Lessons from a Middle School Classroom: What are we Doing Today?

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I taught Middle School for almost a decade. Even though my first day of teaching was in my early twenties, I still remember those first moments. I was standing in the front of my room, cleanly shaved, and wearing a tie. I was proud – I had done it! I was a teacher.

Then the bell rang, and 850 Middle School students flooded the halls.

Earlier in the week, I had confided with a few veteran teachers. I told them that I was nervous about how to handle student behavior. My colleagues assured me that “it would be fine,” and that Middle School students are angels during the first few weeks of school. As those 850 Middle School students flooded the halls of the first day of school, all the confidence and pride I had turned to jelly in my stomach.

“Where’s my locker?”
“Who are YOU?”
“What are we doing today?”

A cacophony of questions, and a bit more cussing than I had anticipated, accosted me from all sides.

I was able to sort everything out in those first few minutes. I made it through my first day, then my first week. Over the next eight and a half years, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching. But it was one of the questions I was asked on my first day, that stuck with me, and made me a better teacher.

“What are we doing today?”

When it comes to learning, people learn better when they know upfront what they are supposed to learn about. I learned quickly, that to get the best possible learning experience for my Middle School students, I needed to answer that question at the beginning of every class.

“Today, we’re going to learn how to sketch a design from Bird’s Eye View.”

 When I started teaching at workshops and conferences, I found that question was just as important.

“Today, we’re going to learn how to use game mechanics to increase motivation from your students.”

The same holds true outside the Middle School classroom, in what I’m doing today. If I’m running a meeting, presenting an idea, or training on a new feature, learning improves when I start by answering the question:

What are we doing today?

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