What I wish I would have known my first year of teaching middle school…
Teaching middle school is a challenging job. We all have memories of our middle school years and how awkward and bratty we were. Teaching middle school is a whole different beast. It’s your job to get a group of pubescent students who mostly hate work of any kind, and somehow get them to learn stuff and not beat each other up. But on a good day, teaching middle school is the most rewarding job you can ever have. It is fun, no day is ever the same, and you get to help shape our next generation of leaders. Here are a few of the things I wish I would have known before my first year of teaching middle school English.
Learn their names ASAP
This sounds simple, but above all else, this is the golden rule of teaching middle school. You will probably have a lot of students, but “I’m not good with names” is an excuse that needs to immediately be tossed from your vocabulary. Learn their names, learn the correct pronunciation, learn their faces, and do it as quickly as possible. This will help with classroom management, as yelling “hey!” in the general direction of a student and hoping they listen to you is extremely ineffective. It also helps create an inclusive and respectful classroom culture. If you can’t be bothered to learn your students’ names, why should they be bothered to care in your class? Trust me, if they think you don’t care, you’ve already lost them. No matter how hard you try, not all of your students are going to always love you, but by learning their names and getting to know them, a lot of your students will become endeared to you. Mutual respect is crucial and if they know that you care, they are way more likely to care too.
Make teacher allies
The school year at moments can feel like an episode of Survivor. You’re stranded on an island, you don’t know who you can trust, and everyone smells bad. This is why you need an alliance. Make an effort right away to establish a rapport with the other teachers. Strong friendships with other teachers are a saving grace. They can give you the low down on the best substitute teachers, they can give you tips for staying on good terms with administration, and if they teach the same subject, they can even help you lesson plan and write assignments. Teaching can feel lonely at times, but having friends in the trenches with you can boost morale and keep you going. By having teacher friends, you can stay encouraged and supported, and always have people to commiserate with. It can be tempting to eat lunch by yourself in your room the first year when you feel like you have work piled on work piled on work, but take the 30 minutes to eat lunch with your coworkers; have a laugh and a take a break.
All of your students will be reading and writing at different levels
Even if your classes are divided into honors and standard level classes, your students will be coming to you with a variety of reading and writing levels. This can make lesson planning challenging to try and come up with activities that are accessible, yet still challenging, for all of your students. Whenever possible, try to plan lessons that provide material for each student’s individual ability level. Creative writing activities are a great way to keep students engaged at their level but still be encouraged to push themselves to be better. Individual reading books are another great way to provide material that is appropriate for all students.
Protect your Expo markers
School supplies are a precious commodity and must be protected at all cost. The most precious school supply of all are markers for your whiteboard. It can be tempting to open a fresh pack of markers, full of a rainbow of possibilities, and put them all out on the board. DO NOT DO THIS. They will go missing. They will be destroyed. They will lose their cap and wither away in a shriveled heap of wasted potential. Keep your new markers in a safe location, like a desk drawer or supply closet, and use them only when you truly need them. Otherwise, you will be plowing through a new pack of Expo markers weekly. The same goes for PENCILS. No matter how many times you give a student a pencil, he or she will be back the next day needing another one; personally, I think it’s a battle you don’t want to fight. Just have a large supply on hand and keep them hidden away.
Some of your best ideas will end up being a total nightmare
There’s nothing like having an “aha!” moment and being swept up in the idea of the perfect project/lesson/etc., only to try it out in the classroom to see it epically fail. I can’t tell you how many of my brilliant ideas, especially in my first year of teaching, totally bombed in the classroom. But that is okay. To be a good teacher, you have to constantly be adapting your content and delivery to successfully reach your students. What works for one class, might not work for another. Don’t be afraid to adapt, or sometimes even toss out an idea entirely. Keep track of your changes and document what worked well and this will save you so much time in your second year of teaching.
Structure, structure, structure
Organize your class in a manner that is consistent and easy to follow. Students should never have to wonder what they’re supposed to be doing. It helps to have a schedule and instructions written out on the board, or a handout, and this will save you from having to repeat instructions a million times. The beauty of teaching is that every day is different, but you don’t want your class to be so wildly different that students don’t know what to expect. If you can teach your students the general structure and expectations for your class, you can empower them to take charge of their own learning. But if they never know if it’s silent reading time, or group work time, a lot of what can feel like classroom management issues will just be them talking and trying to figure out what’s going on. Keep your class organized, and clearly and consistently present classroom expectations, and this will make your life so much easier. Building structure is also incredibly useful when it comes to substitutes. If you’re absent one day, which eventually you will be, your kids will know how to act, what to do, and there will be no excuses.
Always have back up ideas planned
You never know when your technology will act up, or the printer breaks, or a kid in the back row gets a nose bleed in the middle of class. Set yourself up for success and always have backup activities prepared. These can be as simple as a worksheet, or a website with educational games, or a writing prompt on the board for a free write. If you can keep your students constantly engaged and busy, they will have less opportunity to act up. They are middle schoolers, so they will always find an opportunity to act up, but at least this way it can be minimized. Pacing your class will be a challenge in your first year of teaching. Activities that seem simple may end up requiring a lot of time for explanation, and students may surprise you by quickly blazing through more complex activities that you thought would take them a long time. By always having backup activities, you can ensure that every student in your class always has something to do.
Master the art of the seating chart
A well-constructed seating chart is like the Wonka golden ticket of middle school classroom management. This will take a minute to perfect as you continually get to know your students throughout the year. But a good seating chart will eliminate a lot of potential classroom management issues. When you learn that chatty Kathy is much quieter next to shy Julio, and angry Kevin is actually calm when he’s in a group with patient Jamal, you can set your classroom up for success. The seating chart can prevent undesired classroom behavior, and it can place your students in the best atmosphere for learning. Make sure to put students with poor eyesight where they can actually see the board, put students who are hard of hearing somewhere they can hear and clearly see all written instructions, and whenever possible put ELL (English Language Learner) students near someone who can help them translate directions.
Never deal with issues publicly that can be dealt with privately
Teaching can sometimes feel like learning how to juggle chainsaws with one arm tied behind your back. There are a lot of tasks that you have to do simultaneously, and this becomes even harder when you have a student who is acting out. If at all possible, resist the urge to publicly discuss this behavior in front of your entire class. Keep yourself focused on the desired result; a well-behaved class. Giving public attention to negative behavior can derail your class in a myriad of ways. It can encourage attention-seeking students to continue acting out, it can distract students who would otherwise be productive, and it can embarrass students and cause them to lash out even more. It is always more effective to address these matters without the nosy attention of your entire classroom.
Eat food and drink water
There is nothing worse than a room full of noisy teenagers when you’re hungry. Your first year of teaching is going to be tough, but you must prioritize yourself and your health. Take the time to eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and fill your water bottle. If you aren’t meeting your basic needs, you can’t be a good teacher. Even if it feels selfish, carve out time for self-care so that you can be the happy and healthy teacher that your students need you to be.
You will always have to pee
Seriously, bathroom breaks (or lack thereof) are the worst part of teaching. Sometimes you will only have five minutes to clear out your classroom, race through crowded hallways to the bathroom, and rush back before the bell rings. For me, I wasn’t weirded out by using the students’ bathroom… and it just so happened to be closer to my room than the employee bathroom, so that’s where I would go in-between classes. Try to go before your best behaved class, that way if you are running thirty seconds behind, you can trust that the students are behaving without you there. Other than that, just mentally prepare yourself now for the crushing need to pee.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed
Before I became a teacher, I was told repeatedly that the first year of teaching is the hardest. But it can be really easy to come into teaching full of great ideas for how you’re going to revolutionize education and save the world. You can follow a million teacher accounts on social media and see how these superstars appear to be doing it all and then place those sky-high expectations on yourself. High expectations and dreams are a great thing to have, but just remember to treat yourself with compassion on days where it feels like nothing went right. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and just remember that no one (and that includes you) is perfect. Do your best and always strive to do better, but remember that you’re human and you’re going to make mistakes. Just like your students, you’re learning every day too.
Embarking on your career as an educator may feel overwhelming, but don’t forget to stop along the way and enjoy the ride. Prepare for the year as much as you can, but at the end of the day, all you can do is your best. You will have near perfect days, and you’ll have days that are a nightmare. But the world needs more compassionate educators who are willing to get to know their students and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Take the sage advice of educators who came before you, and enjoy your first year of teaching middle school!Attachments area