So if teaching in middle school is not about popularity, what is it that makes students what I call “pickers and choosers”? They go into one room and are well-behaved and on target; in other rooms a whole negative side of their personality will manifest itself.
In one word, teachers must be “irresistible.”
But what makes it so intriguing is that “irresistible” can have so many definitions and descriptions, an elixir that draws students into their teachers’ worlds. It is not formulaic; in fact, having supervised many student teachers over the course of my career, it was the one aspect of their development that I had much difficulty nurturing.
Teachers have to find that personality trait, or talent, or background experience that sets them apart and draws students to them like a magnet.
Show how you’ve dealt with adversity.
My secret with middle school students was making connections in many different ways. For some students, the connection was that I had a painful adolescence. So many could relate to the experiences I shared with them. I was quick to point out, however, that I never used it as an excuse to check out from my responsibilities, and they could see in the living flesh a survivor, someone who had worked hard and gone on to higher education, got a job, had a family, and was standing before them as their teacher.
Capitalize on your flaws.
I even drew many students into my circle by capitalizing on, of all things, my flaws. I would always admit to my students that while I had many talents, art was never one of them. I’d make futile attempts to draw something on the board and they loved coming to my rescue. Over the years as technology progressed, students would help me and rescue me from all kinds of trouble on the computer. All of this served to illustrate that their teacher was human! We shared so many laughs over the years—how irresistible is that!
Share stories to bring insight.
I also told lots of stories to my students. It was easy to inject them into teaching English, but going off on an occasional tangent was good for the students’ souls as well as mine and fostered new connections at every turn. I never hesitated to share a story about former students or travails of raising my own daughter, especially tales of her adolescence, and I would watch their eyes roll or heads nod with empathy, sometimes for the mother, their teacher, and sometimes the daughter with whom they could totally commiserate.
Connect with personal notes.
As educators we all know that papers have to be graded, but I learned early on that red correction marks and a grade in the upper right hand corner made very little impact. What my students treasured most were the mini-letters I wrote at the bottom of their work in which I commented on areas in need of improvement, suggestions, and most importantly, what strengths I found, what had touched me—that human voice of validation. I was also known to hand notes written on stationery to students, sometimes to praise them, but especially if I was noting behaviors that I did not want to see turn into full-blown issues.
Work along with students.
My most irresistible attraction was writing along with my students. If I gave an assignment, I did it too. Sometimes I would model for them, but often I sat among them and composed a paragraph, an essay, a poem. I loved these moments because it allowed me the forum to explain that I did not always consider myself a writer, but through time, practice, and reflection, I uncovered a bit of writing talent, and I’d see it happen over and over again for many of my students who previously believed they couldn’t write.
Find ways to compliment them.
Adolescents are often so down on themselves or into the drama du jour that they seem surprised at the power of a kind word or two. Never falsely, but from the heart, I would try to find ways to compliment my students, welcome them back from an absence, or ask how older siblings I once had were doing. Between the issues of our outside world and those within the school community, we get so bogged down sometimes that we forget these simple connections and the power they have.
Leave negative emotions at the door.
I learned early on that middle schoolers pick up on their teachers’ moods and have even branded some teachers as “too moody.” I always tried to leave my emotions at the door, often giving myself pep talks during hall passing time and taking deep breaths before entering. My students would often mention that I was the same Mrs. Scott day in and day out. That took so much work, but I would see the positive benefits in smoother lessons and an upbeat feeling in the room.
Notice that I have not said much about the academic piece. The secret is that no matter what subject you teach, the human dynamic supersedes all in middle school. Successful science labs, art lessons, or math problems are presented by human beings who, hopefully, are “simply irresistible” in their own right.
Excerpted from Secrets from the Middle: Making Who You Are Work For You by Elyse S. Scott.
Elyse S. Scott is a retired English teacher who began her career teaching at the community college level but found her true passion: teaching middle school.