Pre-teaching Warm Ups: Mental Calisthenics

Learning objectives have been developed. Excellent lessons have been planned. Materials have been gathered and organized. Technological devices are checked and operational. It is time to deliver…or so most teachers think.

There is an important step that is often overlooked, one that should be part of every middle level teacher’s repertoire: mental calisthenics.

All of us have moods, bad days, under-the weather times, but it is so important when working with young adolescents to maintain a calm, positive vibe because middle school students take their cues from us.

They will tell you that Mr. B loses his temper all the time. Mrs. R is in a bad mood just about every day. However, you rarely hear that Mr. S is just too positive or Mrs. A is too even-tempered.

While adolescents are given a pass for mood swings, volatility, and harboring resentment, they expect their teachers to be even-keeled and idling in neutral.

Middle school teachers, while entitled to their feelings, can make adjustments to keep negativity in check. They do this by using techniques that make them “mentally fit” and up to the challenges of teaching adolescents.

Adjust your concept of “normal.” Middle schools can be—to put it mildly—interesting places. Teachers are often heard to say, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Go with it and allow your sense of humor to take hold. Experienced middle school teachers know that when adolescents are around, their world is a different universe.

Project energy. Even if you don’t feel like it, leave your bad day outside the door. Look at each new teaching period as a fresh start. Be dynamic because it’s contagious. Positive energy begets positive energy.

Strive to breathe. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Teaching at the middle level is often like being on a hamster wheel, and teachers forget to take deep breaths. Your 30-plus students want something from you, a team member drops in for a quick confab, the phone rings from guidance, the principal calls a student into the hall, the librarian wants to check something with you…and so it goes. Deep breaths lead to a calm demeanor.

Align with positive people. Teachers tend to look to those who will validate their complaints: “These kids are off the wall!” “Their parents are crazy!” “I am not boring!” It is far better practice to seek out positive, highly effective teachers for advice and counsel. Negative energy is exhausting and counterproductive.

Periodically reassess your personal priorities for teaching. Summers off and getting out of school in early afternoon are cold comfort when teachers fall into a “dark phase.” Remind yourself what turned you on as a student, and what you went into teaching to accomplish. Making learning relevant and interesting, introducing students to exciting materials, and meeting the needs of individual learners are often the major priorities of excellent teachers.

Stay organized. Keep things in their rightful place, make lists, use post-its, create folders, designate baskets for student work and assignments, projects, and tests. Try not to leave unfinished business for the next day, and leave a to-do list of tasks to be accomplished or important reminders about your classes. Disorganized teachers are apt to feel overwhelmed and often lose their cool.

Focus on the pros not the cons of teaching this age group. As rambunctious, mischievous, melodramatic, annoying, and sometimes downright rude as adolescents can be, the flip side of those qualities make for the best in student/teacher connections: adolescents can be exuberant, endearing, up for challenges and taking risks, and downrigt hilarious!

Be your own cheerleader! Because we care so deeply, and because we work so hard to meet the needs of the whole child at the middle level, we sometimes become victims of our own angst. We tend to focus on the things that cause us frustration or are not succeeding. We need to celebrate the joys more: the astounding critical insights, amazing writing, beyond-expectations projects that come from our students; the sounds of collaboration and the performances when students take the spotlight; the connections we make, students and teacher together, as members of a learning community.

It is so easy to go down the negative path of stresses and pressures that all teachers experience today. Add to that the vagaries of adolescence, and it is easy to see why middle school teachers can become irritable and low at times. Being purposeful and passionate about teaching are the antidotes. Mental calisthenics must become second nature, just like all the rest of our pre-teaching preparation.

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.


  1. This is a really important article for teachers (especially new ones), to read. It gets into some helpful ways to relax and debrief before we begin to teach. Different things like focusing on breathing, staying organized, and focusing on the pros of the age group can help us focus on the task at hand and be at our best. It can be hard to do these things with the stress and busyness of the school year but this article reminds us how important it is.