The Truth About Teaching Middle School
The Dark Ages
During my college years, there always seemed to be some dark aura around the words “middle school”. Everyone revered these teachers who would brave the task of teaching children stuck somewhere between the warm fuzzies of elementary school and the logical thinkers of high school. At my first student teaching placement, I remember looking up at the middle school teachers sitting around the table in the Teacher’s Lounge and noticing that their faces were haggard. Checking my phone, I’d realize it wasn’t even noon yet. They seemed beaten down, exhausted, and grateful for a moment of peace to eat their meal (which was clearly thrown together last minute that morning). I heard horror story after horror story of lessons gone awry due to these miscreants and I remember thinking to myself, “I’LL never be a middle school teacher”.
Well, guess what. I am a middle school teacher.
I’m here to tell you that teaching middle school children is not exactly what everyone told you in college. It’s not what you remember from your middle school years, either. So many things have altered SO MUCH since we were this age, it’s kind of mind boggling. Teaching middle school IS challenging. I can’t deny that being in charge of souls that are trapped somewhere between wanting to be a child and learning who they are comes with its difficulties. Yet, there is so much more to it, too.
What Being A Middle School Teacher Entails
- You are going to have to excuse their lack of organization. Scientifically speaking, this age group has not quite developed the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls organization. Unless you teach them how to use tab dividers, file away paperwork into neat binders, and to keep notes properly, these kids are going to be a hot-mess-express. You will see them walk into your room with papers sticking out every which way from the binder that is tucked precariously under their arm, as their other arm is loaded up with a textbook, writing utensil and anything else they can possibly cram into their fingers. If you’re a Type A personality, the very idea of this scenario may cause your anxiety to rise. Yet, middle school teachers learn how to go with the flow because we know that with some guidance (and some more brain development), these kids are going to be just fine.
- You will have to help them a lot their first year of middle school because, quite frankly, they are going to be a bit helpless. Aside from their lack of organization, the first year of middle school can be daunting for these kids. In some schools this is the first year that they are allowed to transition to classes with no teacher leading the way. They are expected to remember their locker combination, daily schedule, which binder/materials to bring to which class, as well as maintain their social communications with their friends. Many wear a nearly permanent expression of panic their first week as they try to navigate through all of the new independence that middle school offers. Patience is key as a middle school teacher, as well as knowing when to step in to help them, and when to let them learn on their own.
- You are going to make a student cry at least once a year. Let me just make this very clear. Middle schoolers are HORMONAL. One second they’re laughing hysterically over something that was just said, and the next they’re a bundle of tears because they think they left their paper in their locker. Daily life for this age group is ROUGH. As the teacher, we learn that keeping ourselves calm is the only way to maintain even a semblance of normalcy during an emotional outburst. We have to learn their personalities well to determine which kids need some empathetic attention during these times, and which kids benefit more from a quick pat on the back and leaving them alone to pull themselves together. Either way, be ready to handle some tears at some point during the year.
- You are going to have to be okay with some really goofy, random, sometimes hilarious remarks that have absolutely nothing to do with your lesson. Hands-down, my favorite thing about middle school students is their HUMOR. These creatures soak up some of the funniest jokes from the cartoons they still watch and the numerous memes they see throughout their social media profiles. They may not say them at EXACTLY the most appropriate times (aka in the middle of your lesson on imagery when the joke pops into their brain), but sometimes the best thing for a classroom is a little time for laughter. Reflecting back on some of my best days with these kiddos, they were the days we took a little time to be goofy and relate our topic to silly things. Consider writing down the funny remarks you hear from the very first year you teach… compiling all those things might be a really great article someday.
- Your room is going to smell. A lot. PHEW. These guys are not used to the fact that their bodies are changing, nor are they used to having to apply deodorant! And if your class is after gym? FORGET IT! Get those windows open, and get the spray ready for when they leave the class because your room is going to smell like serious B.O. I keep a Scentsy scent in my room at all times to help but… middle school stench is a wild beast all its own.
- You will be overwhelmed with the number of stories they want to tell you the second they walk into the door of your classroom. If these kids have an abundance of one thing, it’s energy. From the minute they get to school all the way to the end of the day, they are non-stop talking. Their minds are racing and they are willing to tell anyone their stories who is able to listen. My students walk into my room and the minute they can visually spot me, they are saying my name and launching into some “super cool thing that happened to them the night before”. Then their friend has to jump in to add details, and someone else interjects to make sure the story is told RIGHT. Within a few seconds, your ears are swarmed with the sounds of excitement that mean very little to you, but you have mastered the art of smiling and nodding with an interested expression on your face. You GOT this.
- They aren’t too cool for school yet and some may actually get into your lessons if you’re really passionate about your topics. Which can be the greatest boost for a teacher, EVER, especially when you are teaching a topic that you absolutely love. Seeing a student’s eyes light up when you dress up for a lesson to make it more engaging can really add to the energy you put into your teaching. You’re still cool to these students. You’d best believe that older students would have to pretend that you are SO not cool if they saw you doing some of the stunts that you do for your middle schoolers. These tiny humans are like your personal cheerleaders. They WANT to have fun still, because school is still exciting for them.
- You are going to be tired out at the end of each day. These kiddos have an abundance of energy. No one can deny that. They require your constant attention, refocusing, and you will have to make split-second decisions hundreds of times a day. No, that is not an exaggeration. So, understand that your brain is going to be tired out, and learn what YOU need to do each night to recharge. You will need to become a master of self-care so that you can show up and be your best self. If you can master this, then teaching this age group may just be enjoyable for you.
- They will make you handmade gifts… for better or for worse. Now I say this jokingly because I absolutely love the gifts my students make me. However, you must know that some of the handmade gifts you get are going to be atrocious concoctions and you are GOING to have to master that smile that says, “Wow! This is the best gift I’ve ever had, ever!” by your very first year. If you don’t, refer to #3 and prepare yourself.
- You are their role model for quite a while, and whether you know it or not, they are always watching you. No matter how bad of a day you have with a group of these kiddos, keep your cool. Remember that they are going through one of the roughest periods of time in a human’s life. Remember that they are still young too, and that they’re learning who they are by pushing boundaries. Every single day they are learning from you by the way you react to them. If they see you, an adult they love and trust, react angrily towards their classmate, they may internalize that in some way. You have no CLUE what their home life is like. You may be the most positive role model they get to see each and every day! Make sure that what they see is something you would be proud of, if you saw them acting the same.
Fellow middle school colleagues – what else do YOU enjoy about your students?