Whenever I tell people that I teach at a middle school, people respond with “Middle school? I could never do that,” or “Middle schoolers are so awkward,” which is exactly why I LOVE it!. Middle schoolers have the best sense of humor, are unintentionally funny, and they still think your jokes (well, sometimes) are funny. These students bring me so much JOY. Coming from someone who spent 2 years in a high school, middle school is where it is at! Now you can only have this experience with this age of students if you are creating positive classroom culture that is safe, respectful, and engaging. This culture is not easy to accomplish, but when you have mastered setting a positive culture in your classroom, student learning will flow out of that. Today, I am going to share a couple of things that have made all of the difference in creating positive classroom culture.
Creating Positive Culture in the Middle School Classroom
Sidenote: To begin, you must have strong routines and procedures and clear and consistent expectations and consequences. In order for some of these ‘joy factors’ to work, students must know what to do and when to do them and what happens if they don’t do what you ask. This is not that post, but stay tuned because next week I will be posting on routines and procedures for the middle school classroom.
Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage writes “based on a wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.” In order for students to be successful, they have to be happy. You only have so much control of the happiness of your individual students, but you do play a role of how your students feel in your classroom. Are you polite to them? Do you speak to them kindly? Do you speak to them kindly even when they are making poor choices? How do you speak to students when you are frustrated? I often would fall into the trap of having a frustrating class period, and then taking it out on my next class. Anyone else guilty of this?
A former administrator once snapped at me after I asked a clarifying question in a staff meeting. I knew she wasn’t frustrated with me, but it absolutely affected how I felt about our relationship, and how I felt going to work for the remainder of the year. If a reasonable adult can be affected by something like that, how much more will a 12 year old? One way to foster a positive classroom culture is through manners. Just like you would expect your students to say please and thank you, you must demonstrate this in all of your interactions. This is very hard to do. Especially at 3 pm on a Friday.
Be Funny and Relevant
Me telling you to “be funny” is just about as helpful as you telling your students to “learn math,” so let me give you an idea on how I do this. I use fill-in-the-blank notes.
Andrea went to the store to buy pineapples. She bought 4 pounds for $12.20. What is the unit rate for pineapples?
This question wouldn’t necessarily be engaging or solicit laughs, but middle schoolers are SO much better at being funny. Instead, the student notes would look like this.
_________________ went to the _____________ to buy ______________. S/he bought 4 pounds for $12.20. What is the unit rate for _________________?
Students LOVE coming up with scenarios. What ends up happening is that you develop inside jokes with your specific class periods. For example, I had a student named Monica this year. Every time she volunteered a fill in the blank problem, she would reference cats. Every. Single. Time. Well, because of her love for felines, our class coined the nickname, Monicat for her.
Another reason that fill in the blank notes are helpful is that it allows you to stay relevant. You do not have to go back and change your dated One Direction reference in word problems. Less work = happy teacher.
Saying Every Students’ Name
I realize that most middle school teachers have 100+ (okay 150+) students. This is the exact reason why I believe saying every students’ name each and everyday can be an influential habit to form. In a busy day with only hour long classes, it is very possible that a quiet student could go all day without being acknowledged by name. Whether that be greeting them at the door by name or using their name when you call on them to answer a question, it builds rapport.
I liked incorporating this quick acknowledgement during the warm up as I walked around to check homework and then throughout again the class period. By utilizing a student’s name you are communicating that you value them and their contribution to the classroom.
It also gives a bit of ground to stand on when students refer to you as “Miss”. I would remind them that I was able to learn 100+ names, they surely were capable of learning seven. 😉
Brand Your Classroom
Give your classroom some kind of identity besides what the subject is or who the teacher is. This does not have to be a theme, but can be. What can students say about the time they spend in your room? Could they talk about how hard they work? Do students get an opportunity to see how much growth they have made? Could they share an activity that they love or something funny that the teacher always says?
My class brand happened organically. I was explaining how 2x+4=16 using inverse operations. I asked students to remind me of how order of operations work. Students replied that multiplication and division comes before adding and subtracting. Then, I asked what order we used to solve the two-step equation. We subtracted 4 and then divided by 2. As a class, we made the connection that when solving equations, we are using order of operations in backwards order because we are undoing the operations that altered the variable to begin with.
A slow clap began (or maybe I imagined that part) and I said “Math is magic!” while doing some embarrassing dance with my arms. The next day, one of my artistic students brought in a poster that read “Math is magic!” to hang in our classroom. I decided that I needed to bring my Harry Potter wand into class to use when I needed a good pointer or when I needed to cast a spell or two. I then began to tie the magic brand to the close of class by asking “who wants to explain how math was magical today?”
If you haven’t watched this yet, this will be the best thing that you watch today. Educator, Rita Pearson, gives a Ted Talk about how important relationships are in creating a positive classroom culture. Totally worth the seven minutes of your time. What do you do in your classroom to promote joy and create positive classroom culture?