I was in our building a few weeks before school began, setting my room up for the new year. My friend and colleague was doing the same in her room, accompanied by her daughter Talia, now a high school sophomore, who enjoys helping Mom get ready for her new students.
Talia looked on as we freshened up our classrooms and began to reflect on her own middle school memories. We soon sat down for a spontaneous chat, and I asked her to talk from a student’s perspective about what middle school had been like for her. With those years still fresh in her memory, Talia offfered some candid insights from the other side of the teacher’s desk.
Talia adored her 8th grade U.S. history teacher, who engaged each of his classes in creating a classroom constitution during the first weeks of school. They wrote laws that needed to be followed and created ways to amend them as needed. Talia talked of his dedication to making learning fun and interesting by creating hands-on learning opportunities. Then she shared some other stories—about the foreign language teacher who put so much effort into her lessons, demonstrating a deep dedication to her subject, and the memorable science teacher who set up intriguing labs and projects that made Talia eager to come to school each day.
She also related sad stories about other teachers who often showed up late for class, or made cutting remarks about students’ intelligence and abilities. She poignantly recalled how such comments hurt her fellow classmates and lingered long after the teacher’s thoughtless outbursts.
As we continued our chat, I asked Talia to tell me what she wished teachers would know about their students. Here are some of her pointers:
• “Tell your stories about when you were our age.” Talia explained that when teachers share their own middle school stories—including some of their blunders or embarrassing moments—it makes them more human. Her mother, my colleague, told us she did this in her own classroom because she realized how much it meant to her students to hear about her own mistakes as a kid.
• “Teachers underestimate what kids can do, and what they know.” Often, Talia explained, teachers assume kids can’t tell if a teacher is unprepared for class. But of course they can. Students also appreciate good teaching, exciting lessons, test review games, and activities. Years later, the kids remember which teachers lacked respect for themselves or their students. They remember the sarcastic comments, as well as the kind and caring ones.
• “We love to see our work hung up on the board.” Talia shared how much it meant to come into a classroom and see her diligent efforts and those of her classmates prominently displayed. It meant the teacher was proud of you and willing to take the time to show off your hard work.
• “Read aloud to us. You’re never too old to be read aloud to.” Simply put, it strengthens the bond between teacher and students. It’s a gift from the teacher that students recognize.
• “Get us out from behind our desks.” Kids this age need to move around, and they love it when you’ve taken the time to plan opportunities for movement into your lessons. “We need to get physical,” Talia is saying. “It keeps us learning.”
• “You have to want to be around people, otherwise you make us miserable.” The kids know whether you’re a “people person” and enjoy the company of kids. And sadly, they know if you aren’t. Talia told us stories of some of her “hands off, impersonal teachers,” as well as the warm, friendly teachers that made a difference. They will always be remembered.
The next time you enter your empty classroom, sit in a student’s seat for awhile and think back to your own middle school days, when you too were an eager but uncertain adolescent learner. It’s a whole different world out there, on the other side of the teacher’s desk.