How I Failed at Middle School and What Changed

how i failed graphic pic

Let me start by saying that teaching middle school did not come naturally to me. In fact, I felt like a complete failure at it. I taught 6th grade my first year of teaching, and not a weekday went by when I didn’t wake up at 4am in the morning from anxious dreams, praying that Jesus would come back! Yes, that bad. Sixth grade is a hard year to start in if you lack confidence and experience. They know. I think back at that first year of being hazed by my students and pity who I used to be. I was unprepared and clueless. This was me: I had a 6th grader throwing nickles at me one day while my back was turned. I had a kid cut my phone cord. The kids shouted at me in class. And I was at a complete loss for how to earn, much less maintain their respect.

Because it’s not in me to quit, and I had a two year agreement with Teach For America, I took a hiatus. In 3rd grade. I taught 3rd grade for 5 years, and I loved it! I came into myself as a teacher and gained confidence in my teaching ability. But, something inside me felt like I had left things so unfinished as a middle school teacher. Two years ago, when an opportunity came up, I went back to middle school, this time in 8th grade math. And you know what? Nothing had changed! I came back with experience and confidence under my belt expecting things to fall into place, but I had not prepared myself for what a special group of kids middle schoolers are. My students resented the high standards I set for them.  They defied my authority every opportunity they got.  My first year in 8th grade, I somehow managed to get every student to consider me their personal enemy.  I had one kid, in the middle of a lesson, run to the American flag, take it out of its holder, and run circles around the perimeter of the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs.  That’s what type of classroom management I had.  That’s the type of rapport I had with my students.

That summer, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the school year. And I continued to reflect throughout the school year.  I noted every small victory I had.  I considered every choice that I made that resulted in a frustrated and angry student.  I constantly thought about what I could have done differently.  Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to change a group of students’ opinion of you once they have formed it.  But the good news is, in our line of work, you get a brand new group of kids every year.  Each year, you get a new opportunity to re-invent yourself. So I did.

Last year, despite having class sizes between 50 and 70 kids (read about how I ended up with such a huge class here), my year-end surveys had responses like this:  “Thank you Miller for the amazing year I had as an 8th grader at Andalucia. It was an amazing year full of laughter and fun. I really enjoyed every day of it.”  And “Mr.Miller, I had an amazing 8th grade with you and the hulk squad! You all made this year the best, I learned A LOT in this class . I enjoyed every minute and I’ll miss you!”  (Hulk Squad was our homeroom’s name).  My year of reflecting paid off.  I reinvented myself as a teacher and the same high expectations that previous groups of students despised, came to be respected and desired by this new group.  What made the difference?  What did my experiences teach me about how to get through to young adolescents and convince them that you do indeed care about them?

Here are the game-changers:
1.  Relationships
2.  High Expectations
3.  Engaging Lessons
4.  Preparation
5.  Efficient Grading

Relationship.  This is where it all begins.  It is said a child doesn’t care what you know until they know you care.  Our effectiveness is severely limited if our students do not truly believe that we deeply care for them.  This year our 8th grade team focused on building a community with our students. We built a climate where positive relationships thrived and kids felt a sense of belonging.  When kids know you care about them, they grow to sincerely appreciate the high expectations you set on them.  They realize that you see something in them that is truly great.  The relationship is the key.

I strive to design my lessons in a way that maintains my high academic and behavioral expectations, but also excites kids about learning and keeps them engaged.  I frequently work in cooperating learning structures, so kids are actively working with one another in a highly structured way.  This can take time, but it is extremely worth it.  Differentiation is also essential here.  If the lesson is way over a student’s head, you’ll lose him quick.  But if it’s way too easy for your five little geniuses, they’re the ones who are going to start looking for ways to entertain themselves.  Each lesson must address all levels of learners (which is not always as difficult as it sounds, if you know a few tricks).

Finally, time must be spent outside of class preparing quality lessons and grading effectively and efficiently.  If you allow these tasks to take too much time, you’ll quickly get frustrated and burnt out (as will the people in your life that are closest to you, just ask my wife!).  It takes time to learn, but there is a way to plan lessons effectively so that every second in the classroom is used productively.  This sends kids the message that you truly care.  And grading can be done in a way that provides kids timely feedback but doesn’t keep you up all night.

 Stay tuned for specifics on how I worked these game changers into my routine. If you’ve ever experienced having objects thrown at you while you are trying to teach, trust me, there is hope for you yet!

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