If you’ve spent any time around teenagers, you know… they’re so weird! Whether or not you’re wanting to teach middle school or you’ve already signed your contract, you are ready to go because this is what you went to school for. WRONG! You’re about to become the sole adult in a room of preteens who do not play by anyone’s rules other than their own. True, your college classes prepared you to be a teacher. I quickly found out there were valuable things they left out about being a middle school teacher. Here’s my list of things to know:
1. They smell BAD. There’s not even a way to sugar coat it. Middle school kids smell like a combination of body odor, sweat, feet, dirt, Hot Takis, Skittles, and Axe. Sometimes it’s necessary to find some way to bring it up. I usually stick to addressing it passively by joking with the whole class and telling them deodorant is important because they all stink… because you can do that in middle school. Often times you will have to smile and suffer through it because it’s (hopefully) just a phase, and chances are that kid’s self-esteem is more fragile than an eggshell.
2. You will never stop repeating yourself. You know that episode of Grey’s where Izzy comes out of brain surgery and loses her short-term memory? That’s basically how a middle school student’s brain works all the time. You might as well pull an Alex Karev and put sticky notes with answers to their questions all over the room. Oh wait, you mean you handed out directions and explained it? Students will still ask something you already answered 11 times.
3. There is a list of words and phrases you CANNOT say. Nut. Ball. Screw. Rub. Thick. 69. Put it in there. These are not bad words in and of themselves, but say them in a room full of 13-year-olds and you’re sure to have a few giggles. Move past it quickly and show no weakness. Which leads me to my next point….
4. Master the “it’s not funny” face – even when it’s hysterical. The first week of my third year teaching, I started taking attendance. “Say ‘here’ and nothing else,” I told them. I called one student’s name and instead of saying, “here,” she threw both of her arms out to the side, made jazz hands, and sung at the top of her lungs, “I’M EVERYBODY’S FAVORITEEE!” In that moment, I had to choose to be in control. “How did I ask you to respond when I called your name?” to which she repeated in a timid voice, “here.” I called her name again, and she responded appropriately. Have fun and laugh, but do it at the right time. Not when students are choosing not to listen to you.
6. A positive phone call home is magic! MAGIC! I know – there’s not enough time. MAKE TIME! I started doing this last year and it’s a game changer! Parents love hearing good things about their kids. They also tell their kids the awesome things you said about them. This means you get extra great behavior for at least a few days – and sometimes longer! The kid realizes they are important and they matter. Invest the time to build that connection. On a completely selfish note – it’s a little bit awesome when a parent calls back thanking you.
7. They will think you are their friend – you are not. Set boundaries. This can be a huge positive WHEN you set your boundaries appropriately. They will not only tell you everything that’s happening on campus, but they also want to know every detail of your personal life. Engage them and ask questions. Answer their questions! But be smart. If you think their parents would be upset by what you said, it’s best to keep it to yourself. Also, following and allowing students to follow you on social media is a bad idea. Even if it’s not against district policy, it gives parents room to question your professionalism.
7. Classroom management, classroom management, classroom management!! I cannot begin to tell you how important this is! Classroom management has to work for you. Trust me, this takes time and a lot of trial and error. It won’t happen overnight. Do some research, ask other teachers, and whatever you decide to do, be consistent. Give clear expectations when you walk in on day one. Redirect as many small behaviors (and big) as you need to. If something bugs you now, it will more than bug you in April. Recently I got a new student in one of my classes and as I was announcing we got that new student, one of mine blurts out, “Don’t get on Miss H’s bad side! She’s so strict!” A few others joined in and said things like, “Yea! Don’t hold the Chromebooks by the handle! Hold it with two hands!” and, “Make sure you bring a pencil! She won’t give you one!” and, “But she’s actually really cool, right Miss H?” I didn’t know whether to beam with pride, respond yes to all of the comments, or put my face in my hands because they said I had a bad side! But they knew exactly what I expected!
Disclaimer: this is not necessarily about discipline. Discipline is different than setting expectations. See how I redirected the student in number 4!
8. Multiply your work times five. While you probably only have to prep for one class, multiply the rest of your work times how many classes you teach. Grading, copies, students, parents, late work, missing assignments, emails, paperwork, IEPs, 504s, conferences… everything. It’s overwhelming if you let it get out of hand. Come up with a way to organize it all. It will take a few tries to find a system that works, but keep trying.
9. Three words. Mental Health Day. This is the best advice I’ve ever received. It’s just a job. It will still be here when you get back. No one is learning if you are ineffective and burned out. Sometimes, you just need a day to wake up and drink your coffee on the couch until 10 AM. Call it a sick day – your brain is sick and needs to heal. Do it. Don’t feel bad. You need it.
10. A personal connection goes much further than demanding respect. All they really want is love and acceptance. Do not get me wrong – I’m not telling you to be their BFF. Set expectations and hold them accountable. You can manage that classroom all day long, but learning is multiplied when those kids know YOU are invested in THEM (and managing them is a little easier too)! Start a conversation as you’re walking from group to group. Ask them about the sports they play or their weekend plans or their favorite food. Let them talk about themselves! Compliment something they are doing well. Go to their games and concerts. They will eat up the attention and love you for it!
Teaching will be the most demanding, exhausting and trying thing you’ve ever done. The days will not be easy and you definitely won’t do it for the paycheck. But it is the most rewarding and fulfilling job you could imagine yourself doing. Knowing what to expect makes it just a little easier.