How to Reach Middle Schoolers By Mastering the Four C’s

By Margaret Ferry

The middle school years can be among the toughest for teachers, administrators, and the students themselves. While there’s no easy formula to apply for dealing successfully with this complicated group of adolescents, surviving  — and thriving — in the middle school years may lie not in mastering the 3 R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the 4 C’s of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.


As students transition to middle school, they go from the familiarity of a homeroom teacher to changing teachers (and classrooms) by subject, sometimes seeing as many as eight or even ten different teachers weekly. Collaboration among middle school teachers is essential to avoid the chaos that can result from differing classroom expectations.

Balkanizing the approach, leaving every teacher to find their own way, only compounds a student’s challenges. Sheila Martinez, the principal of Our Lady of Victory, a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in Washington, D.C., provides regularly scheduled time for formal collaboration among her middle school team.

“Formal collaboration helps assure that all teachers have the same classroom rules,” she said, “and just as importantly, that they are using the same methods to follow through and enforce them.”

Martinez believes investing in that kind of teamwork from the beginning of the school year results in a consistency of approach that provides teachers with the support they need and helps students understand just what’s expected of them throughout the day, no matter what class they’re in.

Joint planning sessions also give teachers the benefit of each other’s experiences with individual students. There is comfort in knowing that other teachers are experiencing the same issues you are. And when the whole middle school team is aware of a specific issue, they can support a comprehensive approach that helps the student succeed. Regular collaboration provides the opportunity for teachers to address challenges, taking into account the social and emotional factors that impact classroom behavior and academic results.

Teachers should also be allowed time to observe other middle school teachers on their team in a nonevaluative manner. John Porter, whose 40-year career in education includes experience as a teacher and as an administrator and principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in Alexandria, Virginia, says providing the opportunity for such observation, or the opportunity to observe a middle school science or math teacher at another school in the district, can lessen teacher frustration. He suggests administrators should consider release time at least twice a year to allow teachers to see how their colleagues deal with common classroom issues. And he recommends bringing in a substitute teacher, if necessary, to make that happen.

“Finding the time for a regularly scheduled middle school team planning period or additional classroom observation may be difficult,” said Porter. “The benefits of such collaboration far outweigh any scheduling challenges.”


Successfully communicating with middle school students requires clear rules, quick feedback, and acknowledgment of their personal (non-academic) accomplishments.

Middle school students need specific instructions and rubrics to guide their work.  As noted above, students need a classroom routine with clear rules consistently applied across the middle school. Teachers need to enforce the rules calmly – even if it’s the umpteenth time you’ve said so that day.

Teachers cannot take students’ behavior personally, said Porter.

“It does take a bit of a different personality to deal with that age group. Teachers have to be able to recognize that a majority of the time a student is probably not deliberately being disrespectful – and take that into account when responding,” he said.

To keep their interest, middle school students need quick feedback. That means grading tests and returning homework assignments as soon as possible. Transparency with grades and allowing students to see their progress also helps keep them engaged, said Martinez.

“It helps them understand, for example, what happens to their grades if they don’t do their homework,” she said.

Additional measures, such as working with students on arranging their binders or helping them make a study guide for an upcoming test, also support their learning and growth.

While they are not likely to admit it, middle school students still want to know teachers and administrators care about them. They need for their personal interests to be recognized and for things they’ve done outside of the classroom to be acknowledged. The most successful middle school teachers recognize that every interaction counts – they develop and build relationships with their students and provide encouragement on a personal level. Know they are on a soccer team, are taking piano lessons, or can’t wait for the next Star Wars movie to come out. The simple fact is middle school students respond better in the classroom when they know you’ve also taken an interest in the things that matter to them most.

Substitute teachers coming into a middle school classroom deserve special preparation. Provide them with the middle school rules and share any classroom strategies that help maintain order.  These might include giving students five minutes to review in small groups before an exam or giving them an extra break during a long afternoon class session. And maybe not trying too hard to keep order during the last period on Friday afternoons.

Creativity and Critical Thinking

Administrators need to find creative ways to provide the resources needed to support their middle school teachers. Porter believes scheduling issues around collaborative planning time and classroom observation should not be insurmountable. Creative solutions just require thinking outside the box.

Administrators also need to allow middle school teachers some room to develop the creativity needed to manage relationships with their students. Middle school students find it hard to sit still and focus. They need movement and change throughout a class period. Teachers need to have the flexibility to let students get up from their desks and work in pairs with partners or take unscheduled breaks between exams.

A final thought for administrators: Everyone knows you’re the head of the community, but they also need to know that your presence is not always punitive.  Support from leadership will help keep teachers from becoming disenchanted. Martinez says, “Teachers are my students too. I do for them what I hope they will do for our students.” Porter agrees. “Administrators are busy, but you’ve got to support your staff. Don’t ever forget what it’s like to be in that classroom.”

Teachers need to feel they’re being listened to. You need to know how something is working before you can determine what changes to make or what strategies and techniques to offer as solutions. Most importantly, teachers need to know they’re not alone in middle school struggles.

The Bottom Line

To succeed in middle school, you have to be able to connect with children of that age. Adolescents can be tough to embrace. Training and professional development opportunities should focus not just on subject matter expertise, but also on adolescent development.

It’s not rocket science – it’s not even middle school science – but following the 4 Cs may help educators navigate the challenges and successfully reach middle school students to positively influence their path in life.

Middle School White Paper

Interested in more? In our white paper, Meeting Students in the Middle, three experts in middle school reform discuss proven strategies for supporting student engagement and achievement in middle-level education. This insightful piece details the development of the adolescent brain and how today’s digitally native middle-level learners function in classrooms. The authors provide a framework for transforming middle-level education with practical strategies that are easy to implement.


About the Author

Margaret A. Ferry is a multilingual strategic communications professional based in Washington, D.C. She has written for major corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, and multilateral organizations focusing on education, child and adolescent development, and other issues.


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