All teachers should teach middle school at least once

A colleague said to me in passing last week, “I’d love to sit down sometime and hear your thoughts on middle school vs. high school.”

(For background, I’ve ping ponged in my career from MS to HS and back. I spent the first 4 years in MS, the next 7 hears in HS, the next 5 in MS and now I’m back in HS.)

I’ve spent a lot of the first quarter thinking about the differences. What I’ve arrived at is that I think all teachers should do a tour of duty in middle school–metaphor completely intentional. For some teachers this would be a joyful home to stay in forever, other teachers would find it challenging. But that is precisely my point: teaching middle school can make you a better teacher, if you don’t run screaming for the hills first.

First, teaching middle school reminds you of the fundamental skills in each discipline. Far from the anxiety and pressures of college and GPA, middle school is a little island of time where it’s a teachers duty to instill a love of their subject. Teaching middle school humanities, sometimes I felt like I was in a friendly competition to get students to like my subject the most. Science really gives us a run for our money.

Truly, though, teaching middle school English is about the wonders of reading and writing. We watch movies in our heads, we compose things that make other people feel something. What a gift! Teaching middle school you will be reminded about what really is at the heart of your subject, and probably what drew you to loving that subject in the first place.

Next, you can’t be sloppy or unprepared in middle school. They will eat you. Ha, I kid. But you will feel like you’ve been eaten. Middle school students are honest and they also don’t have a lot of self control to spare. So if something is confusing, illogical, rushed, incomplete–they will smell it and let you know. Sometimes they will raise their hand and tell you it doesn’t make sense, but more often then not, they will begin to roll across the floor, do a handstand, cut pencils in half, or make strange bird calls. This is your sign. You must right the ship immediately.

You better have all those photocopies made. You have to get the desks pre-arranged. Doing a group activity? Pre-sort and number the materials. If you lose time trying to sort things or arrange the room during the first 5 minutes, pandemonium will ensue. By contrast, in the high school I share rooms, and I often arrive to a desk arrangement that I need changed. I simply project the seating arrangement on the board, the 9th graders move the desks and then sit, ready to learn. If you’ve never taught middle school, asking them to rearrange the desks is disastrous. They will build them into a pyramid and then begin launching themselves at the ceiling. I kid, sort of.

When I began my last 5 year stint in middle school, in the first semester I went and talked to lower school teachers about transitions. I would transition from a minilesson at the front to independent work time at desks. Except it wasn’t a transition, more like it was a bunch of molecules firing off into infinite entropy. I was completely losing them in the transitions and I couldn’t reel them back in or get them to be productive after the transitions.

I learned that you keep those transitions tight, the instructions clear. If you can introduce a timer or a competition of some sort, even better. No dead air, no breaks, no loose ends. A well-choreographed dance.

If the instructions aren’t written in addition to being spoken, forget it. Make sure there are posters around the room with the concepts you’ve been teaching. Yes, you’ve told them the website for printing 16 times and asked them to bookmark it. They did not bookmark it. Put it on a poster and just point at the wall. Middle school students are easily distracted. They can miss instructions because a cool bird was outside, or their thumb nail is a weird shape. They are like smaller children in that way. While high school students may not need so many reminders, I’ve found they really appreciate the posters around the room that they can consult. High school students often have questions about the instructions, but they might be too shy or self conscious to ask, so putting them on the board is helpful.

In middle school, the attention clock is ticking down so fast. Give instructions efficiently and get them working as quick as you can. They cannot sit through 25 minutes of instructions and explanation. Spend 5 or 10, then get them working and address questions as they come. Middle school students often can’t envision an activity until they are doing it, so if you let them ask endless questions, they can can caught in the bog. Give instructions verbally, project the instructions on the board, and send them off, ideally with a timer or a ticking bomb or some kind of fun device to get them working.

Even though high schoolers have longer attention spans, they also don’t love endless instructions. They also appreciate getting to the work quickly.

In middle school, you need to save middle school students from themselves. I learned very quickly that if they are working on computers, they need to turn so that their screen is facing me. They don’t have the self control to resist games, YouTube, whatever is currently obsessing them. Are middle school students starting to sound like manic squirrels? Yeah, that’s not too far off. But as soon as they know you are watching, and you’ve told them three times to stop playing Fortnite, they get down to work.

Turns out that high school students might be more tech savvy, more mature, but they also need to be saved from themselves, technologically or otherwise.

Middle school students make you realize that if things don’t go super well, it’s probably your fault. Sorry to break this to you, but middle school students are basically doing the best they can, and if that lesson didn’t fly, you need to rethink the way you did it. In high school, it can sometimes be easy to shift the blame to the students. That sounds harsh and judgy, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, high school students can be held to a higher standard, but it’s worth reflecting on how you as a teacher could have done things differently.

I shouldn’t let you walk away from this believing that middle school is just a post-apocalyptic wasteland with more hormones in the air than oxygen. When things go well, students will tell you both with their words and their engagement. They will hug you spontaneously, they will tell you that they really loved your class. The highs are high! And this will give you the feedback you need to find what works.

The growth is huge in middle school. The leaps can be impressive and the victory dances are joyful and unbridled. It’s a heady place to teach, middle school. And while I knew I needed a break, there are so many powerful teaching practices that I carry with me.

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