I recently took a teaching position, after several years in a different job. I thought I could create a calm, focused atmosphere in my middle school science classes, but some of my students have really annoying and off-task behaviors. How do I deal with this. —C., Maryland
Even though they try to act like adults, most middle schoolers are still basically kids, with high levels of energy and enthusiasm. Most love to participate in activities and readily engage in discussions. They are also physically active, prone to fidget, and aware of how to annoy a teacher to get a response.
To provide focus, set out explicit learning goals and performance expectations, describe how each activity contributes to the goals, and provide feedback that will guide students toward the goals.
In terms of a “calm” atmosphere, eventually you’ll be able to tell when noise is “noise” and when it’s the sound of learning and excitement. Some noise can be controlled by establishing (and practicing) routines and procedures for the beginning and end of class, transitioning between activities, and lab/safety behaviors.
If a behavior is distracting to others or potentially dangerous, you’ll need to deal with it by talking with the student or removing him/her from the activity. Otherwise, can it be ignored? Is it worth making an issue out of? I had a student who would talk to himself as he worked (even answering his own questions!) I asked others if they were distracted; they shrugged and said, “It’s just his way of thinking.” So I asked him to keep his voice down and raise his hand if he had a question for me.
When a student appears to be off-task, ask “What are you doing or thinking about?” You might discover what appeared to be an off-task behavior was very much on-task for that student.