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.
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.