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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Art of Managing Middle School Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Squirrels. That is what they remind me of. We were all that age once and we were all just like squirrels! Have you ever watched a squirrel? Zoom, freeze for two seconds, flick tail, and repeat. The trick for being a successful middle school teacher is holding their attention for more than just those few seconds. Believing that that is possible requires a huge leap of faith and trust.

It doesn't take long for teachers to learn that it is impossible to speak over middle-schoolers, and the "dictator" act may get compliance for a bit, but in the long run, only builds ill will and passive disobedience when you turn your back.

So what is left? How does a middle school teacher cope? Two tools: Distraction and Relationship.

I have found that middle school students thrive on relationships and respond well to praise. Having fun, letting your hair down, sharing personal (relevant) experiences with them builds those relationships. On the other side, getting to know the students' likes and talents creates a connection that allows you to push a student to greater heights than would otherwise be possible (thanks, Flip Flippen). But even with all this, sometimes their squirrely-ness is overpowering. That is when you pull out the secret weapon: distraction.

In the Classroom

I remember a situation a while back when my class of middle school students was working in groups, I could tell that they were getting off target because side-bar conversations were sprouting up. So I told them, "Páranse" (it means to stand up) and started asking them in Spanish to point to and touch several objects around the room and on the walls. I was able to bring it back to having the students talking (in Spanish) by asking them "What is this?" ("¿Qué es esto?"). It only took a couple of minutes to get them all focused again and we were able to continue.

Every now and then I got their attention by praising and rewarding a group with "Avispas" (the school mascot stamped on a sticky note used for extra credit). "This group knows what they are supposed to be doing . . . !" As soon as I did this, other groups got the message and I did not have to keep nagging them to pay attention and get busy. It’s amazing how hard students will work for a simple extra credit post-it, funny sticker, or smiley stamp on their paper.

Routine and Surprise

Routine and structure are also important for middle school students (thanks, CHAMPS), but so are spontaneity and obtuseness (out of the blue surprises). Middle school students need a structure to look forward to like the monthly "auction" activity where students could bid on stuff using their "Avispas" (extra credit post-its). I donated items for this that I got from conferences and workshops such as novelty pencils and pens, sticky pads, erasures . . . just small odds and ends. I also talked to school counselors and the Gear Up College Reps on campus and they usually gave me lots of college swag. I always had a mystery bag that they could bid on, too. To raise the stakes and spice it up (literally) I’d go to the local convenience store and purchase individual packets of candy like the sour pickle balls (students loved them!) and spicy tamarind candies (favorites in south Texas). Students would always ask me, “When is the next venta (auction)?” Of course I would tell them I did not understand and make them say it all in Spanish, but we always had a good time. When the students came into the room and saw the numbered envelopes on the wall (I had to put them way up high to keep curious students and students with sticky fingers from handling the goods). In Spanish I would say, “How much for envelope number seventy three?” and students had to respond in Spanish. Just like the price is right, I would ask them once they won the auction if they wanted to trade for the mystery bag or keep what they had.  Students really got into this and seem to forget that the auction was all done in Spanish . . . which was by design.

My spontaneous and often obtuse jokes and riddles also helped me to get students to focus again (once they get the punch line in Spanish). When I saw that learning was dragging, I found that telling a (moderately embellished of course) personal story was incredibly powerful, even in Spanish. A few of my students might have actually believed that I was a matador, but most of them played along with my stories because they were interesting, they could laugh at me, and it distracted them.

I have always believed that the best discipline plan was to have a good lesson plan, but for squirrelly middle schools students, you have to have plan A, B and distraction lesson Z. It's important to remember: Middle school students sometimes get flustered and frightened easily, but they also can be easily drawn into the learning with solid expectations, behavior boundaries, and crazy, fun, active learning experiences.

What techniques and strategies do you use to successfully cope with middle school students?

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Classroom Management

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Cameron Godfrey's picture
Cameron Godfrey
9th Grade Student

I'm not a squirrel. I might have only been around for fourteen years but that doesn't that doesn't guarantee me to be any less human or any less capable of trust than you are.
When did school become about "managing" students? Dehumanizing students as "squirrels" who are incapable of paying attention is no way to get them to pay attention. They're capable I promise. They're not being engaged so they're not engaging. We were all that age once, like you said. I was that age 2 years ago. I've grown since, I know, and I might still be just a teenager with the "epidemic" that is ADHD but I didn't go to middle school for the last 3 years to be managed, I went to be taught.
You have brought up some great insight that needs to be addressed, as many students are proving to be a hassle and to have trouble paying attention, but not nearly to the point where they can't be trusted to behave as human beings.

Zainab's picture
Zainab
K-12 teacher from UAE, Dubai

Thank you for the article and to bring this topic up .
I like the two websites you added.
I love teaching MS students they are hard to deal with but still I love them .

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