Navigating Middle School: A Teacher’s Advice

Middle school is a time to develop self-advocacy skills and to make mistakes you can learn from, says APS science teacher Katie Willet.
Candid Photo Of A Group Of Teenage Girls Socializing, Laughing A

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This is the second in a series of Q&As with teachers about how to get ready to return to school. Read tips from high school teacher Leonda Archer here.

Middle school is a transition time for students, between hand-holding elementary school and the independence of high school.  Middle-schoolers are choosing electives and after-school clubs, making new friends and pushing forward on their academic paths. It can be exciting and scary all at once.

For tips on how students and their parents or caregivers can navigate grades six, seven and eight (although some middle schools in Fairfax County are only seventh and eighth), we spoke with Katherine Willet, who teaches life science to seventh graders at Arlington’s Williamsburg Middle School. Willet was the 2021-2022 Arlington Public Schools Middle School Teacher of the Year.


Williamsburg Middle School teacher Katie Willet (Photo by Lyle Zimmerman)

How does middle school differ from elementary school?

One of the biggest differences is the ability to choose different friends. In elementary school, you’re with all of the neighborhood children. In middle school, there’s more opportunity to find people who are really interested in the same thing you are interested in. It’s a great time because you can start to find your people. That makes it easier to go through school—having people who are interested and want to participate in the same types of activities as you. Be yourself and know that whoever you are, you’re going to find your people.

How does it differ academically?

A lot of elementary school is being able to remember and recite information. In middle school, now you are becoming thinkers. So, it’s being able to not only remember the information, but then be able to use it and analyze and think about things a little bit differently by applying what you were just talking about in class.

New middle schooler or not, how can students prepare for the new school year?

Figure out who you are as a learner. How do you take in information? Do you remember through pictures? Do you recall information through sounds? Put the information in your brain in the same way you’re going to retrieve it. Ask parents and older friends how they approach school. Get a bunch of ideas of how people learn and what they do to study for tests, and then try and figure out which system is best for you. Be OK with experimenting with learning. It’s OK to make mistakes as you figure that out. At the end of the day, nobody is going to ever look at your middle school grades, so this is a time to figure out how you learn so you’re prepared as you move into high school and beyond.

What do good studying habits look like?

Don’t do homework in your bedroom. Homework should be done in an open spot in the home. My son sits at the kitchen table and does homework while I’m making dinner. That way I can help answer questions when he gets stuck, and I’m there to help with any technology issues. Also, look at your schedule. In middle school, you’re learning about planning—how to look at your weekly schedule and then, from that, how to plan out your daily schedule. If you have two hours of soccer practice on Tuesday night, you need to plan to get more homework done on Monday.

How can parents/caregivers support students?

One of the best things parents can do is encourage and empower their kids to reach out to teachers themselves. Obviously, you still want to keep watch, because they are middle schoolers and they’re just developing these skills, but if they can learn to self-advocate and email with a teacher, write down questions to talk about with a teacher in person and take ownership of finding out the information they need, it will prepare them better as they look ahead to high school and beyond.

Elementary schools often provide detailed supply lists, but middle schools don’t. What school supplies do students need?

Everybody has slightly different systems of organizing themselves. Experiment with that organization. Does a three-ring binder that holds stuff for every class work for you, or do you do better with an accordion folder that has a slot for each class? Everybody needs to keep some sort of an agenda. Some people do really well with digital agendas, and some people need to write it down on paper. The one thing I’ve seen that never worked for anybody is just a single folder.

What’s your goal for students in your classes this year?

Learn from the mistakes you make. Every mistake is actually good. The best thing you get out of each day is to say, “I did this. I didn’t get the result I wanted, but here’s what I’ve learned from it and here’s how I’m going to approach school little different tomorrow.”

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Categories: Education