Survival Skills: The Teaching Middle School Edition

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I didn’t really believe the statistic I vaguely remembered about 50% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years.  But, alas. According to blogs.edweek.org, the research is true. What a shame! Teaching is the best profession of all time (second only to “influencers” who are paid to travel the world and post their pictures on Instagram.  That’s a pretty good job, too.) But, it’s also not a surprising figure. The early years of teaching can be overwhelming as you try to find your stride. After all, there’s relatively little support and so much to learn! Teachers don’t just teach, after all.  They’re expected to be disciplinarians, referees, geniuses, quasi-parents, psychologists, and curriculum leaders, to name a few. It takes a while to feel confident in any one of these pairs of shoes.  

I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I’m just starting to feel like I have a handle (sometimes) on what I’m doing.  Even now, I know that I have a ton to learn. In fact, three of my Christmas presents this year were books about teaching (which might also show that I’m a bit of a nerd.)

Anyway, there are a few tips that might just help out the fifty percent who feel like they can’t hack it in the classroom.  Here are my tips for surviving!

  • Give assignments that will be fun to grade.  Let’s face it.  As a teacher, you spend the bulk of your time grading papers.  It’s just what we do. English teachers have it the worst, and don’t let those ornery history teachers tell you otherwise.  Most kids will see a few comments on their papers and not realize that all those brief comments add up. Fast! Grading is one hundred times better if you’re reading something interesting.  Try to give students a bit of choice, so you aren’t reading about the exact same thing one hundred times in a row. Be creative.
  • Don’t grade every single assignment.  If you do, you’ll go crazy.  You’ll drown. You’ll go under water like a seal hunted down by a Great White shark.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just check for completion and call it a day. A fellow educator once told me that if the teacher is working harder than the students, that’s a problem.  I agree. Some things deserve closer attention, comments and a grade. Other things serve as practice and a little check-mark in the book is fine.
  • Students are people.  Remember that.  They aren’t beasts.  (They may look and sometimes smell like they are, but they aren’t.) Not only are they people, they are treasured people to just about all the parents they belong to.  They have feelings, ups and downs, other lives, complicated problems, and a need for down time.  Treat students like the people they are and, best of all, take time to form relationships with these people! Get to know them! Enjoy them! Teaching is 100% better when you have relationships with your students and when you look forward to talking to them every day.  If you are a parent, or even have a close relationship with a child, think about how you’d like to see that child’s school day go. Wouldn’t you want them up, out of their seats at times? Laughing? Enjoying their education? Make it happen.
  • Be consistent and fair.  One thing just about every teacher is told at the beginning of their career is to “not smile until Christmas.” You should be super strict, make sure students fear you and your classroom is a smooth operating machine, and only then can you start smiling at your classes (ie once you’ve got them all under control.)  I don’t think I agree with this. Would you want to spend an hour every single day with someone who goes out of their way to be a disciplinarian machine? Probably not.  Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of the year, along with consistent consequences for not meeting these expectations.  Follow through, always, and you’ll be good to go.
  • Don’t expect more from the kids than you expect from yourselves.  Teachers are the worst at faculty meetings.  They arrive late, don’t have their materials, talk when the speaker is talking, ask dumb questions, and–maybe I’m speaking for myself here–take frequent bathroom breaks just to get away from it all for a second.  And yet, these are the same teachers who rule with an iron fist and expect their students to be prepared, checked in, and empty-bladdered one hundred percent of the time. That isn’t fair. What we need as teachers, they need doubly as young people. 
  • Beg, borrow, and steal. Why reinvent the wheel? There are, according to nces.ed.gov, 3.6 million secondary teachers in the U.S.A., alone.  That means there are a lot of people doing this thing, and a lot of good ideas floating around as a result. In today’s world we have this thing called the Internet and there are oodles of these ideas to be found there.  How did teachers ever make it through the day pre-Internet? Use it! Follow blogs! See how other professionals are engaging their students.  Ask other teachers in your subject area how they did X, Y, and Z. Go to the web site www.teacherspayteachers.com and be a legit good person by paying other teachers for their ideas! Not gonna lie–finding and trying out new lesson plans is one of my favorite things about this job.
  • Don’t try to be cool.  Don’t put a target on your back.  Don’t say things like, “That’s lit!” or “Your shoes are fire!” You’ll get laughed at.  (However, if you want to be laughed at, by all means do these things.)  My mom was a teacher for many years and her coworker used to go to student parties.  I mean…what?? That’s just weird. And possibly illegal. Don’t be weird.  Don’t be illegal. They have their own friends, already. However, try to be approachable.  There’s a saying (that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now) that goes something like this.  “They’ll forget what you told them or what you learned, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” I just butchered that saying, but you get the idea.  Be there to listen, and be sure to listen, rather than expound on your own philosophy of life.  Be someone they look forward to talking to. 
  • Reflect.  If you go into teaching thinking that everything you do is the bomb-diggity, you’re going to be in trouble.  There is always, always, always, always room for improvement in this profession.  From day one of teaching, when you’re young and other teachers ask for your hall pass because they confuse you with the students, to day 6,000 when you’re on the verge of retirement and incontinence is becoming an issue, there’s always ways you could improve your teaching.  When a lesson doesn’t go well, acknowledge it and then try to make it better. Learn what students are interested in, and try to bring that into your lessons. Think of each class as its own individual entity, and treat them as such.
  • Get out of the way.  Don’t talk too much.  Get off the stage. This is the hardest thing for most teachers, myself included.  Students need to explore and work on their own. You can and should be there to guide them and answer questions, but remember that the average attention span of an eighth grader is 10-12 minutes.  So, if you’re still yammering away in front of the class after twenty-five, it’s not a benefit to anyone at all. 
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Whenever I feel myself getting all worked up about the standards, my students, their lack of motivation, etc., I take a minute to remember myself in middle school.  Put it this way–I spent the bulk of seventh grade passing a notebook back and forth with a friend of mine. For whatever reason, we thought the name Floyd was the funniest thing we’d ever heard of.  Even funnier was if we could insert ‘Floyd’ in to words or phrases. So, for example, I might add the entries ‘Floydilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Little Floyd on the Prairie’ to our notebook and pass it across desks to my friend Jodi, laughing hysterically as I did this.  (A lesson would be going on in front of us, mind you.) So…yeah. That was my level of maturity in middle school. Cracking up over ‘Floyd.’ And yet, I avoided becoming a derelict for the most part, and I’m a functioning member of society who can read and write, so I picked up some things along the way.  At the end of the day, it’s middle school. It’s not worth getting an ulcer.

In conclusion, teaching, like any profession, can be really tough at times–especially at the beginning when you aren’t a pro, yet.  But, give it some time and it might become the type of job where you say, “Wow! I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” It’s an awesome job.  You form relationships with kids, get to design your own day, and you get ten weeks of vacation in the summer.  I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous.

I hope these tips help you survive the 50% dropout rate, and make you the type of teacher who gets all giddy in September when stores stock up on college ruled paper.  It’s a good feeling.

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