Search form

Middle School Day
Has Ups and Downs

I was looking forward to my last substitute assignment, teaching middle-school French, as a chance to experience secondary-school teaching and use some language skills. Each 40-minute period, I learned, comes with its own personality. Included: Examples of middle-school assignments.

My last substituting assignment gave me my first and only chance to teach middle school classes, not to mention flex some seldom-used foreign language muscles.

I subbed for a middle school French teacher who divides her time between two buildings. (Middletown has a school exclusively for sixth graders and a seventh-and eighth-grade middle school nearby.) The sub caller was surprised and pleased to hear that I actually speak French ("speak" may be a bit of an exaggeration. I can hold simple conversations and read French pretty well.)

Education World In The Classroom

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending one day a month as a substitute teacher in one of the Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools' elementary or middle schools. She is learning and writing about the daily challenges substitute -- and permanent -- teachers face.

This sounded like a fun challenge, especially because since English replaced French as the diplomatic language, there is little opportunity for using French unless you are dining in a restaurant where the entree prices are hidden or miss a highway exit as you are driving north to Vermont.


I started the day with the sixth graders and graduated to middle school in the afternoon.

I found Ms M's room and read the lesson plans, which involved passing out worksheets about numbers, dates, days, and months, material scheduled to appear on an upcoming quiz. In the spirit of interdisciplinary assignments, one worksheet asked students to solve some addition and subtraction problems, which were in French, and write the solutions in French, which I thought was pretty clever.

I wrote my name on the board and added "Bonjour!" underneath it.

The first period class filed in, a little noisy, and some looked me over.

"Are you mean?" a girl asked.

"Only if you don't follow directions," I said.

Someone muttered something about that being a bad sign.

"The second period class was at the other end of the sixth-grade spectrum. Once the students started working, it was so quiet you could hear a crepe drop."

I greeted them with a hardy, "Bonjour, classe," to which a few responded. It might have been the hour or the dynamics of the group, but it seemed that learning French or anything else was not high on their priority list.

With many still wandering the room, I tried an "coutez moi," ("Listen to me") and got blank looks.

"We don't know that," someone said. "She speaks to us in English," a girl added.


When I passed out the worksheets, I heard some complaints of "This is too hard," and "I don't know how to do this."

"Can I use a calculator?" one girl groaned when she got to the math problems.

I had forgotten this is an age group that has trouble keeping track of personal belongings. Several had no pencils and several more needed to sharpen theirs.

Early in the period I moved Josh to the back of the room for constantly talking, and moved Carla as well.

Carla was determined not to do anything. She said she could not do the worksheets because she only used lead pencils, and since a classmate would not loan her his, she would have to abstain.

I suggested she write a note to Ms. M explaining why she could not do the review sheets, which she did, blaming the other student for not loaning her his lead pencil. (The irony that she was writing the note with a regular number two pencil was lost on her and me at the time.)

A short time later, Carla came up and asked to borrow a longer pencil, adding she decided she could do the handouts.

Two or three students were focused on the work, but they were not enough influence to sway the class. I ignored the note on the lesson plans that said they could work together on some of the sheets because they were distracted enough.

I heard conversations about cousins, potential romances (all in English), and saw some dance moves. This group was scheduled to visit the nearby middle school later in the morning and that also was a source of discussion.

I realized a little late that some students were saying they needed the answer sheet to check their work and then copying the answers on their papers. I started looking at papers before handing out answer sheets.

Josh tried to pull down a screen hanging near the board, and I sent him back to his seat.

The class was restless and noisy until the bell rang. I confiscated a few paper balls, and a blue marker after a boy's hand got swiped with what I hoped was not permanent blue marker.

The great thing about middle school, though, is that if you have a bad group, they are gone in 40 to 45 minutes.


The second period class was at the other end of the behavior spectrum. Once the students started working, it was so quiet you could hear a crpe drop.

They whispered requests and earnestly attacked their worksheets. One or two students seemed less focused, but the silence and air of concentration seem to suck them in, even if reluctantly. So I allowed them to work in groups to do the last two worksheets.

Two boys, I noticed, were doing more chatting in English than calculating in French, but since they were chatting quietly, I only reminded them once to stay on task.

My last sixth-grade class was more at the behavioral midpoint, but I had help. A paraprofessional assigned to assist a boy who used a wheelchair said the student, Craig, rarely needed help with his work, so he usually checked on other kids in the class.

"As I walked in and they got a substitute's scent, several asked to go to the bathroom or nurse. Two asked to call home."

This age group continues to amaze me. Ten minutes after passing out worksheets, I noticed a boy staring at his paper. When we made eye contact, he said, "I can't do this because I don't have a pencil." I loaned him a pencil from the teacher's desk and wondered how long he would have kept staring at the paper.

A few grumbled at all the review work, but there were no loud protests. One girl sighed as she turned in the handout with the math problems on it. "I don't do well with French math," she explained.


After lunch, I moved on to the middle school. Some of the eighth grade classes were on a field trip, so I wrapped up the day with a spirited seventh grade class.

Initially I was sent to the wrong classroom -- all the signs in Spanish should have been a clue -- and I hesitated to move even after some incoming students insisted it was a Spanish class. Then several pointed me across the hall, where Ms. M's class was in no rush to settle down. As I walked in and they got a substitute's scent, several asked to go to the bathroom or nurse. Two asked to call home. But I resisted, since the substitute plan said no passes.

After several pleas of urgency, I gave in to the bathroom requests, and the phone calls.

While taking attendance, I noticed several in wrong seats, and I sent them back to their places on the seating chart, but a number continued to wander anyway.

I fumbled initially because the lesson plan said to hand out a vocabulary list, but there only was one copy. The note said to write the words on the board. Did I write the English version? The French? Both?

The class was no help, some telling me they never copied down words, some saying they did, and others saying I was doing it wrong.

After some false starts and with concern that the other worksheet left behind wouldn't fill the entire period, I instructed them to start writing down French vocabulary words and their English translations.

Peter, a big boy who started out in the wrong seat, continued meandering around the room, sometimes shooting a paper ball into different wastebaskets, as well as calling out and interrupting. With no immediate end in sight, I sent him to the office, which settled the class down for a bit.

I confiscated a paper towel note two girls were passing. I heard an undercurrent that suggested I was being mean. One girl insisted she could not read the words on the board and could do nothing, although she eventually started on the worksheets.

A few students managed to persevere despite the chatter.

When the bell rang, most pelted out the door without a look back, and I gathered up papers and wrote my note to the teacher.

It had been quite a ninth-month career.