Walk into any education conference and mention that you work with middle school students. You’re likely to experience a response akin to, “Oh, wow. I don’t know how you do it.” Whether paired with a pitying smile or a laugh, the meaning is the same: you must be a glutton for punishment to want to work with middle schoolers!
Middle school students are in the transitional period between being a child and becoming an adult. They have hormones coursing through their veins that they aren’t yet sure what to do with. They have an intense need to be accepted by their peers. And they are trying on new identities every week, day, or hour. I like to think of middle schoolers as mercurial. Working to cultivate these adolescent learners requires a delicate balance of structure, freedom, and emotional support.
As for that lingering question, the one in the eyes of people who think middle school teachers are impossibly brave for working with this age group, the way that you teach middle school students is through engagement. There are many ways to engage adolescent learners, but key to them all is authenticity. By creating authentic learning experiences and being authentic during interactions with students, teachers can engage, and therefore teach, middle school learners.
What does it mean to be authentic?
The very first lesson I was ever taught on how to be a great teacher was to never lie to kids. First, it sets a bad example. Second, they can spot a lie from a mile away. Middle school students can tell if you aren’t being level with them, and this colors their opinions of you as a teacher. No, the goal isn’t for every student to want to be your friend, but building relationships with anyone, especially those you have authority over, must start with trust. Students are asked to trust that teachers have their best interests in mind, and by the time they’ve entered middle school, many have experienced teachers who did not.
What that means for teachers, or anyone interacting with middle schoolers, is that the onus of proving trustworthiness is on you. To cultivate credibility with your students, follow some simple guidelines.
- Admit when you don’t know something.
- Demonstrate a sincere interest in your students’ lives.
- Learn to recognize your own biases.
Admitting that you don’t know something, especially if it’s within your subject matter, can be terrifying for a teacher. But it really is okay. Not knowing something can turn into a great learning opportunity for everyone involved. Most middle school students don’t think that teachers are all-knowing. So instead of making up an answer to that question about why Shakespeare wrote that poem or when that book was published, work with students to find the answer. It’s a great time to practice inquiry, research, and critical thinking with students. Rather than ending a conversation with a guess, you can engage students in an investigation of the topic. After all, people are more motivated to learn when they have a choice in what they’re learning about.
Read part 2 of Authentic Learning in the Middle School Classroom here.
Learn the how-tos from educational leaders who have made tremendous middle school student literacy gains with powerful engagement techniques, essential reporting and assessment processes, and recommended teacher resources.
Watch the on-demand recording here.