Top Teaching Strategies for the Middle School Classroom

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
Middle-High School Principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction, Gifted Certification
A middle school teacher explains a math lesson to students.

A student’s education is typically tracked and broken down into various milestones. Early in their academic careers, students experience new and exciting adventures in 3K or 4K programs, usually in a school or in some type of daycare or early learning facility. In kindergarten, students are often celebrated with graduation ceremonies and documented in incredibly cute caps and gowns that signify their achievement.

At the end of their academic careers, there is a notable achievement of graduating from high school and earning a diploma. This milestone leads to endless opportunities and possibilities as a graduate ready to go out into the real world. However, there is one time period in students’ lives that is often seen as a negative, stereotypical time of angst, drama, rebellion, and misunderstanding. That time period is identified as “middle school,” and can often strike fear in the hearts of educators and parents alike. To combat this and reverse the stigma towards middle school, several teaching strategies exist for the middle school classroom.

First, to define “middle school,” one must identify which grades are being discussed. Middle schools can take on several different constructs. Most are grades sixth, seventh, and eighth. Others may only be in seventh and eighth grades, sometimes called “Junior High.” Others may include grades fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, but those are rare. As a former middle school teacher who taught eighth grade in a building with grades sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students, I learned quickly that middle school students are a unique type of student. Additionally, as a former middle school assistant principal, I saw firsthand the unique experiences and challenges that middle school students bring to the table.

There is countless research that exists chronicling all the intricacies of middle school learners. Research that ranges from dealing with adolescent behaviors to addressing different learning styles and modalities for the teen student, to the social and mental health components of students aged 11-14. Middle school teachers face some of the most unique and challenging students but will often say that they teach in one of the most rewarding areas. Because of their varying behaviors and changes in their brain and body compositions, teachers implore a number of strategies for student success.

Clear Plan of Instruction

The number one top teaching strategy for any level, especially middle school, is to provide a clear plan of instruction daily. Middle school students crave structure and routine, and teachers are destined to fail without a clear plan. A poor plan can lead to classroom management issues, which can lead to disciplinary matters, and an overall sense of a negative classroom environment that isn’t conducive to learning. Masterful middle school teachers plan a variety of engaging and challenging activities that promote several other top strategies. Next, middle school students crave positivity and interaction. This age is already one that promotes very sociable behavior, and great teachers harness that energy and use it to promote a positive and active atmosphere.

Promote Positive Interactions

Classrooms are communities. And in those communities, students have various roles. These roles promote positive interactions with one another and allow for teachers to build up and praise students that need more of that validation during this age more than any other group. This strategy can be combined with two other successful strategies, which are active participation and student movement.

Brain Breaks

Middle school students have an abundance of energy! Master teachers are able to successfully take that energy and channel it into positive interactions and participation that is helpful, not hurtful. Research shows that students perform better with a series of “brain breaks,” which can include activities that involve students in getting up and out of their seats, role playing, or other team-based activities that make learning fun and engaging, while allowing energy to be spent productively. Simple tips like allowing students to stand up while reading a passage, answering a question, or participating in a gallery walk of exemplary work are easy ways to promote student movement and motivation.


Finally, middle school is one of the first times that grades heavily emphasize them. In some middle schools, students are earning units for high school credit, meaning that there is greater pressure and stress on performance. Masterful teachers utilize feedback as a powerful tool to lead to high-quality work and student achievement. Master teachers understand that not every assignment needs to be graded, but evaluating student work is paramount. Students appreciate the feedback they receive, and value the opportunity to be better. This strategy is one that will behoove students in their high school careers as well.

For students to be successful in their learning, they must be actively engaged in relevant, meaningful learning experiences. Students that experience these types of classroom experiences are more likely to achieve at higher levels. This is especially true at the middle school level, a particularly difficult time period for young adults often in the 11-14 age range. Middle school often carries a specific stigma and can generally scare teachers away because of the horror stories about student behavior, hormones, and other challenges.

However, those that master the art of teaching middle school are effective practitioners of many of the strategies mentioned in this article. Middle school teachers will often say that their experiences with their students are some of the most rewarding and fondest memories of their teaching careers, and as a former teacher and assistant principal at the middle school level, I can agree.

Interested in advancing your career with a graduate degree? Check out our middle and secondary education graduate programs which cover teaching strategies, assessment methods, educational technologies, and diversity management to help you create engaging and supportive classroom environments and experiences.

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