Adolescent Development in the Classroom

Adolescence is an exciting time, neurologically speaking. Young people go from only being able to think concretely to being able to think in the abstract. This happens around the age of 12. The adolescent brain also develops forward-thinking skills and this process is not complete until the mid-twenties.

Here are five ways to help support this development in your classroom:

1) Tell middle schoolers about how their brains are developing. They can get the idea that they are stupid (and will always be stupid), just because they cannot visualize the concepts you are describing. Let them know abstract thinking appears on its own schedule. At graduation, one of my students said how much of a difference it made to her and I had forgotten I had even told the class about it. I always make a point to do it now.

2) Give lots of puzzles and brain teasers. These are satisfying and give the brain a bit of a work out. Word play jokes and riddles can also work, even if they make your students groan. Anything that makes the brain think around corners and try different possibilities on for size.

3) Have them pose questions instead of quizzing them yourself. This could be in terms of a list of things they want to know or making their own quizzes to stump their classmates. Being able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter is a major life skill.

4) Give opportunities for skepticism. If they are expected to find out information on the internet, they need to read it with a critical eye. Have activities where you deliberately give them links that are written by charlatans, and get them to work out if they trust the information they are reading and why.

5) Reward students for effort. Give them higher level thinking activities even if they are not quite ready for them. In a physical workout, in order to get stronger you must do something that  is slightly too hard. It’s the same with thinking. Far too hard and students become demotivated, far too easy and they switch off. Slightly too hard is the sweet spot.

This can mean that they cannot do it. That’s the inherent risk in choosing something slightly out of their reach. This is why you reward them for trying. Even if they can do it, reward them for effort so that if next time it is actually too hard, they will still give it their best shot.


Teaching independence through open-ended projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

The process of learning how to manage time and own behavior is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the “Big Date”. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.


Are you being transparent with your students’ parents?

It’s report card time. As teachers, we want to try to phrase things positively in reports. That’s someone’s child after all and no one responds well to pure criticism. However, sometimes you have to broach difficult topics in a report and the sugar coating can get in the way of communication.

My top tip from my first teaching mentor: parents usually only get mad if the bad news is a shock. I have noticed that parents react less negatively to a report, if they already were aware of the issue. So, if you need to get in contact with parents about a behavioral or organizational issue, do it before a parent-teacher conference or report cycle.

I had been writing reports for several years when I got into a conversation with a friend who home-educates her three children. I ran my best phrases past her to see if she could pick up what I was putting down. No. She could not. It was an eye-opener.

“Samantha is very enthusiastic but this can mean she does not give other children a chance to contribute.”

What I mean: “Samantha needs to raise her hand and stop shouting out.”

What a parent might hear: ”Samantha is a great orator and the other children love listening to her.”

Consider: “Samantha is very enthusiastic. She needs to remember to raise her hand in classroom discussions.”

“Joey does not always come prepared to lessons.”

What I mean: “Joey almost NEVER comes prepared to lessons.”

What a parent might hear: “Joey sometimes forgets his notebook from time to time.”

Consider “As we have already discussed over the phone, Joey very rarely brings his notebook and pen to lessons.”

“Jessica sometimes does not think about the consequences of her actions.”

What I think I mean: “Jessica is a total nightmare.”

What a parent might hear “Jessica is an adorable little scamp!”

Consider “Jessica gets into situations that distract her and others from the lesson (for example: …). I know she wants to do the right thing and I am supporting her by….”

Another tip, look for ways of automating the process that do not involve Mr Control C and Ms Control V. I’d much rather spend my time writing quality phrases that tell each child exactly how they are achieving and exactly how they can improve, instead of grinding away at typing out similar but not identical phrases for each child. For example, has a lovely system, where you upload a bank of comments and can choose the appropriate ones for each student. You can even switch adjectives and phrases around for a more tailored report.

Just remember to tell it to them straight, however you write it.


5 tips to avoid teacher burnout!

Teaching is emotionally intense. Along with the pressure of working with adolescents and children. There are short deadlines and an expectation to go ‘above and beyond’ every day.

Here are five factors that make burnout more likely:

  1. Unclear expectations: teachers are only told what the expectations were after they fail to meet them.
  2. No control: teachers have no control over their workload. This is especially stressful when the work they are doing is just for a filing cabinet and not for their students.
  3. No recognition: extra effort is ignored, along with everything else the teacher does.
  4. No support: teachers are left to figure out things for themselves with no help or encouragement.
  5. A climate of bullying: when teachers psychologically abuse each other or management attack teachers.

These factors are mostly out of the control of the teacher, all they can control is their response to it. Here are five ways to reduce the effects of a poor working climate.

  1. Get everything in writing. Even ‘passing’ conversations, jot off a quick email to confirm what was said. I had a manager once who made up rules on the fly. Every few days. I was never exactly sure if she just had a terrible memory or had genuinely believed she had communicated clearly to me. Getting it all in writing helped, in either case.
  2. Know when to stop. Have a deadline in the evening when you switch off. You’re no good to your students as a burned out zombie. Once, I was heading for burnout and took a teaching English as an Additional Language course during a weekend. Even though it was hard work, I felt refreshed on Monday because I had stopped thinking about my job for 48 hours.
  3. Get Zen about it. What you are doing is important to your students and your community. Praise is just for your ego.
  4. Support your colleagues! Go help out another teacher, arrange evenings out, invite them to your home. I had one manager who just said “Have you tried ringing home?” every time I asked for help in one of my first years as a teacher. It was the teacher in the room next to me who made the difference by having a couple of informal team-teaching lessons in each other’s classrooms. He put it like, “Let’s do a couple of lessons in the next unit together!”
  5. Usually, calling it as you see it stops bullying. But not always. So, document everything. If you are a bystander to bullying, make sure you do not become a participant by joining in or gossiping about the victim later. In one school, we had a boss who would scream and swear at members of staff. Every few months, a new victim would be singled out and made to leave the school. Instead of unifying, the teachers would gang up on who he was targeting and say it was all their fault for how they were behaving. In another school, with a similar manager, the teachers refused to be bystanders and much of the bully’s power was defused.

Helping students become independent!

Teachers often say they want to help their students become independent learners. But a lot of the techniques you learn during teacher training or on the job, encourage dependence on the teacher. Students do not always come to class with study skills and increasingly, social skills either. The bleak choice is to do the heavy lifting for them to avoid problems in lessons or risk wasting time on non-subject specific skills.

I think it’s worth a shot to try to get them to leave the nest! Here are some skills that I like explicitly teaching at the start of a new term.

Using search engines

We call them ‘digital natives’ but they still try to write out full questions into Google. Show them how to get the most from their searches.

Looking things up in books

Instead of telling them what page you want them to turn to, tell them the topic of the lesson and give them 30 seconds to find the page and hold it up (You might need to teach them how to use the table of contents and an index.


Give students tasks where they need to describe diagrams to a partner and then the partner needs to copy them without seeing the book. Or they have to mime out ideas.

Time Management

Give them projects where they need to organize their own time. I find that the first couple of these end up in disaster (and involve deadline extensions) but after a few failed attempts, they get much better.

Being responsible

Give them a checklist at the start of every topic with the things you want them to learn. Give them five minutes every week to go through the checklist and mark when they learned something new. This pushes the responsibility onto the right person. If there are things that they need to work on, you can support them. However, you need to know what the problems are to be able to do that! You’re not psychic and tests only tell you so much.

Sometimes you get a bit of push back as students who are confused often want hand holding, but as long as you are being clear about your objectives and providing activities that help students attain them, be firm. You already got your certificates, your students need to do the work for theirs.

Avoiding the ‘November Dip’ and maintaining your sanity

The November Dip is an annual occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere school year where teachers start to lose motivation before the big holiday at the new year. November is physically hard for most people in the North. You go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. The daylight hours, such as they are, are brief and shrouded with clouds.

For teachers, the high enthusiasm of year planning in early September has started to run dry. The new year seems like an age away, even as the shops play holiday songs on repeat. The students are tired, the teachers are tired. It’s a tough month. But if you know what’s coming you can prepare:

1) Get your lesson plans in order before November. If you make a medium-to-long term plan until the end of term, you can fall back on it when your energy starts to flag.

2) Invest in box sets or streaming subscriptions. You are going to need entertainment when the evenings draw in.

3) Have a day off. Once a week, do nothing for school. If you’re feeling adventurous, unplug completely from technology to give your head some space.

4) Teach your students self-reliance and independence when you have the energy at the start of the year so that they can take over some of the legwork later! One of my greatest teaching moments was when a child walked towards me, then turned left, picked up a dictionary, said “OH!” and sat back down again. It seems like nothing but I had done a lot of scaffolding for that moment to occur.

5) Be prepared to give your students a break too! Have lessons in November that are relaxing for learners. For example, students like to make their own e-books, videos or design their dream ‘x’. These lessons are relaxing because students can set their own pace and work on things they find most interesting.

6) Consider having some instructional videos that students can watch outside of class/during class if they need you to explain something again. This saves your voice and has the bonus of a pause/rewind button for students who are probably finding it just as hard to keep focused in November.


How to engage the disengaged! …with ClassDojo :)

I had a difficult class of 11 year olds who liked to make a lot of noise, start fights and avoid work. Plain vanilla praise was often a double-edged sword because of their behavioral issues and problems with authority. I turned to ClassDojo to help with classroom management. It turned out that the least engaged children in that class were also the ones most motivated by ClassDojo and it improved behavior during lessons to a dramatic degree.

Here are some top tips for integrating ClassDojo in a middle school classroom:

1) Put the class page up on the interactive whiteboard at the start of the lesson. Give feedback points to students who are ready to start!

2) While students are working, pull up the ClassDojo and give feedback to students who are displaying character traits you’re class is focusing on (This might mean you awarding feedback points to ALL students).

3) Use ClassDojo while changing from one activity to another, or “transitioning”. If students see that getting down to business quickly is appreciated, time wasting is cut dramatically.

4) Use the random feature to select students to answer questions. I like to ask the question first and then push the random button, this gives students time to think about their answer.

5) Customize behaviors based on which character strengths you are focusing on as a class. You’ll be surprised which of your students truly rise to the occasion!



8 tips for training a student-teacher!

First time mentoring a student-teacher? After having many student-teachers in my classroom over the years, I wanted to share some of my best kept secrets 🙂

1) Focus on only one or two development areas at a time. Let them know what your focus will be. I had a mentor who would only give feedback on what I was doing wrong. Even after sharpening up in the areas she had perviously mentioned, she would instantly move on to the next thing I was doing wrong. I had no idea what my strengths were or what I should focus on.

2) Try to space your feedback. Giving specific feedback every lesson is can be excessive and overwhelming. Just like you, your student-teacher needs time to reflect on the lesson before they are able to make changes to their practice. I prefer to give feedback once a week at a set time.

3) Remember to praise! Being a student-teacher can be emotionally taxing. If they are on the right track, let them know. They might even come up with new teaching strategies that you want to try out — let them know you appreciate their ideas.

4) Show them how it’s done! After all, you are a mentor for a reason. I try to showcase the things that really make a difference for my classes. Some of the things we do as teachers are subtle, don’t be afraid to flag them up for the benefit of the student watching.

5) Consider what makes your teaching style unique and effective, and share this with your student-teacher! One of my amazing mentors had thousands of tips and tricks to tell me about. He could break down his technique into handy chunks and tell me about each step. He also had great advice about the non-classroom side of teaching. I think there’s a little bit of his style in my teaching today.

6) If you can, have your student-teacher sit in on parent/teacher conferences. They can either sit back and listen or contribute to the discussion. After all, they will need to know what to say when it is their turn.

7) Ask the student-teacher how they think a lesson went. People often have a very good idea of where they are going wrong already and just need your expertise for how to avoid it in future.

8) Enjoy it! Having someone in your classroom who has fresh insight into new teaching practices can give you amazing ideas and can help rejuvenate your practice.

Make your students feel more supported :)

In order to learn something new, students need to obviously be motivated – but they also must feel safe. When learning how to drive a stick-shift, my instructor used to shrug when I stalled at stop lights. “It happens,” he would say. My previous instructor wasn’t so understanding, and as a result I stalled a lot more. As teachers we need to make sure students feel supported, even when they make mistakes. Here are a few tips for making sure all students feel supported when learning something new:

1) Be patient

Be ready for the learning process to take a little (or a lot) longer than you predict. Be patient and stay consistent in your teaching.

2) Set an example

It doesn’t matter how many times you say “It’s okay to make mistakes”, getting upset when you make a mistake sends the opposite message. Set an example by keeping your cool.

3) Take an evening class

Taking a class gives you insight into what it’s like to be in your students’ shoes. For example, I hate it when my night-school teachers choose my groups or partners for me. Not because I want to slack off with my buddies but because I am inhibited by working with strangers. You also forget how scary it is to have a new teacher and how long it takes to get comfortable.

4) Encourage humor

Try to add some humor to your lessons! When I teach digestion, I make ‘cat food’ out of Mars bars and orange jello. I force it through some tights/hose, while narrating the digestive system. When I’m done I lick my finger. Not only do students remember that lesson for a long time but it makes for a warmer atmosphere in class.

5) Help the bullies

Young people who victimize others are usually the ones that feel insecure. I had a class of students who would pepper the air with put-downs. I found out their strengths and praised them, as frequently as possible. As they grew in self-confidence, they attacked each other far less.

I hope you will share more ideas in the comments!

Scaffolding behaviors leads to intrinsic motivation

I believe that people inherently want to do the right thing.  This absolutely includes our students (although it sometimes might not seem like it). Most people like to know where they stand. We all like to know what is acceptable and what will get us into trouble. Students often test teachers in order to explore these boundaries. There is nothing worse than having a teacher leaping out to enforce rules and regulations that students were only dimly aware of.

Your students already know the rules

If your classroom’s rules are fair and clear, most students will be following them within a couple of months, if not before. I teach middle (and sometimes high) school. The students I teach have attended school for many years. They already know how to behave in a classroom. When I was their age, there was nothing worse than the first week of term when every single teacher’s first lesson was about their behavior expectations. I try to take a different approach. My first lesson is a real lesson, I teach them something. Then I decide if I need to tackle poor behavior or if they are already on track.

Seriously, they already know the rules!

Most of my colleagues ask students which rules they would like for their classroom. I have not done this since my first year of teaching when a 12 year old said “Miss, you’re the teacher. You tell us,” and would not accept my appeals that I wanted the class to have ownership. Anyway, the rules I would be asking them to ‘write’ are the standard “Listen to others, be respectful, be prepared for lessons” etc etc.

Beware the floating voters

Instead, choose five things that you want to see in your classroom, five things you want your students to do every lesson. And recognize them for it. Your major behavioral problems are not coming so much from the minority of children with behavioral special needs (although, of course those students are challenging), but from the floating voters. The children who need to see which way the wind is blowing before they act. If those children see that you appreciate their good behavior, they are much less likely to act up.

Consistency is not as big a deal as everyone says (sorry)

But, and this is a bit rebellious of me, don’t worry about consistency that much. Rewards are much more powerful when they are a bit unpredictable. Yes, students want you to be consistent and I’m not suggesting you should be actively unfair. But it is okay to forget to reward certain behaviors once in a while. Just as long as you get around to it the next time.

The ultimate goal is to be intrinsically motivated

You do not want to create adults who only do things because they will be praised or get 5 minutes of free time. You want adults who self-regulate their behavior because it is the right thing to do. Slowly start to wean your students off of extrinsic rewards towards the end of the year. See if they continue this positive behavior. If your students are doing the right thing without external motivation, then the rewards have served their purpose.