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“Oh, bless your heart!” “Do you enjoy torture and insane little heathens?” “You'd have to be crazy to teach that age group!” These are the questions other teachers ask me when they find out I actually enjoy teaching middle school. Those responses are what I usually hear when I tell people of my occupation, along with the poor, unfortunate soul stares they shoot at me.
For the past 16 years, I have taught middle school, and I love it most days. It’s as if middle school is the forgotten middle child of the education spectrum. Everyone loves the precocious young grades and loves the “mature” older grades more. Not me; I love those overlooked middle kids. I once had an elementary teacher friend list all the reasons I should not want to teach in middle school- hormonal students, attitudes, sarcasm, etc. When she finished her exhaustive list, she asked, “Why on earth would you want to teach that group?” My answer was, “because of every reason you listen to why I shouldn’t. Someone needs to be there who accepts them as is. “
Am I insane?
Well - let’s say I get this age group. First, I’ve raised 3 middle school children myself, and each had 3 unique personalities similar to what I encounter daily. Besides, I used to be a youth leader to this age group off and on in my younger adult life. In fact, for a few years there, I was with this age group 24/7. So, I know that middle schoolers are quirky and change personalities quicker (and more often) than my oldest daughter changed clothes back in the day.
I’ve seen a student start the week as a quiet, reserved child, then morph into a jock, then a skater, then a brainiac, the class clown, the bad boy-wanna-be all within a week. Kids do this to see which personality receives the most attention - either positive and negative. Middle school can be “all about me” and attention-seeking, but it can also be a time of testing for a student, especially if they try avoiding the spotlight, hoping no one notices them. You can even search and find a plethora of articles stating the same thing about this time of life being difficult for students. It takes a patient teacher to help navigate students through these choppy waters for sure.
I will be the first to admit that teaching at this grade level is not for the timid or faint of heart. You constantly need to stay about 5-10 steps of them at all times.
Time of Testing
A character is developed through circumstances that make up an archetypal hero in literature; however, it’s also a quality that makes up a middle school student's life. Their morals are tested. Their faith is questioned. Their way of thinking is challenged. Their families often undergo big changes: a new sibling, a divorce, remarriage, step-siblings, moving, and sometimes death of significant family members. Middle school can be a furnace that fashions them into the person they are meant to be. From the MS teacher vantage point, we have a front-row seat to this transformation right before our eyes. We are also allowed to mentor these exceptional students - just like the archetype hero requires. I’m not saying our grade level is the most important—those little ones in Kindergarten and elementary need teachers who provide a solid foundation. High school peeps, we need you to ready these students for the real world. Our job is in the middle for a reason; we are the crossroads years for students.
This is also when personalities begin to solidify -well after they’ve finished trying on a few. If I could tell a parent one thing, and on occasion I have, it would be this: “stand strong and be there for your child because sometimes it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Teachers must be their life support. You need to be the parent.” As teachers, we need to be the lighthouse for students to seek out in their time "testing", without judgment but instead compassion and openness.
So here are answers to the questions I am constantly asked about being a middle school teacher:
“Do you enjoy the torture and insane little heathens?” Well, I must because this past year, after I’ve resigned from my classroom into remote online tutoring, it’s given me time to re-evaluate my future. I know I will not teach from my home office forever because I miss the classroom too much. Yet, I did wonder about trying other professions. In pursuing the different jobs I could qualify for, the only one makes me feel happy inside still - teaching. I’ve even thought about pursuing certification to teach in high school, but that really does not excite me. Middle school students have their ups and downs, but there is never a dull moment. I mean, would a high school student launch into a debate with me over whether or not Baby Yoda was a relative of the original Yoda? I think not.
“Bless your heart!” My brother-in-law used to joke that you can say anything you want about someone if you add bless your heart or bless their heart afterward. For example, “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, bless his heart.” or “That dress just isn’t her style, “bless her heart.”. OR “You want to teach middle school? Well, bless your heart!” My friend, it does bless my heart.
When I assign the end-of-year essays to my 7th-grade students, they often write about what they like or dislike English. So far, the #1 favorite thing they state is the simple act of my “believing in them” or “putting up with them.” See - they know they are aware they are challenging as well. But my favorite quote came several years ago from a young man who more or less said, “I thought this year was going to be hell, but you somehow transformed into heaven on earth for me.” Well, bless his little heart. This is exactly why I choose to be a middle school teacher. So go ahead and call me crazy, but if I have a choice of where to teach next year, it will be in middle school.