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My mom always says it takes a special person to teach middle schoolers. (She taught middle school, so I’m not sure what she was getting at, but I have to say, I agree.) Middle school is not for the weak. That said, it’s also not as scary as people make it out to be. Sure, most middle schoolers are unpredictable balls of hormones who make very trying decisions at times. But, on the flip side, they can be incredibly sweet, naive, and funny. Not to mention, they can crank out some seriously amazing art.
If this is your first time teaching middle school, then we’ve rounded up some of our best advice for you.
While this advice rings true for any teacher, it can be especially difficult not to take things personally at the middle school level. AOE Instructor, Anna Nutall, explains, “It’s not about you, it’s about them. Middle schoolers are experiencing SO much emotionally, developmentally, socially, and otherwise. Treat every day as a new day and respond to their hearts and minds, not their words and moods. In this way, you’ll find the best in them!”
It might surprise you when you find out some of the things your students are dealing with. AOE Writer, Lee Ten Hoeve, says, “You might not know the amount of pain, suffering, and home issues these kids are dealing with. So many young people are carrying some very heavy stuff on their shoulders today. Sometimes they are adrift. Give them a place to drop anchor and feel secure in who they are right now and who they are becoming.”
In a middle school classroom, being authentic is extremely important. AOE Writer, Abby Schukei, advises, “Be real. Be your authentic self. If you’re not, middle schoolers will see right through you and managing them will be difficult. Middle schoolers long for independence, but they also hold on to much of their innocence. They need you to affirm and encourage them. As much as they put up a front, they want your approval. So don’t be afraid to be honest and have truthful conversations with them.”
Anna echoes this sentiment saying, “While we need to be professional, responsible, structured, and filtered, we also need to acknowledge real feelings, emotions, challenges, and life experiences. Remember what they say might not be what they really think or feel – the pressure of their social environment is incredible.”
Motivation can be a huge issue in a middle school classroom. Often, teachers find themselves complaining that the kids are apathetic or uninterested in the projects or curriculum. It doesn’t have to be this way! One thing to do from the beginning is to really get to know your students and where their interests lie.
Anna suggests you, “Find their individual FIRE.” She goes on to say, “If you can get to know them personally in some way, connect to them as an individual. You will know how best to ‘reach ’em and teach ’em’ and it can make all the difference in getting their best work out of them. Intrinsic motivation is the key to amazing art. If you get them invested, excited, and engaged you can keep raising the bar higher and higher and they will reach it and jump over it with their incredible ideas, art, and passion.”
At the middle school level, it can be especially difficult to get to know your other colleagues. You don’t have teachers dropping classes at your door like at the elementary level, and you probably don’t have a full art department like you might at the high school level. Therefore, it’s extra important to make an effort to meet and talk with the other teachers in your building. Start by connecting with other teachers in the same situation, like the music or tech ed teacher. They will see some of your same students, so you can brainstorm when troubling situations arise.
Because middle school students are in this weird middle ground, you need to be sensitive to their needs. You might find yourself being totally goofy with a student one minute and utterly shocked by something that comes out of another’s mouth the next.
Anna describes middle schoolers this way, “Middle schoolers are intense, emotional, loud, silent, insecure, impulsive, scared, fearless, and some of the most sensitive beings in the K-12 experience. Encourage them to share their ideas in a safe environment. They want to have opinions and express themselves but need something to have an opinion and passion about. They are still finding themselves, and you can help by being a constant, predictable, caring adult in their lives. They want to be adults, but many still miss elementary school.”
Because middle schoolers can be unpredictable, it’s extra important to have clear classroom expectations. This includes a clear classroom management plan. AOE Instructor, Johanna Russell, suggests building a classroom management plan that gives students the benefit of the doubt. She says, “Allow behavior solutions with room for either party to be wrong or have a misunderstanding and to have it be no big deal.” This way, you create a trusting environment where students feel safe to tell you the truth.
However, be sure you have very clear consequences if students are not following the rules. More importantly, be sure you communicate with both students and parents. Johanna says, “The very act of communicating your plan will demonstrate that you have high expectations and students are better off picking a different teacher to mess with.” Johanna was kind enough to share the video she uses with her classes to explain her classroom management plan.
Starting in middle school, some students, and let’s face it, lots of parents, start to get more anxious about grades. While an angry parent phone call can be intimidating, there’s a lot you can do to make that scenario less likely to happen. The first is to have a very clear grading plan from the start. Ask your administration what is expected of you, then craft your plan accordingly. You’ll want to make sure you clearly communicate the plan to both the students and their parents so there are no surprises. Again, Johanna was kind enough to share what the grading system looks like in her room if you’re interested!
Middle school is a fun age where you can really start to speak about the role art plays in our lives. Anna recalls realizing that while her students loved making art, “…they had no idea that art was everywhere, was an incredible career field of dreams and opportunity, and that they could make a living and a life making art.” So, she started building partnerships in the community and bringing artistic professionals into her art room.
She says, “In no time I had students visiting galleries in town, volunteering for the arts commission, and asking how they could get art onto the walls of local businesses. It was incredible to me how fast they learned the many roles art plays in our society, economy, and personal lives, and how they grabbed on to those art-making purposes and found their connections and passions and …confidence.”
Like in all teaching roles, each day brings new surprises. Lee and Abby share a few funny moments from their classrooms.
Don’t EVER place your phone down on a table where a student can easily access it. They will immediately gather all their friends and fill your camera roll with hundreds of selfies. I’ve foolishly done this more than once. However, little did my students know they were giving me material to post all throughout my room… – Abby
I once had a student turn in one of my examples as his own. He even said he thought it was his best work ever in the rubric. Later, he admitted it was a joke but he gave it a shot.
You need to be on your game at all times! – Lee
Middle school can be a challenging age level, but with a solid plan in place, it’s easy to fall in love. Many teachers who thought they’d never like teaching middle school come to view it as their favorite age once they give it a try. We hope it’s the same for you!
Looking for more advice? Check out these two articles from our archives.
What advice do you have for first-year middle school teachers?
If it’s your first year, how is it going so far?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.