Advice From Middle School Students—and Teachers—to Educators (Opinion)

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see the first part here.)

The new question of the week is:

What advice would you give to new (or veteran!) Middle school teachers?

In the first part, Jeremy Hyler, Serena Pariser, Sarah Cooper and Keturah Proctor share their experiences. Jeremy and Serena were also guests of my 10 minute BAM! Broadcast. You can also find a list and links to previous shows here.

Today, Carol Pelletier Radford Ed.D., Joy Hamm and Jen Schwanke wrap up the series.

What the students have to say

Carol Pelletier Radford, Ed.D., brings over 40 years of education experience as a classroom teacher and teacher educator. She is the author of two bestselling books published by Corwin Press; Mentoring in action: guiding, sharing and reflecting with novice teachers and Early Years Matter: Becoming an Effective Teacher:

In my job as a teacher educator, I have had many opportunities to speak with students and their teachers. In one course, we discussed how to interact more effectively with middle and high school students. I decided to interview some students and ask them what their teachers should do to be more effective in the classroom.

This is what the students said.

1. Don’t be nervous. We can tell when the teacher is nervous and does not focus on us but looks at her notes. We need to get you started by saying something personal, like “How was your weekend?” instead of “Sit down and get your homework out”.

2. Help us meet other students. When arranging desks in rows, some students never get a chance to meet other children. This makes some of us feel socially uncomfortable because we never get a chance to talk to others during the school day. Think about how to set up partner desks or students so we can interact.

3. Celebrate our success. We don’t mind you putting our work on the chalkboard with gold stars or stickers when we do it right. It makes us feel good and we think it will make you feel good too, because then you have proof that you are a good teacher!

4. Keep the class engaging. If you take a lesson in front of the classroom, the lesson can get boring. We know that some students skip school because they have a hard time listening. Teachers who involve us have a better attendance in their classrooms.

5. Get to know us as people. When we sit in front of the class in a group, we know we can be intimidating, but we are people just like you. If you can find the time to talk to each of us as individuals and get to know each other, we relate to you better.

Watch the video we created to hear the students’ advice in their own words:

I’m sharing this video with novice teachers and their mentors to remind us that our students’ advice is what matters most. I encourage you to ask your students how you can improve your teaching! This video and many more are available in our free video library hosted by


Top ten tips for middle school teachers

Joy Hamm has been teaching for 11 years in a variety of English language contexts, from preschool to adult learners:

Top 10 “middle school musts”

1. Provide time in the classroom to model or work on organizational skills with students.

2. Be vigilant during class changes. Bullies like to blend in in the crowd.

3. Social media is the new café. Keep in mind that students can suffer silently without any visible signs of peer pressure.

4. Students’ self-esteem grows in an environment of respect.

5. Everyone has a story. Take some time to look into your students’ eyes and really listen to them.

6. Some students like reactions; don’t let them press your buttons. Count to 10 and lower your heart rate before answering.

7. Don’t take bad behavior personally.

8. Keep your mistakes out in the open. Show students changes or improvements from what you have learned.

9. Lighten the mood every day with a laugh (jokes, a funny video clip, etc.).

10. Imagine that preteen as the future CEO of Microsoft.

do not take

‘Let them talk’

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school level for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You are the principal! And now? Strategies and solutions for new school leaders, published by ASCD:

Two weeks before my first day as a 7th grade language arts teacher, I had what I think was my first and last panic attack. Tucked under my belt was everything I needed to get ready: four years of college, two years of graduate school, a teaching certificate, and a full list of 120 student names. But I had no idea exactly what to do with the next 180 days.

At the time I was working with my father on our farm. It was late summer and we were stacking hay in the barn. We were talking about starting school, and I was giving my standard lines …This is so exciting! My first job! Spread the love for reading and literature! I’m a grammar fanatic; can’t wait to hone their writing!—When, unexpectedly, I lost the ability to breathe. I broke into a million nervous and emotional pieces. “Dad, I have no idea what do“, I swallowed. He watched me cry, bent over my hay-torn jeans and panting.

Decades earlier, in the late 1960s, my father had taught junior high at a Friends autistic school for children in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was, by all accounts, excellent at this job. Farming had taken him north to Ohio, but he had remained a bit of a teen whisperer, not just to me and my three siblings, but to scores of other kids who had crossed his path as a mentor, giver of work and friend.

“Listen, honey,” he said. “All you have to do is let them talk.”


“Well, you know how to get started. You know what your lesson plans say. But whenever you get the chance, let them talk. And make sure you listen to what they have to say. He will guide you ”.

It was exactly the right advice. Middle school students need to talk. They want to talk. They have things to say. They understand the world in ways that we adults don’t, because they don’t yet have all the experience to change their perspective. They are immersed in a steep and rapid learning curve and are desperate for a place to settle their voices.

The “talk” should not be understood only in the literal sense, of course, or seen as a standard exchange between teacher and student. Once they know what they mean, they can write it down. Film it. Write it down. Take action. Mimilo. Experiment with it. Instagram or FlipGrid or Screencastify. Add and subtract and explain their thoughts and tell stories and repeat stories and elaborate and joke and laugh and get really serious about really important things.

So my advice to middle school teachers: let them talk. Keep an eye on your standards, your expectations and your philosophy; obviously, wait for those. But let their thoughts and words guide them and you.

middle school studentsjen

Thanks to Carol, Joy and Jen for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send me one at [email protected]. When you submit it, please let me know if I can use your real name if it is selected or if you prefer to remain anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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