If you’re gearing up to be a 6th grade teacher and you’re hoping to find an in-depth introduction, then this post is for you! Years ago, I interviewed a 6th-grade teacher before deciding to accept a position in 6th grade ELA, so I thought I would return the favor and share some of the most common questions teachers want to know about teaching 6th grade.
Q: What will I teach, and what are students expected to learn?
A: Once you accept a position as a 6th-grade teacher, you will need to dig into the standards you will be responsible for teaching. I strongly encourage you to dissect each standard and identify the following information:
- What will students need to know or be able to do?
- Can you translate that into an “I can” statement or learning objective now?
- What background knowledge or prerequisite skills will students need to have before they can master the standard?
- How will you measure students’ ability to perform the standard?
- Can you get your hands on any assessments (local, district, state)?
- What will you need to create, if anything, to measure progress?
- How will you involve students in tracking their progress toward objectives?
I created a paper version of my decoded standards and put it in my Professional Development binder initially. I put a checkmark next to each standard every time I taught or reviewed it. Years later, I converted it to a digital version to input data and track proficiency and growth more easily.
To get an idea of what this process looked like for me – you can check out and download a free example of how I decoded the 6th grade Speaking & Listening standards for Language Arts in Colorado (very similar to Common Core) by subscribing to my email newsletter. I repeated this process for the Literature, Informational Text, Writing, and Language standards as well. You can find those here.
Q: What does classroom management look like for a 6th grade teacher?
A: This question is relative! I moved from teaching K-3 grades to 6th grade, so I was nervous about managing and working with older students. Moving down from an upper secondary grade may require a different approach. Nevertheless, here are my observations about teaching 6th grade:
- 6th-graders begin the year as mature elementary students. They are sweet, mostly still excited about school/learning, hard-working, and eager to please. You’ll want to ride this wave as long as you can! As the year progresses, they will begin to look and act more like middle schoolers. (Quirky, sassy, & messy!)
- They still enjoy working in groups or with partners. However, they may have difficulties managing time, workload, and social interactions, so you will need to guide them. I recommend:
- Setting time limits (You have 10 minutes to…)
- Setting workload milestones (By the end of today, you will need to have completed…)
- Setting expectations (Remember to stay on topic, keep your voice level at ____, and spend your time wisely…)
- 6th-grade students still respond well to rewards and incentives. Yes, they will still work hard for a sticker, a stamp, a Jolly Rancher, being able to sit around the room, listening to music while they work, free time at the end of the period, etc.
- They still respond to call-backs! Can’t get their attention? Just call out “1, 2, 3, eyes on me…” and they will quickly stop and say, “1, 2, eyes on you!”. Guaranteed. Their elementary teachers likely taught them very well.
Q: How do I arrange my classroom for 6th-grade students?
A: I stressed about seating arrangements the summer before teaching 6th grade! Elementary teachers are used to grouping students by tables or pods. Secondary teachers are known for teaching in rows or with partners. I tried both! Here’s what I’ll say:
- If you are worried about classroom management, start small. Rows or partners will limit the number of interactions and opportunities for disruptions. You can always increase groups from 2 to 3-4 as you get a handle on things. I started with rows of two and then quickly swapped out my desks for tables and grouped students into tables of 4. Rows felt too stiff/formal for my teaching style but worked well for my teaching partner.
- Middle schoolers may or may not bring backpacks with them to class. This can certainly make your classroom feel cramped and crowded as they litter the floor or hang from chairs.
- Ensure you provide easy access to your turn-in bin, absent student/extra copy bin, pencil sharpener, etc.
- Provide a class library if you want to avoid students frequently asking if they can get a book or go to the library.
Q: What does parent communication look like for a 6th grade teacher?
A: The more you can communicate with your parents, the better! Often, parents are used to a weekly newsletter from their student’s elementary teacher that covers what students are learning, what needs to be completed at home, and upcoming events.
I’ve found that secondary teachers avoid emailing updates to parents because emails from individual content areas can be overwhelming… BUT, I think this is one area where you want to err on the side of over-communicating rather than not communicating at all! You might consider:
- Email updates at the start/end of each unit (especially testing dates)
- Email updates at the start/end of each month
- Email updates at the start/end of each quarter
I recommend the first one because it will save your bacon when you have a student/parent who says they “didn’t know” about an assignment or test and asks for special permissions.
To save yourself time now, you might create an email template that is easy to copy and paste and fill in with each update. This can make communication consistent, easy, and pain-free!
Q: What do 6th-grade students’ work habits look like?
A: Teachers, if you read nothing else, read this. 6th grade teachers have the responsibility of teaching responsibility. 6th grade is typically the first year that students are responsible for remembering materials and assignments for their different classes and managing the timelines and deadlines for each teacher!
Most 6th graders have limited experience with these skills at this point, so you will need a lot of grace and patience, and students will need a lot of reminders and explicit teaching.
To help them manage the transition, there a few things I recommend.
- What will students need every day? Make a shortlist of daily required materials. For my class, this is their binder, writer’s notebook, free read book, planner, and a pencil. Occasionally students would need highlighters, colored pencils, etc., but on those days, I found it easiest to post a note on the door or on the agenda they read when first entering the room.
- Help students learn how to use their planners consistently. 6th graders will not magically know how to use their planners right away. And don’t assume that they will do it without reminders (or know what to put in it)! Provide time at the beginning or end of class to fill out planners. They should record what they worked on, due dates, and any homework requirements. To manage this piece, I designated a separate whiteboard for our “week-at-a-glance.” Each day, for each period, I would record CW (classwork) and HW (homework).
- Break big projects down into smaller mini-projects. Managing big projects – like writing a narrative – can be detrimental to students who procrastinate. In my first year teaching 6th grade, my only deadline for big projects was the final one. After seeing so many incomplete projects, I decided to try a different approach. I broke the unit down into several “checkpoints.” In the example of the narrative writing unit, the checkpoints looked something like this:
- Plan/Outline – Due 10/08
- Rough Draft – Due 10/13
- Edits & Revisions – Due 10/15
- Final Draft – Due 10/17
Each checkpoint was worth a small number of points (work-skills grade), so students had an incentive to meet the deadline, but it also brought to my attention the students who were falling behind earlier in the project so I could intervene more quickly.
- Teach students how to study. Things like “quizzes” and “tests” will make 6th graders feel nervous. For some reason, it feels more formal and severe in middle school than it did in elementary. When you have an upcoming quiz or test, give students plenty of notice – and teach them how to prepare. They don’t really know what it means to study – or how to do it, for that matter. What is it that you would like them to review? How would you like them to practice? Being transparent with these things will help set your students up for success.
Q: How should I handle difficult student behaviors in 6th grade?
This one depends on your management style! I found that I needed to be more direct and firm in 6th grade with desired/undesired behaviors than in 1st or 3rd grade. Year 1 & 2, I danced around challenging behaviors because I wasn’t sure how to handle 6th graders. I was nervous about sabotaging the relationship. I was worried about embarrassing the student by calling them out. I let little things slide, and they eventually turned into big things. All this to say, my lack of confidence showed – and it did more harm than good.
By my third year, I came in hot with a plan! I printed this set of Restorative Justice Time to Think questions and put them on the back of my lanyard.
I also prepared a little bin in the back of the room with several copies of the same question set linked above (on side one) and a calming coloring sheet (on side two). Occasionally I had students who weren’t ready to talk about what happened, so I would offer them the opportunity to color until they were ready to process what happened. Once they completed the reflection, they would let me know, and we would talk it through before they could reenter the classroom.
This process worked really well for me. I was able to handle most situations without referring to the office, and I gave the student and myself time and space to cool down, process, and address the situation with a level head.
Thinking through a process for managing difficult behaviors before you start the school year will help you in the long run.
Just Remember: 6th Graders Are Still… Kids ?
6th grade is one of the most exciting years for students. They feel more grown-up, and they love their new sense of freedom. Treat them like big kids, and don’t be afraid to expect great things! But at the end of the day, remember that they are just kids. They will make mistakes, forget things, feel overwhelmed and frustrated, want to play, and maybe talk back once in a while. That’s okay. Love them anyway. (And don’t forget to give them a sticker or a Jolly Rancher).