Why I Teach Middle School

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:

Why I teach middle school: Student drawings

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…

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2 Responses to Why I Teach Middle School

  1. Gwyneth Jones August 8, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    This is just beautiful. Thank you.

    And it sums up PERFECTLY why I love middle school, too!
    Thank you so much for putting into (better!) words why our calling to teach middle school is both important and poignant.

    Here’s a little theory I’ve been working on. I think in some ways educators are chefs or bakers – Elementary teachers work on the cake batter – it’s crucial to get it right – all the ingredients must be there or else the cake won’t rise or be “just right” that’s why Elem chefs need more years (5-6) than anyone else – to get it right.

    Then we middle school educators have the privilege of baking the cake – we watch it rise and it’s touch and go. We still have time to adjust to make sure the cake is the BEST it can be! It’s a quirky time but it’s so rewarding!

    High school educators frost and decorate that cake – they polish it up, adding frosting and fondant, maybe silver candy beads, or maybe icing flourishes and make it excellent and ready for the bakeshop of the world. I’m still workin on this – I need to talk it over with my Mom (retired GT English teacher)

    But I LOVE LOVE LOVE teaching Middle school and if someone doesn’t then they should GET OUT!
    Thanks Samantha, for reminding me why I love it so!
    Cheers dear!
    ~Gwyneth – The Daring Librarian


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