In my educational career, I have been lucky enough to spend a little time in each of the traditional school levels we tend to divide our schools into here in the U.S.
I started as a substitute teacher at the elementary level and have shadowed Elementary Principals in my Administration training. I have taught physical science to middle school students, and once again, I spent some time observing Middle School level administrators. The bulk of my career has been in High School as I taught Science and have been an Administrator at that level as well.
Staff often get stereotyped or categorized by the age of the students they work with. Some of these traits are true, but most are not. What I have found to hold true is that educators at all three levels care about kids and will do whatever it takes to make them successful.
Effective classroom management is the instructor’s ability to create an environment conducive to success for the lesson. This is no different in the middle school environment.
In previous articles, I have written about the need for the instructor to gauge the needs of the lesson and the particulars of the students in the class. There are groups you can allow to be more independent. There are groups that need more direction. You also need to take into account the physical layout of the room, is it set up for success?
It stands to reason you should also take into account the grade level you are instructing. Most would agree that a 3rd grader communicates, receives, and retains information differently than an 11th grader. They are in different places developmentally, and socially and have likely had a different set of life experiences to pull from to create their social norms in the classroom.
So what about a 7th grader? 4 years older than the 3rd grader and 4 years younger than the 11th grader?
Middle school grades are unique for our students. Students are undergoing a number of changes in their lives during this phase. Some of them are social, some academic, and some developmental. That isn’t to say that all students are going through this transitional phase at the same pace. Some will seem more like elementary students and some seem to already be in the teenage high school phase. These differences are likely to show up as behaviors in your classroom, and how well you manage them will determine the success of your lessons.
One year, I had a unique schedule in which I taught Physical Science at the local high school in the morning, and in the afternoon, I taught Science electives at the middle school. I really enjoyed that year because I got to observe the differences in the grade levels and my planning had to take that into account.
The content I taught in those middle grades electives was not all that different from the content I taught in the morning at the high school, but my delivery needed to adjust and I needed different classroom management tips to be flexible for each.
Keep reading for some tips and classroom management strategies to implement in your middle school classroom that I found to be different from Elementary or High School.
Problem: Students struggle when presented with tasks that are outside the normal routine such as lab work, group work, role play, or projects.
Solution: Practice makes perfect. Model exactly what you want to see, then have the students try it on their own in an environment they are free to make mistakes.
For example, in my middle school class curriculum, we were to dissect sheep brains. I knew this was going to be a challenge for them so I planned a dissection safety lab for the week before in which I had oranges to dissect.
This was a low-stakes method to teach them how to utilize the tools and to prepare them for what they were likely to experience in the real lab.
Problem: The energy level is Off. The. Charts.
Solution: Design your class like a small community. Everyone needs a role to fulfill to make the community function.
Draw up a “contract” that states all the roles and then go about assigning students to fulfill them. This works best after you get to know your students.
Do you have a student who is overly active to start the lesson every day? Consider having him/her in charge of supplies.
This gives them an outlet to get rid of some energy, interact with classmates, and a vital role in your classroom community.
Problem: Students don’t show appropriate respect to each other or to staff. This often manifests itself in name-calling or talking out of turn.
Solution: Use restorative circles to teach empathy in your classroom.
My suggestion is to start this process early with icebreakers or even with academic content. Your goal is to create a scenario where an individual can speak and be heard by the room. Keep it positive and keep it brief.
Once you set the routines, you can utilize circles to corral a lesson that goes awry or to head off peer-to-peer conflicts before they get out of hand.
Problem: You're struggling to create positive relationships with students. Middle School students can be a tough crowd! But that doesn’t mean you can’t create relationships that lead to academic success.
Solution: Survey your students to find a set of interests you can utilize in casual interactions. This is great for middle grades as this is often a phase where students begin to feel a strong connection with the activities they participate in.
Have some rowdy boys who like baseball? Study up and surprise them by dropping some baseball knowledge in your bellringer one day.
The goal is to make yourself relatable and show that you care about them as a full person.
These are just a handful of helpful strategies I found to be uniquely effective in the middle school setting. But many things hold true regardless of grade level and when it comes to classroom management you need to always communicate your expectations above all else.
When setting these ask yourself 3 questions:
If you think through these 3 questions when planning your lessons, you’ll prevent yourself from reacting with emotion. Instead, you’ll have plans that prevent problems and you’ll have a sound strategy to fall back on when things go awry.
Two things should stand out as important for you to thrive as a middle school teacher: relationships and planning.
The better you can relate to your students the easier it is to keep their engagement level high. High School instructors are often great at building relationships because, at that grade level, students tend to tie their identity to activity and interests.
The more organized your plan, the better. Have a plan, and be able to adjust your plan.
Elementary instructors tend to be great planners. Young students often need structures and routines to thrive in education.
The best middle school teachers need to be great at both.