Balancing Friendliness With Firmness
By setting clear expectations for behavior early on, teachers can have fun with their students without losing control of their classrooms.
Whether you have been teaching for 20 minutes or 20 years, it can be easy to fall into acting like a friend with your students. In my experience, I don’t realize it until students start to push boundaries.
Preteens and teens seem to have an uncanny talent for sensing when teachers are wavering in their stance. Once you shrug your shoulders or say “Well…” as you think about their request, they will pounce! This shows up in the form of attempts to get the lesson off-topic or bend the rules. “Come on, just let us have a free period today” or “The other teachers let us listen to whatever music we want during class” or “Can we sit wherever we want today? Pleeeeease!”
Proactively Set Expectations
In my two decades plus of teaching middle school students, I have found that setting the tone on the first day of school helps students respect the boundaries of your friendliness. As recommended in the classic book for teachers The First Days of School, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong, I greet all students at the door. I greet them with a welcoming smile and a handshake (in nonpandemic times). After I verify on my roster that they are in the right location, I ask them to find their assigned seat and start independently on an introduction task.
This sets the tone that our classroom has expectations from the very start. They realize quickly that assigned seating is a part of the class culture and working on an assigned task is required.
There will always be one or two students who start whispering or wandering around. My welcoming smile quickly turns into a neutral facial expression, followed by a firm but kind, “Please get back to the assigned task.” Every single year this happens, and every single year I get the same wide-eyed expression from the kids that expresses, “OK, I guess she means business.”
Use Firm—but Kind—Reminders
After this initial interaction of the first day of school, I begin to let my silliness trickle out. I tell math jokes, use content-related memes in my presentations, and maybe even sing a song along with the lesson. Nerdy teacher? Yes. Fun teacher? Also, yes.
Some students will inevitably see my silly demeanor as an entry to pushing boundaries. Occasionally, you must remind students when a line is crossed. You can warn a noisy class, “It’s fun to play Kahoot, but we won’t be able to continue the game if you’re yelling.”
This communicates high expectations with encouragement and respect. Maintain student dignity by talking one-on-one with a student who pushes a boundary. Once, in a one-on-one conversation with an eighth grader, I said, “I’m really glad you’re in my class. You come up with some really funny jokes and comments. But I’m going to ask you to dial it down a little because occasionally the comments disrupt the learning for your classmates.”
Avoid Potential Pitfalls
Middle school students are fun and silly, and often we, the teachers, tend to get fun and silly along with them. To maintain the professional boundaries in your middle school classroom, you’ll want to consider these tips to avoid giving the impression that crossing boundaries is acceptable.
- Keep your conversations about your personal life to surface topics such as pets, travel, favorite foods, movies, etc. Maintain a professional distance by not oversharing.
- Follow your school’s guidelines on social media interactions with students. Only communicate with students via your school’s designated and monitored email or portal system.
- Hold the same boundaries for all students. Be mindful about the perception of favorites or cliques.
- Students will want to listen to or talk about music or other media that is not school appropriate. For adults, it gets harder to keep up with popular song lyrics or slang words—it’s best not to engage in those conversations. (I know this from experience because I once told my class that I liked a new catchy pop song. They replied, “Do you even know what that song is about?!” No, I apparently did not.)
Matt Panozzo, who holds a doctorate in education, is a seventh-grade English teacher in Houston. He has a reputation among his middle school students as an engaging and enthusiastic teacher. He also has an amazing talent of balancing being fun and maintaining expectations. I asked him how he does this so skillfully. He told me:
Middle school is the right balance for me. Students want to have fun, but they also want to be taken seriously. It’s a time of exploration for them, and what I’ve found students need is a cheerleader encouraging them throughout the exploration. They have peers to journey with; I don’t need to be their friend. I need to be their second set of eyes helping them see the big picture: obstacles ahead, obstacles they’ve overcome, relationship dynamics they might not have considered. I think a rock climbing wall or ropes course is a prime example of the relationship dynamic I have in the classroom. The student has to climb or go through the course. I have to make sure they’re safe and encourage them to just a smidge outside their comfort zone.
If you’re new to teaching, finding this balance takes practice and experience. Be patient with yourself. Even veteran teachers have to rein in the boundaries from time to time. The profession of education typically attracts people who are friendly, welcoming, and engaging, which sometimes can be perceived as a “friendship” by some students. Respect and firm communication of expectations will foster an engaging and fun class culture without crossing any lines.