A middle school teacher in Washington D.C. sent me the following question:
Hi! I like what you write and I have a question for you. I am a middle school art teacher in a Catholic all girls school. I have a hard time with 7th graders this year. When I give an assignment and the girls don't follow directions and I try to give suggestions about how to improve their artwork, I often get the response: "No, I do not want to do it this way. I like it like this, or this is the way that I express myself, art is for expressing isn't it?" How do you handle these students when they do not take instruction so well and they are so reactionary? I have been putting all my passion and energy into it because I love art and I love teaching, but in this new private school it is very hard to instruct! Please give some tips! Thank you sooo much!
Thank you for your question. First of all, I give you credit for being willing to teach middle school in the first place. I think it is the hardest age group for discipline. You can often love elementary school kids into behaving well. You can usually use logic with high school age students. I'm not sure you can count on either of those with middle school age kids! I do have a few ideas for you, however:
(1) Remember the number one reason for having high expectations for student behavior. You summed up a common frustration for teachers everywhere at the end of your question: bad student behavior can get in the way of instruction, and thus hurt student learning. This is why teachers absolutely must get a handle on classroom management and be prepared to deal with anything. This is one of my main motivations for writing my book about classroom management and this blog. Students deserve the best environment for learning possible.
(2) Don't make the mistake of thinking that private school kids will automatically behave like angels. Sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking that upper level or affluent kids will always be perfectly behaved. While it may be true that they usually won't have some of the extreme behavior issues like violence, these kids can still cause plenty of disruption in class. Sometimes it's easier to deal with a student who is acting outrageously bad than one who is acting like a brat. Bratty behavior can be a major challenge because there is more gray area there.
(3) My catch all advice for most discipline situations is true (times ten) for middle school age students - be unemotional when giving consequences. The most effective thing that teachers can do for classroom management is to know how they will react AHEAD of time to misbehavior. The worst thing to do is be reactionary. It's too easy to lose your cool that way. Even if the details of your plan are completely opposite of what I recommend, knowing what that plan is ahead of time will still be extremely beneficial for you. Never use anger and intimidation to try to get your way.
(4) Even subjective subjects like art need some concrete grade requirements. Art is not my area of expertise, but there are plenty of classes where grading is at least in part up to the opinion of teacher. When that is the case, it is best for the teacher to be as clear as possible about grading expectations and requirements. In the end, you are the one grading it. If they want a good grade, they have to do what you ask. If they want to make some earth shattering, high dollar art, then they can feel free to try to go public with their work later.
One of my coworkers once told me that he will never, ever let a kid get under his skin. I think this is a good mindset to have, especially for middle school teachers. Let's face it, kids of all ages can be rascals sometimes. When students do something that you don't like, try to resist the temptation to blow up at them and use anger to establish order. Stay calm, and be prepared to deal with the issue with clear and organized consequences.
If your students want to complain or challenge you, just calmly remind them of your grading requirements. If they persist, you may even want to have a light consequence for excessive complaining. There is no place for that in an orderly classroom! You can even give students a chance to explain their case if you want, and consider alternative consequences. Nothing wrong with that. Just be sure that you are keeping enough order in your classroom for learning to take place.
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