As teachers, our entire lives are a mix of life-changing moments, hard moments, and everything in between. Then, there comes a time when change is looking us dead in the eyes. It causes nerves, anxiety, and fear because the life we knew in our grade level, classroom, and content is about to change. As I sit in this transition period, I wanted to be purposeful in closing this chapter of my teaching journey so I can move on to the next so I am sharing 6 things I learned after 6 years of teaching 6th grade math.
#1: The Transition Period
Speaking from the standpoint of working at a 6-8 middle school, the 6th-grade transition is such a HUGE piece of being a 6th-grade teacher. Getting kids from 3 different feeder schools and meshing them together into one school while teaching them what being a middle schooler is takes up the first half of your year. Depending on your situation and what it may look like, my biggest piece of advice with this is to purposefully plan ahead for what supporting your 6th graders’ transition will look like. Build up a lot of patience because this time period can be long and hard, but at the end of the year when you get to see where your tiny 6th graders end up is priceless.
#2: Structure Is Key
Although I am sure this is true for any grade level, 6th graders especially need structure with EVERYTHING. They are coming into a new level of “freedom” in middle school. Long gone are the days of having to stay in one classroom all day with the same kids. They have access to multiple teachers, breaks, and kids to interact with when they start 6th grade, and with that comes a whole new level of opportunities that can be positive or negative.
Although as teachers, we only really have control over how we structure our classroom time, it is a big piece. Have a plan for every single thing. I found that my students were most successful when I was successful in preparing a structured class. This is what worked for me (typical class days) that may be a starting place for you.
- Warm-Up 5-7 minutes
- Logistical Things and/or Review assignments from the day before 5-7 minutes)
- Whole Class Lesson (20-25 minutes)
- Partner/Independent Practice (15-20 minutes)
Additionally, and this is something that I could talk about for days, keep a tight structure on your classroom expectations, routines, and procedures. Structure truly is key in everything you do with your 6th graders.
#3: The Standards Jump Up
I came to 6th-grade math was just a year and a half of experience in elementary- 4th grade and 2nd grade. So, needless to say, that I was like a deer in headlights when I dove into the position and standards. After a ton of learning and studying, I realized a few things about the standards.
- The domains shift some in 6th grade. For example, in elementary, there is a Measurment & Data domain. In 6th grade, that is no longer a domain, and Ratios and Proportions is introduced. This can be something to note when looking for connections across the grades.
- There are a lot of overlaps and continuums. Although some domains shift as just discussed, there are many that just continue in a new strand. For example, many of the multi-digit multiplication, division, decimal operation, etc. standards fall into “Fluency” standards in The Number System domain in 6th grade. Especially if you come from an elementary background, your knowledge and experience will be so helpful in teaching these types of standards.
#4: Engagement Changes the Game
I learned very early on that middle school is not the grade span where students are just excited to be at school and learn… especially not math. Engagement and purposeful engaging activities were the literal game changer for my students’ buy-in and my excitement to go to work each day. I learned that by finding my core “engagement activities” that I could use over and over again, my classroom would transform without a ton of extra prep time. The buy-in and engagement translated into academic growth and that is why I truly believe that “engagement changes the game”. My biggest piece of advice to a new 6th-grade math teacher would be to find your 2-3 core activities and weave them into every unit. As adults, we hate going to a work environment that is miserable, so we should have the same perspective and approach in our classroom. I promise engagement makes a difference.
#5: Relationships Will Take You Far
With all of the transitions from elementary school, shift in standards, hormonal pre-teen changes, and relationships will make or break your day. I am a firm believer that relationships with students are vital, but firm boundaries have to be set. I learned that it was okay to be my students’ venting person, go to for the new “chisme”, but also make it VERY clear that there is a time, place, and boundary. Classroom time was not the time, point blank. I found the time to nurture those relationships, help them flourish over the 3 years my students were in middle school, and it paid off. It made saying goodbye to them as 8th graders oh so hard, but being a small part of their journey was one of the best things I have ever been a part of. No other teacher they have gets to watch them grow from literal children entering middle school to mature-ish teenagers leaving for high school for 3 whole years. It’s the BEST and what I will miss the most.
#6: Students Can Be Successful Without Multiplication Fluency
Lastly, and I feel so strongly about this one, I learned and believe that students can be successful in 6th-grade math (and beyond) without having achieved multiplication fact fluency. Yeah, you probably think I’m crazy but it’s true and I saw kids master standards all year, year after year, without being fluent. Does it require other strategies, problem-solving, and a little extra time sometimes? Yup, but I promise that 6th graders are not doomed without knowing their multiplication facts.
Before we wrap up, did you hear that I launched a whole mini-course on Tumbling Towers? Yup, a one-stop shop to help you bring the engagement to your classroom and students. You can find all of the information here!
Closing This Chapter…
When I say I had some of my favorite moments as a 6th-grade math teacher, I mean it. The last 6 years brought so many laughs, lightbulb moments, and wins. I found my teaching style, what I value, my teacher bestie, and the confidence I lacked in myself as an educator. Looking back, I wish 23-year-old me would have known all of these things I now know. I was a scared, young, new-ish teacher hired to teach middle schoolers and a subject I was horrible with my entire life, just starting what ended up becoming one of the best adventures yet. I have no idea what the future holds for me, and maybe one day I will be back, but for now, I sit writing this last page of this chapter with so much gratitude for the knowledge and experiences I got from being a 6th-grade math teacher. If you’re reading this and are a new or seasoned 6th-grade teacher… Just breathe and do the damn thing. You got this.
A former 6th-grade middle school math teacher