If you've ever gone to a teaching job fair you've probably noticed that the lines for elementary school applicants are endless, the high school lines are out the door, yet the middle school applicant lines are (sadly) short. Teachers that occupy the last of those lines are often seen as saints or crazy. It's funny, and TRUE, that whenever we would say that we teach middle school science, the person on the other side of the conversation would inevitably say "bless your heart!" Why are middle schools given such a bad rap? Ever since the "creation" of the middle school in the early 1900's, the view of the middle school student, and even those that teach them, is rarely viewed in a positive light. The tween is often seen as hormonally charged, awkward, egocentric, apathetic, unreachable, yet oh-so independent. The middle school educator is a rebel, gutsy, quirky, and often the most misunderstood of all teachers.
So, why did we choose to teach in an environment where students make poor choices and think they rule the roost? Because it's FUN! Of all the grades we have ever taught, 7th was the best. We'd never consider teaching high school biology or 5th grade science. Middle school is that wonderful, precarious bridge leading from the nurturing need of the elementary school student to the other side where independent high school students are actually interested in the material you are teaching. We like being in the middle! Each day had its own set of challenges but also its rewards. Students might think they own the joint, but they also make teaching so interesting.
There are so many positives to this age range. Here are just a few that we love about our experiences in the middle:
1. Potty all the time: Every word that comes out of your mouth has an unintentional double-meaning or joke behind it to a middle-schooler. They will laugh at words you use in class like "doodle"on your page, "ball" up the piece of paper, or plants produce seeds and "nuts." As life science teachers, the worst is when a student messes up the word "organism" - we're sure you can guess where it goes from there. And of course, once the chuckling begins you know you'll end up laughing, too. Once an episode or two of riotous laughter has occurred, you'll either find yourself avoiding those words or using them on purpose because you love to see student's reactions. What are some of your favorites - please share in the comments below!
2. Herding cats: Have you ever tried to corral a hundred cats at once? Taken a hundred or more tweens on a field trip to a museum where precious ancient artifacts are carefully laid out on tables and shelves and then ask them not to touch anything? Spent your lunch duty trying to keep students at their assigned tables when someone realizes that it's so-and-so's birthday and they want to sing happy birthday to said so-and-so and would like to involve the entire cafeteria? If you teach middle school, then we know your answer is YES (at least to #'s 2 and 3). Middle schoolers are all of those things we mentioned above, but they are also curious, insightful, audacious, fearless, thoughtful and socially energized people, and their lack of shyness at this age, while exhausting, is also refreshing. It's tough and it'll keep you on your toes, but the impulsive nature of these kids is what keeps them engaged in class and asking those meaningful and insightful questions throughout lessons.
3. Reminding you of YOUR youth: Ah, yes. When's the last time you learned a step routine, ate a Taki, or popped 15 Skittles into the air and caught them in your mouth just before lunch? How about the last time you wrote a phone number on your hand, passed a note, or jumped on a desk and acted like a fledgling bird? Depends. If you're in a corporate office board meeting, probably never. But, if you're a middle school teacher, you probably did all of those things yesterday with a bunch of giggling 11 and 12 year old kids. Being a middle school teacher allows you the unique opportunity to relive your middle school years... perpetually. Like, for real. You're probably thinking, ugh... WHY would I want to do that? The great thing about reliving middle school when you're not a student is the sheer fact that you've done it once, and you survived! And now, NOW you get to do it with all of the wonderful knowledge of a seasoned middle school veteran, and enjoy it for the fun and amazing ride that it is, without all the drama and tears... although your name may still end up on the bathroom wall (like Gerdy's)!
4. Finding themselves: When a fresh new group of young faces enters the halls of middle school, they are often bright and innocent and full of youth. Then... they change. While it can often feel like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of experience, it's important to remember that this period of self exploration and reflection is so important to the creation of the adults that these adolescents will one day become. Seems like a long time ago when we teachers were in middle school and we'd be willing to wager that most of you would say that those were your least favorite school years. If you look back though, on how awkward, confused or even lost you felt and how other times you felt excited, crazy, and in awe of your new independence, we'd also be willing to bet that those years helped to shape the person you are today. Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Remember your firsts: a boy/girl party, time alone at the mall, movie with friends, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, staying up all night - nearly everything had to do with the social aspect of life. Everything was so new and exciting. It's so fun and interesting to watch as your students experience freedom and individuality, and that you get to be a part of that. And as their educator, you can draw from your own personal story and, with your guidance, help to mold and shape them into the people they will be as adults. This is an amazing time of self exploration and they will try you, they will test the boundaries, they will not stop talking when you ask them repeatedly, but by the time they leave middle school they know a little more about who they are and you helped them along the way.
5. When you finally reach them: Nothing feels better than to see the lightbulb go off in a middle school classroom. Middle school can be like an arcade - there are lots of bells and whistles and pings and pongs and bleeps and bloops to constantly distract students from the ultimate mission of winning the game. For many of them, it's not only the distraction of being a teenager (a lot of distraction in and of itself), but their home lives can also add to the noise. Life is very overwhelming at this age and students are just understanding how their bodies and brains work. As we mentioned before, we get a unique opportunity to help guide these children, not only in the ways of science, math, language and the arts, but also in life. Whether you reach out to a student who is struggling in class or personally, it's such a gift to be able to see when they finally get the equation or understand the advice, and to know that you are a big part of that.
So there you have it. We may be crazy, we may be saints, but one thing is for certain, we love being in the middle. Have you hugged your middle school teacher today?