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Advice for Teaching Middle School from Middle School Teachers

Advice for Teaching Middle School from Middle School Teachers


If you’ve never taught middle school before it can be rather daunting. Teaching middle schoolers is a lot like trying to herd feral cats—if those cats had just discovered sarcasm, social media, and the sickening allure of TikTok dances. For those who have never taught before, imagine standing in front of a classroom full of hormonal thirteen-year-olds, where half are more concerned with their phones than anything you will ever have to say and the other half are engaged in an intense debate over who is winning the diss track battle: Drake or Kendrick Lamar. Welcome to the daily struggle of middle school teachers, where every day is a new episode of “Survivor: Seventh Grade.”

Middle school teachers are modern-day superheroes, complete with the power to detect the slightest hint of eye-rolling from the back of the room and the ability to navigate the treacherous waters of adolescent emotions. Their classrooms are not just rooms—they are arenas where the battle for attention and knowledge is fought with humor, patience, and the occasional candy bribe. Teaching middle schoolers requires a very thick skin, an ironclad amount of patience, and a huge, immature sense of humor because if you can’t laugh at the chaos, you’ll end up crying in the teacher’s lounge to the broken coffee machine.

The best advice you can get is from middle school teachers themselves. These tips also apply to teaching most age groups.

  • Build relationships. 
  • Mess up so they know you aren’t perfect. 
  • Choose battles wisely. 
  • Don’t embarrass them. 
  • Be careful with your comments because you never know what they’re going through.
  • Remember that EVERYTHING is a major thing at that age.
  • You’re good if you get on their level and treat them with respect. 
  • They want to feel like adults, so always be honest, but they also need to know you are in charge and that they will respect your rules. I give them only one warning and get in their faces and say, “This is your warning today. If you do this again, I will be calling your parents/writing you a referral,” and then they usually stop. Always follow through, though, because you will have to sacrifice a few lambs so they know you’re serious. 
  • Take five minutes before class every day and ask them all how they are doing and ask them to ask each other how they are doing. 
  • Establishing meaningful relationships and clear boundaries are key! Spend the first few days getting to know them (and they should get to know you, too!) and establishing class routines. It will save you SO much time and effort in the long run. 
  • Avoid any phrase that can be followed up with, “That’s what she said!” Things are difficult, not hard, etc. A well-placed roast and humor are great for building rapport. 
  • Be real because they can spot a phony a mile away. 
  • Listen to them when they ask to talk because many of them NEED to. 
  • Love them all, from the cool kids, the uber-nerds, the chronically off-taskers, to the helpful, sweet girls, and sometime around May, you’ll realize they all love you back. 
  • I have a “rule number 1”. Rule number 1 is simple: don’t be weird. So when a kid starts acting out I just say, “Hey bud, rule number 1.” They smile and say, “Alright.” It works really well. But I also make sure to communicate how being weird can, at times, be important in life.
  • Keep in touch with parents at this age. I learn so much about their home lives with just one phone call, and then I understand what causes certain behaviors. When they notice you are interested in them and speak to their parents, problems should reduce.
  • Let them know they can come to you and trust you, but keep a solid line there because I have often wanted to give advice. They are still kids, but they are having to grow up in this world that moves too fast. 
  • MUSIC! Even use Disney soundtracks in the background. You’ll see them being young kids again while singing along. 
  • Kids just aren’t taught manners, and so in order to expect them to be kind and respectful, we need to teach them how. So, the first rule in my class is kindness. Regardless of how they get along outside of my classroom, everyone needs to be kind to one another. Though I have several rules stemming from that one, the one I reiterate the most is treating people how they would like to be treated. 
  • Have a drawer of snacks for kids who didn’t eat breakfast and let them eat in 1st-period homeroom/advisory.
  • My favorite go-to is putting things they do into perspective for them: “Johnny- could you imagine if I did to Mrs. Callahan what you just did to Tommy? NO. Because it would be so weird if two adults did that.” 
  • Share your world and the things you love with them so they know you are a REAL person and don’t sleep under your desk.
  • Be consistent with discipline. If you don’t follow through, it’s all downhill.
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • A lot of times, they want to see you get mad. If you make a joke about yourself or turn a stupid, rude comment into a joke, you win and can hold the class in your palm through anything. They are so insecure about themselves that self-deprecating humor takes the focus off of them, and they feel better about life in general, which means better class time, more attentiveness, and fun.
  • Be consistent with expectations; they won’t fight too much if you call them out, especially with phones. 
  • The power of play is so important. Patience, play, prayer, and… Tequila. Lots and lots of Tequila. They don’t get much love because they can’t control themselves, so they are initially unapologetic and wild. Towards the end, seeing the amount of growth they undergo is definitely worth the stress and alcoholism. 
  • Work on your self-esteem. It has to be rock solid, and you have to have thick skin. A low self-esteem teacher and middle school students equal disaster! 
  • Remember, teens are in their 2nd toddler phase and often act without thinking about their actions.
  • Never draw on the board. Somehow your drawings will only resemble a penis.
  • Give choices in work, such as how they present or which topic for an assignment.
  • Middle school kids have to like you first. Talk to them like they are adults, overwhelm them with kindness (even when it’s SO HARD), but set structures and routines like they are in elementary.
  • Be as sarcastic as possible. 
  • As goofy as it sounds, a reward system helps. For example, giving tickets for prizes and a raffle at the end of the week or something similar helps.
  • Try not to yell or scream at them. If they do something wrong, calmly ask to speak with them after class. Explain what they did wrong, what they should do next time instead, and what the consequence will be if the poor behavior is repeated. You’d be surprised how many middle schoolers simply don’t know how to behave in a school setting. They have to be taught.
  • Let them know your room is a safe haven from the outside world. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Love them. Love them. Love them.
  • If you spark their interest, they won’t stop surprising you. Give them sense and some space, respect their privacy, and let them know you care. In exchange, they’ll open up, make you laugh, and give you some life insights younger kids can’t grasp and older kids take for granted. 
  • Activities that include coloring, competition, or writing on whiteboards work really well. I also love using stations to tackle larger things like peer edits or revisions.
  • Remember that their hormones are so insane and uncontrollable that they don’t even know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it 99% of the time!
  • Middle school boys act as a wolf pack. The largest one typically has automatic respect from the others as a leader. The wildest one constantly seeks that place and will stop at nothing to gain the “respect” of the other wolfpack members by acting like a fool. Get ahold of this situation quickly by establishing relationships early with parents and document document document to help mom and dad understand the situation better.
  • Middle school girls can be vicious, so watch closely and intervene in any mean girl behavior.
  • Their main focus is friends and whoever they like at the moment, which will change depending on their mood. They will calm down if they believe you care. Constantly remind them that you are in charge but get the biggest “problem” child on your side- they will help keep the peace. 
  • Lunch forms have the most up-to-date phone numbers. 
  • When teaching middle school, you teach them more about being a successful student. The content you teach is just the vehicle for note-taking, studying, organization, and composition lessons. Each year is different, but I have noticed a major decline in manners, respect, and independence over the past 2 years. They were born with the introduction of smartphones, or close to that time, so more than ever, they expect instant gratification. Employ some kind of achievement or game factor into your routines that mimics gaming or Instagram notifications.
  • They will test your boundaries HOURLY, so remember they are still kids. 
  • Let them help and pass things out and use tons of positive feedback.
  • Always check in if they ate, slept, if something happened at home, or if they have problems in the hallway. 7th grade is the hardest year. 6th graders are sweet but need to be checked; 8th graders are older, so you can talk to them like they’re mature – they don’t want to be babied like 6th grade. Remember, you are in charge. Do not allow them to bully each other. Be fair. Never show who your favorite is. 
  • I’m a 5-8th grade science teacher. I love and hate them all of the time. They make me question my career choices one period, and then the very next, I remember exactly why I’m here. They are hard but worth fighting for. Try to remember where you were in middle school. 
  • Have deodorant in your classroom for ALL of them.
  • Middle school is like the golden age and dark ages on the same day. Middle schoolers can get it together better than elementary schoolers but lack the self-control and regulation of high schoolers. Their sense of entitlement and disrespect is off the charts, but they still love their teachers and often do acts of kindness. Just bring a plug-in, hand sanitizer, and napkins.
  • Ignoring behavior that is begging for attention sometimes works wonders. 
  • Don’t cry in front of them. 
  • They’re difficult some days, but they’re still learning. Remember, they’re still children, just in bigger bodies. You have to love where they are. They are just trying to make sense of their place. They want to do well. I think every child does. 
  • Be unconditionally fascinated by them. 
  • Remember when they’re jerks that it’s hard to be a 13-year-old – it’s not because of you.
  • Listen to them, and give them just as much sass as they give you
  • Give them “chill out time” if they are pissed off.
  • Don’t google words you don’t know that you heard them use or saw written down on their notebooks while on the school district internet server.
  • Get to know what they like: music, movies, celebrities, books, graphic novels, YouTube stars, sports, and athletes. These little nuggets can go a long way when relating information to their lexicon and train of thought. It’s challenging because some kids still seem like 3rd and 4th graders, and some feel like they’re going on 18. It’s a wide range of interests, maturity, and physical development, but recognizing that gives you tools. 
  • Get ready for the same joke every five seconds and kids coming up with behaviors you could never have imagined.

If it’s your first time teaching middle school, good luck! They’re adorable demons who are sure to steal your heart- whether you want them to or not!

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Jane Morris

Jane Morris is the pen name of an ex-teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself but is worried awful administrators will come after her for spilling their dirty little secrets. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in Writing and Literature from an even fancier (and more expensive) university. As a professional queen of commiseration turned published author, Jane’s foremost passion in life is to make people laugh through the tears.

She has written several highly acclaimed books unpacking the reality of teaching and life inside the school system. You can view her full library of works here.