. A flippant comment or school work not completed day after day, and I get frustrated. As a young teacher, I used to think that showing my anger was a healthy technique, a teachable moment that would set the student straight. I slapped the student with a lunch detention or other punishment or retorted with a snippy comment. It took me years to recognize that all I was doing was wing modeling the very behavior I didn’t want them to resort to--I was showing them, this is what angry and frustrated looks like. With experience, I have learned to respond by taking a step back--literally and figuratively--to discern the why behind the student’s behavior and inviting a conversation. Students will often open up about the source if the trust is there, and if you literally provide the minutes for this exchange to happen. Plan to meet one-on-one whenever a situation arises; don’t miss the chance. Cast the meeting as an opportunity for growth. Use statements and prompts such as, "What might you do differently next time? Let’s figure out what strategies you can use next time to avoid this happening again. How can I help you?" By shifting from using an arsenal of punishments to a mindset of modeling constructive strategies, I became closer to students who challenged me.

Be In the Moment

Whenever a student speaks, he or she is seeking your attention. Whether it’s explaining why she needs more time on the essay, cracking a joke, or telling a story, it’s like a fishing line she’s casting out, hoping to “catch” you, to connect. It’s an awesome opportunity we have, and a responsibility, to respond to it. So, let’s use it wisely, let’s show the student what it looks like and feels like to have someone listen—really listen and respond to their thoughts and the individual behind them. A new teacher I know received this great advice “Keep your head over your feet”. I love this mantra because it is so easy to get distracted by the many, many, things you need to do in a classroom. By staying in the moment with your students, you invest in them as people, and you prove to them that they matter to you and to the world. Every child needs that and deserves that.

So, once again, I challenge you. Start with trying one or two of these tips, and then build from there. Most long-term shifts happen over time, so be patient with yourself. A middle school teacher’s professional responsibility is to have a strong relationship with middle school learners, so choose to accept this challenge. As Peter Johnston reminds us, “Make no mistake, when we are teaching for today, we are teaching into tomorrow”. Let’s begin.

Courtney Rejent is an instructional coach in the Ramsey Public Schools. Previously, she worked as a middle school ELA and social studies teacher in Paramus, New Jersey. Courtney is a member of the Litogether Think Tank and is a faculty leader at the Paramus Summer Literacy Institute.