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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

Students were working in groups last week and 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 get their attention by praising and rewarding a group with "Avispas" (Hornets stamped on a sticky note used for extra credit). "This group knows what they are supposed to be doing...!" As soon as I do this, other groups get the message and I do not have to keep nagging them to pay attention and get busy. Those extra credit stickers work the same way.

Routine and structure are important for middle school students (thanks, CHAMPS), but so are spontaneity and obtuseness. Students need something to look forward to like the "auction" activity where students can bid on stuff using their "Avispas." I use items for this that I get from conferences and workshops -- novelty pencils and pens, pads, erasures, just small odds and ends. I always have a mystery bag that they can bid on, too. Students really get into this and seem to forget that it is all done in Spanish, which is by design. My spontaneous jokes and riddles help me to get students to focus again (once they get the punch line in Spanish). Personal stories are incredibly powerful, even in Spanish. Few of my students actually believe that I was a matador, but they play along with my stories because it distracts them.

I have always believed that the best discipline plan is to have a good lesson plan, but for 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, while also being easily drawn into the learning with solid expectations and behavior boundaries.

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

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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