Back-to-Middle-School: It’s All About the Relationships

Veteran teachers share their favorite hacks and tips for starting the year off right

It’s that time of year again – the halls of our classrooms are filling with that signature “middle schooler” energy. The beginning of the school year is such an important time – for all schools, but particularly for middle grades schools as staff form the essential relationships that will allow them to successfully engage students for the next nine months. We know that middle grades teachers’ relationships with students have a profound impact on young adolescents’ sense of belonging in school. So, how can we take advantage of these beginning days to foster strong, positive relationships? Veteran middle grades educators sat down with AMLE to share their top advice.

Setting the Classroom Tone

From the moment students arrive on that first day, you’re setting the tone of your classroom – and students are taking note. “Greet students at the door on day one, and every day after,” suggests Christine Thielen, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge, Illinois. “It’s a great opportunity to say hello to every student and also make occasional small talk about a sports jersey they’re wearing or a book they’re reading.”

An important part of that greeting process is ensuring you accurately address students, showing you value and respect them as individuals, explains Megan Vosk, Chair of AMLE’s Teacher Leaders Committee and a teacher at the Vientiane International School in Laos. She has a great hack for ensuring she doesn’t forget student preferences. “I’m using Flipgrid to have every student share their name, their preferred pronunciation, and pronouns so I have that recorded.” She also sets the tone of her classroom by printing and displaying open source “You belong here” posters in all the languages spoken by her students.

It’s also important to remember that most students will be in several classrooms throughout the day – sometimes for the first time when they start middle school. While you do things one way, your colleagues may have very different protocols. It helps to intentionally explain the physical space, explains Thielen, “each teacher’s classroom is set up differently so I take a few minutes during the first week to walk around the room and show students where things are in the classroom such as extra pencils, Band-Aids, and other items that they may need.”

In addition to classroom setup, the beginning of the year is an important time to set norms and support students in developing the social and collaboration skills they’ll need to succeed. A favorite activity for Joe Pizzo, who will be starting his 49th year teaching at Black River Middle School in Chester, New Jersey, is to take an absurd position as a so-called expert, for example that school should be held for all 12-months. Invariably, students respond with the expected reactions. But he channels that energy into having students assume the role of sophisticated reporters. “I teach them techniques to ask clarifying questions without being rude or inappropriately challenging.” Through this exercise he shows students that we can critique the message while not criticizing the person, empowering them with phrases like ‘Have you considered…” “Have you thought about…” “Might this be better if…”, etc. Now, he explains, they’re ready to employ that same skill set when they dig into content.

Activities for Building Rapport and Relationships

While each teacher may have their own approach, a key factor, says Pizzo, is to “meet them where they are and accept them for who they are.” That’s central to an activity that Joe Elias, a teacher at Eaglebrook School, uses at the beginning of the year. “I always start with fun exploratory games and activities they’re open ended in accessible to all,” he explains, “I try to level the playing field for those who come from families who are overzealous with academic pursuit of the summer versus those students from families who may have had other needs concerns and not been as academic motivated in the past or over the summer.  I try to have activities that begin in the classroom for all students regardless of their past experiences, skills, and talents.”

Another popular activity is read alouds using texts with relatable back-to-school or new school themes. For Vosk, working in an international school setting, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi has been a favorite. The story centers around Unhei, a Korean student who has just moved to America. She grapples with whether she needs a new, Americanized name, or if she should continue to use her Korean name. Vosk follows the story with an activity where students create posters of their name in English and their preferred language that tells the story and meaning of their name. She then displays them on the classroom door. For Pizzo, he’s found the Gary Soto short stories Seventh Grade and Oranges to be exceptionally relatable for students.

Pizzo also believes it’s important to make your content approachable for students. “We do poetry in the beginning of the year. I’m someone who believes you don’t do poetry, especially at the middle school level, so traditionally that you turn off every kid in the room. Instead, you show them how poetic techniques are used in advertising, in our everyday conversations, maybe when we’re trying to make a point and use hyperbole.”

Regardless of what content you use, it’s all about being authentic, says Pizzo. He recalls an exercise he often uses when leading professional development. He’ll tell teachers to think about the person that makes you feel the most comfortable in your life and make a list of their traits. Then he asks them to think about the best teacher they’ve ever had and to list their traits. Often, there is significant overlap. “Do you see how similar these lists are?,” he’ll ask, “You see the same traits…I can be myself around them…The person is very supportive of me…When I have a question I feel like I get an honest answer…I feel that I’m listened to…If something is wrong, they’ll notice but not press until I’m ready to share, etc.”

Letting them Get to Know You, Too

Relationships are a two-way street, meaning it is important to allow students to get to know you, too. “In the first week I tell the students that they have a pop quiz—only this quiz isn’t graded and it’s on ME, not on math,” says Thielen, “We do a group Kahoot together that has ‘fun facts’ about me and the ‘quiz’ creates a space for me to ask students about themselves too.” Similarly, Vosk has found success with a 100 conversation starter questions sheet she found online. “I have each student choose a number and I’ll read that question and answer it and then have them answer it too.”  She says students enjoy hearing her answers to silly questions, “they think it’s really fun.”

In the end, it’s all about empathy, explains Pizzo. “We can show sympathy, but empathy is that deeper emotion that comes through those experiences and connections we make. I’m trying to build empathy with them.”

Advice for New Teachers

Starting your career in the classroom can be, well, just plain hard, admit the veterans we spoke to. “I had no idea how to manage a classroom,” recalls Vosk, “I went home crying every day.” Remember that “everyone’s first year is challenging,” says Thielen, and to “give yourself grace when things don’t go perfectly and just strive to do your best and to learn and grow.” Vosk concurs, recalling that she spent so much time on every lesson plan. Instead, “try to have a unit plan, or ask for resources from other teachers. I spent so much time trying to come up with the most creative lesson ever on the black plague…but sometimes a good enough lesson plan is going to be just fine. They don’t all have to be ‘WOW.’”

Collecting classroom hacks from colleagues or social media networks can also help you save time and energy. For Thielen, using fun fabric instead of paper for bulletin boards was a game changer. “The fabric can last multiple years and is forgiving if you have to re-staple it multiple times.” Teacher Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook are go-to resources for Vosk, even just for little hacks like using a muffin container to hold paperclips.

Across all the veteran teachers we spoke to, the importance of mentorship was a common theme. Know that it’s OK and normal to ask your mentors lots of questions – no one expects you to know everything your first year. Pizzo also recommends making sure your mentor is behaving in your best interest. “A good mentor makes you not just a better teacher but a better person,” he says.

In addition to connecting with your students, don’t forget to build relationships with other school staff as well. Thielen’s tip for getting to know your new team? Use last year’s yearbook to match names to faces. In addition to fellow teachers, some of your greatest resources within the school are non-teaching staff, like custodians, administrative staff, and counselors. In particular, it can be essential in relationships building with students to have strong communication with your school’s counselors. Don’t forget, adds Pizzo, that you can be a resource to them as well. “I love bringing student poetry to our counselors. I’ll say, ‘I want to share this with you because I know it will give you an insight into a youngster that maybe you haven’t seen before.’”

Vosk encourages new teachers to take time to get to know your colleagues and to think of it as a part of your job, just like lesson planning. This includes your principal. “I spent so much time afraid of my principal,” she recalls, “but they’re also a person. Don’t be afraid to talk to them like a person.”

Most importantly, commit to beginning the year on a positive note, recommends Pizzo. How to do that? It’s simple really, “just remember to be yourself, be sincere, and be a good listener.”