How does a person spend ten or more hours a day with adolescents? Pretend you're Margaret Mead. Study the strange ways of their tribe and learn to communicate with them. Here are my top five rules for surviving life as a middle school teacher.
Rule #1: Acknowledge the Tribe
Accept that adolescents are members of a strange, and highly volatile, tribe.
They are wild; they eat all day long; they stink to high heaven and don't even notice. Filled to the brim with hormones, facing the onset of puberty, the arrival of acne, voice changes, and all the other non-returnable gifts the traveling pituitary gland brings, middle schoolers are strange and moody beings. If you don't like a teenager's mood, just wait an hour. It'll change. You never know what you're going to get. In your 8:10 a.m. class, Sophia may be elated to the point of being unable to sit in her seat; run into Sophia during the 10 a.m. recess and she could be in a torrent of tears; by 2:35 homeroom, Sophia has a Zen look in her eyes and her nose buried in the latest Twilight book.
Some days spent with Sophia and her peers will make you wish you actually were in the jungle. It might be safer there.
Rule #2: Ride the Chaos
Don't fight the chaos. It's not going to end in the middle school classroom. Not today. Not any day. And today, your challenge is to teach the adolescent tribe to appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird. Just hearing the title sends them into the spinning circle of conversational chaos:
"What is a mockingbird?"
"My dad shot an owl once!"
"Wouldn't a parrot be a mockingbird since they always repeat what you say?"
"My dad says bad words when he catches me mocking him."
"Wait. What book are we supposed to have again?"
What do you do? Welcome the chaos. Embrace it. Own it. Make the chaos your friend.Listen to them. Take a minute to talk owls, parrots, and swearing. In the classroom, validating the students' emotions and a little bit of going with their flow is your way of showing respect to their culture. Their response? "You may not be from around here, but you understand us. Go ahead and do your thing. You are now free to teach your lesson with our cooperation."
Rule #3: Speak Teen Talk
This rule is hard and fast. Adolescents have their own country. If your lesson doesn't pertain to teens or something that interests teens, chances are it will go nowhere. Make it creative, interesting, and relatable. Grammar lessons about homonym errors embedded in a story about the Jonas Brothers? All the girls are on your side. A discussion about nature versus nurture? Ask them to imagine living on an island without any adults. Every hand in the room will go up.
Rule #4: Make Them Work for You
Most middle schoolers are always in movement. But there are always a few that have the kinetic energy of Ping-Pong balls. They're in and out of their seats. They fall out of their seats and clatter to the floor. You have to bring your A game with classroom management. Assigned seats will only take you so far. Always put the "live wires" near you and yet far, far away from the door. If Live Wire is seated near you, you can snuff the tip before it fully ignites. Give Live Wire tasks. Put him in charge of handing out papers, stapling assignments, collecting homework, or monitoring the chalk count. This lets him burn off some energy, all while he is fulfilling your goals-not his own mission of distraction.
Rule #5: Lawyer Up
For middle schoolers, everything is negotiable. If you say the paper assignment must be typed and double-spaced, expect that Levi will ask you if he can make his essay 1.5-spaced. If the font must be 12 point, Ellie will tell you she can only find 13.
Always agree with them.
"Yes, Levi. You can make it 1.5-spaced. Just remember to add another half a space." Tell Ellie, "Sure, use 13 point and then take it down one. Okay?" Always end by asking, "Okay?" Here's a secret: Every adolescent will always answer "Okay" to an "Okay?" It's in their script. So, grab your copy, learn your lines, and let the insanity begin.