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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Advice From Middle School Students—and Teachers—to Educators

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 25, 2022 7 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What advice would you give to new (or veteran!) middle school teachers?

In Part One, Jeremy Hyler, Serena Pariser, Sarah Cooper, and Keturah Proctor share their experiences. Jeremy and Serena were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Carol Pelletier Radford Ed.D., Joy Hamm, and Jen Schwanke wrap up the series.

What Students Have to Say

Carol Pelletier Radford, Ed.D., brings more than 40 years of experience to education as a classroom teacher and teacher educator. She is the author of two bestselling books published by Corwin Press; Mentoring in Action: Guiding, Sharing, And Reflecting With Novice Teachers and The First Years Matter: Becoming an Effective Teacher:

In my work as a teacher educator, I have had many opportunities to talk with students and their teachers. In one course, we were discussing how we could more effectively interact with middle and high school students. I decided to interview some students and ask them what their teachers should be doing to be more effective in the classroom.

This is what the students said.

1. Don’t be nervous. We can tell when the teacher is nervous and not focusing on us but looking at her notes. We need to have you start the class by saying something personal, like, “How was your weekend?” instead of, “Sit down and take out your homework.”

2. Help us meet other students. When you set up the desks in rows, some students never have a chance to meet other kids. This makes some of us feel socially awkward because we never have a chance to talk with others during the school day. Think about how you set up the desks or partner students so we can interact.

3. Celebrate our success. We don’t mind you putting our work up on the board with gold stars or stickers when we do well. It makes us feel good, and we think it will make you feel good, too, because then you have proof that you are a good teacher!

4. Keep the class engaging. If you just lecture in the front of the room, class can get boring. We know that some students skip school because they have trouble listening. Teachers who engage us have better attendance in their classes.

5. Get to know us as people. When we sit in front of the class as a group, we know we can be intimidating, but we are people just like you. If you can find the time to talk with each of us as individuals and get to know us, we will relate to you better.

Watch the video we created to hear the students’ advice in their own words:

I share this video with novice teachers and their mentors to remind us that our students’ advice is what matters most. I encourage you to ask your students how you can enhance your teaching! This video and many more are available in our free Video Library hosted by http://mentoringinaction.com/


Top Ten Advice For Middle School Teachers

Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners:

Top 10 “Middle School Musts”

1. Provide class time to model or work on organizational skills with students.

2. Be vigilant during class changes. Bullies like to blend in the crowd.

3. Social media is the new cafeteria. Be aware that students may silently suffer without any visible signs of peer pressure.

4. Student self-esteem grows in an environment of respect.

5. Everyone has a story. Take time to look in your students’ eyes and really listen.

6. Some students like reactions; don’t let them push your buttons. Count to 10 and lower your heart rate before responding.

7. Don’t take misbehavior personally.

8. Keep your mistakes in the open. Show students the modifications or improvement from what you learned.

9. Lighten the mood daily with laughter (jokes, a funny video clip, etc).

10. Envision that preteen as the future CEO of Microsoft.


‘Let Them Talk’

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Two weeks before my first day as a 7th grade language arts teacher, I had what I think was my first and last panic attack. Tucked under my belt was everything I needed to be ready: Four years of college, two years of graduate school, one teaching certificate, and a roster full of 120 student names. But I had exactly zero idea what to do with the coming 180 days.

At the time, I was working with my father on our farm. It was late summer, and we were stacking hay in the barn. We were talking about the start of school, and I was giving my standard lines—It’s so exciting! My first job! Spread the love of reading and literature! I’m a grammar geek; can’t wait to hone their writing!—when, unexpectedly, I lost my capacity to breathe. I broke into a million nervous, emotional pieces. “Dad, I have no idea what to do,” I gulped. He watched me cry, bent over my hay-prickled jeans and gasping for air.

Decades earlier, in the late ‘60s, my father had taught middle school at a Friends School for autistic children in Virginia Beach, Va. He was, by all accounts, excellent at this work. Farming had taken him north to Ohio, but he’d remained a bit of a Teenager Whisperer, not only to my three siblings and I but to scores of other kids who’d crossed his path as a mentor, employer, and friend.

“Listen, honey,” he said. “All you need to do is let them talk.”


“Well, you know how to get started. You know what your lesson plans say. But whenever you’ve got the chance, just let them talk. And make sure you listen to what they have to say. It will guide you.”

It was exactly the right advice. Middle school students need to talk. They want to talk. They have things to say. They understand the world in ways we adults don’t, because they don’t yet have all the experiences to alter their perspective. They are immersed in a steep and rapid learning curve and are desperate to find a place to settle their voices.

“Talk” shouldn’t be taken only in the literal sense, of course, or seen as a standard back-and-forth exchange between teacher and student. Once they know what they want to say, they can write it. Film it. Text it. Act it out. Mime it. Experiment with it. Instagram it or FlipGrid it or Screencastify it. Add it up and subtract it out and explain their thinking and tell stories and repeat stories and elaborate and joke and laugh and get really serious about really important things.

So my advice to middle school teachers: Let them talk. Keep an eye on your standards and expectations and philosophy; of course, hang on to those. But also let their thoughts and words guide them—and you.


Thanks to Carol, Joy, and Jen for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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