Q: “My co-teacher doesn’t respect my time. I teach reading and language arts, while my colleague teaches math and science. This arrangement works well, except that he often keeps students several minutes beyond his class time. He insists the kids are involved and forget the time. I say it’s not the kids; it’s him.”

Suzanne: You are right—the problem is not the kids; it’s his failure to plan. And it’s important not to put students in the middle of a situation they have no control over.

Here’s what you can do. Talk to y:our colleague again after school. Calmly reiterate that you would like to start your class on time and that you need his support to do so. Explain that your desire for promptness isn’t about making him conform to your personal schedule; it’s entirely for the sake of your students. Studies show that the first minutes of class are prime teaching time and set the tone for the rest of the instruction period.

Next, be specific about how much time he has taken from you. For example, you might share that the prior week you lost six to 10 minutes from each session with your students. When you multiply that over 40 weeks of instruction, your colleague should understand why a few minutes here and there matter to you.

Suggest that he get himself a timer and set it to go off five minutes before the end of class. Be a broken record. Whatever excuse he gives, say calmly and politely, “I need to have my students on time for class. I need to have my students on time for class.” He may be a recalcitrant learner, but you need to keep him accountable every time your students are late. And next year, see if you can have your class scheduled before his.


Q: “I switched grades and am having trouble adjusting. I went from teaching high school to sixth grade, and I’m struggling.”

Suzanne: I can sympathize. I had a similar move when I was teaching.  I went from high school juniors to eighth graders. It’s a different world!

I have some suggestions. First, start class as soon as the bell rings to ensure kids don’t get too comfortable socializing in those first few minutes. Put students on the clock: For example, you can say, “You have 15 seconds to get out your books and a clean sheet of paper.” And give one direction at a time, not multiple steps, and stand still when you are giving them.

Check frequently for understanding: “Class, open your books to page 29. What page should you be on, John? Right, 29.” I strongly recommend that you don’t do any group work until you are comfortable that you can bring kids back to attention within 20 seconds. Finally, ask a successful veteran teacher if you can observe her class, or ask her to observe yours.

Middle schoolers are highly energetic and enthusiastic, but they are easily distracted by all the personal and social changes they are going through. They can be challenging, but they can also be a lot of fun because they’re still excited about learning and school. I ended up teaching middle school (and loving it) for almost 10 years!