Yes, I Teach Middle School: Five Strategies for Building Student Relationships

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When I tell people that I teach middle schoolers, the first thing they do is shudder. “Whoa. Yikes. I bet that’s crazy,” they say as their eyes widen and roll towards the ground. They’re right, it is crazy. Crazy in a truly challenging and overwhelmingly beautiful way.

My students are young adults who experience so much social, emotional, and physical change that they have little focus left to apply to the Battle of Bunker Hill or uncovering themes in Hatchet. But I’m not sure there are words to describe what it is to witness the personal triumphs of children in this group. I’m inspired every day!

Unreachable?

Even so, there are sometimes students with whom you cannot make that connection, no matter what strategies you employ. Their struggle to find joy in school is compounded by much deeper hurts. Abandonment, neglect, assault, racism, and homelessness are just some of the tragedies my students experience. Often, these go beyond what many of us teachers have experienced ourselves.

Now, I challenge you to try and get these preteens engaged in solving for the value of X! You will usually come face-to-face with an impenetrable wall. Finding their true selves is nearly impossible, and these students seem to prefer it this way. Some of them may have the inner strength to persevere. But what about those who can’t? What about those who won’t?

Changing the Narrative

Our initial reaction is to try and help. And boy do we try. We try to connect, find out their interests, gain their trust. We try to build relationships with the families. But after a while with no success, we are hurt. How many hours can we invest in a student who just doesn’t seem to care?

It’s a dark place, but we all end up there at some point. Childhood traumas are not where our training lies. However, in terms of human compassion, our wells need to be endless. At least in the eyes of our students. These students often live with a narrative in which they believe they lack value. How can we, as teachers, help our students create a new narrative of personal success?

  1. Acknowledge Them

Some may say that this approach is counterintuitive. They were rude to us, so why do they deserve our attention? But, these students need to be seen by you. They will ignore you on the exterior, but they will adore you on the inside. Say hello to them. Every. Single. Day. And smile while you do it. Ask, “How are you?” as often as you can. In middle school, they’re likely to respond with one-word answers, but how they respond really isn’t the point. It’s that you asked. Consistency is key here. If you stop acknowledging them, they will see your attempts as superficial. If you consistently reach out, they will be able to appreciate your genuine concern and interest.

  1. Smile. Always

As teachers, we are truly great actors. We can make comma placement seem like the most exciting thing you will ever learn! Since you’ve already got the acting down, the only thing you need to add is an ear-to-ear-smile. And the biggest piece of all is to make this smiling business consistent, just like your acknowledgements. Rest assured, your hard-to-reach students will eventually smile in return—even if that smile is on the inside. A smile is the smallest of actions but can have the largest consequences. Don’t underestimate its power.

  1. Don’t Take It Personally

When a student calls you a name under her breath, or another student mimics your laugh, and yet another berates your physical appearance, it can hurt. An immediate reaction is to get angry. How disrespectful, right? You send them to the office, or worst of all, retaliate. But before you let yourself get to this place, remember, they are children. Yes, you should not be disrespected in your class. Follow your usual management strategies. But underneath, find a way to remind yourself that if you retaliate, you are now fighting with a 12 year old. You’ve not only undermined yourself with your other students, but you’ve shown the rest of the class exactly where your breaking point is. Any power or control you had has been chipped away. And remember that most of the time, when students say the most hurtful things imaginable, they are not actually mad at you. Their hostility or aggression is coming from a different place. Think before you react.

  1. Learn Something about Your Students

Remember ONE thing about this student and reference it all of the time (and smile when you do!). Make it your special little inside joke with this particular student. Even if it seems like it’s a one-sided, inside joke for a while. They’re going to act too cool, but consistently referencing it WILL work in time. Does he have little sisters? Does she love a specific rapper? Does he play an instrument? Does she always wear a hat to school? Anything, even habits usually perceived as negative ones, can be come the basis of this rapport. This will allow your students to feel seen, acknowledged, and valued. It is this connection with this student that will allow you to guide him or her toward success.

  1. Be Real

You don’t have to say that everything is “on fleek” to be real with your students. Be yourself. Share your interests, your loves, your passions (as much as you’re comfortable sharing). You are not a robot, so do not speak to them this way. You are not their parent or their therapist. Do not speak to them this way. You are YOU. This matters in your conversations with these students. Be respectful, be honest, be firm, but most of all, be yourself. Thought it may seem too simple to be true, I can promise you, it is going to be more effective than trying to be a teacher that you’re not.

We Have the Power

So, the next time a student calls you out, is detached from learning, or feels no remorse about not having the homework done, carry on with your usual discipline, but remember to employ each of these strategies along with it and watch as your relationships begin to slowly change. What incredible power and responsibility we have to help students feel valued, intelligent, and worthy of success! We had better not waste it.


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Sarah Garza is a middle school teacher
in the San Francisco Bay Area
as well as a published author.

 

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