I took Spring Break off from writing here while I was traveling and dealing with midterm crunch-time with my grad students. I got to spend 5 great days in San Francisco with friends, and met some of their new Silcon Valley tech friends while I was out there. Everyone either had a PhD in some sort of science, or worked at a tech start-up, or both. So when I said what I do, I got a lot of:
“You teach middle school? That must be…interesting.”
“You teach middle school? God bless you.”
“You teach middle school? Why?”
It’s been nearly 10 years, I should have come up with an elevator speech by now, but I don’t have one. I generally just shrug and say something along the lines of “Middle schoolers are an odd bunch, but I like them.” There are, however, so many reasons why I teach middle school.
Why I teach midde school: They’re sophisticated enough to have serious conversations, but they aren’t jaded yet
Yes, I know, you can have sophisticated conversations with kids of any age, but middle schoolers are at a really amazing spot in their development. In that 10-14 range, their ability to think about abstract concepts is starting to expand (at widely varying rates), while at the same time they have this level of optimism that’s absolutely infectious. They still believe they can change the world. They still believe that, deep down, people are really good.
Why I teach middle school: They are the sweetest, kindest people I know
My middle schoolers know when my birthday is. They know that when I feel stressed, I like to take a time out to knit. They know my cat’s name. Of course, I, in turn know similar things about all of them. They’re just very open and caring. They also leave all sorts of interesting notes and gifts:
These are just a few. Let’s not forget all of the selfies that students have taken when I’ve left my phone on my desk, or when they bring in snacks to eat in class, but tell me not to worry because they brought “teacher food” as well–dark chocolate covered dried blueberries.
When you teach middle school you also see amazing moments of kindness between students. I’m continually amazed by the empathy and caring they show for each other. We often hear about negative interactions between students this age (and they do happen), but more often than not, I see the good.
Why I teach middle school: They are also the most ridiculous people I know
Being a middle schooler is hard. Your body and your brain are changing. Interpersonal communication gets trickier. Adults think you should act like a grownup, but your prefrontal cortex is still developing, so you do things without fully understanding the consequences or really thinking them through. Sometimes you say mean things to others. Sometimes you do what your friends are doing, even though you know it’s wrong. Often, whatever your first impulse is (for example to say “I didn’t do it” when your teacher clearly saw you do whatever it was you “didn’t do”), usually is what happens. I find talking kids through these moments and helping them build their abilities to think through problems to be one of the most interesting parts of my job. Watching them develop, grow and change throughout their time in middle school is what I love the most.
I went over 600 words, so it’s definitely not an elevator speech. I could summarize–Why I teach middle school? They continue to grow, change, and surprise me every day. And I love it. Or, more concretely, it’s just because sometimes they do something simple, like make a video explaining how to balance chemical equations, and you’re so happy about their progress, that you cry a little…