Let me ask you something: what do you remember about middle school? I’ve been asking a lot of people this question, and I was frankly pretty surprised that most of these people either remembered very little about it or remembered it as a traumatizing experience. Most of them, however, remember one or two teachers at that level who are beloved even today.
Not every teacher is cut out for middle school – it takes a certain knack. I’ve seen many good teachers fail in the middle school because they simply did not have this knack. These teachers might have been excellent instructors of small children or almost-adult students, but it takes that knack to succeed in the middle school.
We must remember that middle school students do not consider themselves to be children. Oh, we know they still are, but don’t make the mistake of treating them like children. A teacher can lose an entire group of 7th-graders simply by referring to them as “boys and girls.” I’ve seen entire classes turn against a well-meaning teacher because he/she used a tone of voice that connoted “elementary.” I’ve seen principals wonder all year why the students disliked him/her so much, and it was all because of a condescending remark made on the first day of school that the adult doesn’t even remember but every student knows by heart.
Put simply, talk to middle school students as THEY THINK you talk to other adults. And put simply, that’s not simple. Two teachers can say the exact same thing and one of them will succeed while the other antagonizes and infuriates the students.
There is some kind of internal attitude inside each teacher, and the least astute kid in the entire school can pick up on it. Being a good middle school teacher is hard work; it’s exhausting and nerve-wracking. Loving kids isn’t enough. Being organized isn’t enough. Being passionate about the subject isn’t enough. Combinations of these things aren’t enough.
Oh, those are excellent and necessary parts of a good teacher, yes. Definitely. But alone or in any combination, they are not enough.
It’s the internal attitude that counts the most. To be able to deal with middle school students, to be able to genuinely communicate and earn their respect, a middle school teacher has to have the right kind of internal attitude.
Pre-teens have the instinct to detect sincerity and trustworthiness. It’s sharp and clear and laced with brand-new hormones, a fear of the unknown, and an intense desire to be accepted.
Every time the bell rings, a good teacher has to shake off one personality and put on another. No two classes are alike, and a good teacher will not try to teach them in the same way. Middle school teachers are doing stand-up, and the audience differs with every gig.
Good middle school teachers know how to talk to the students as the students think one adult talks to another adult. Read that sentence carefully, for it does not say that a good teacher talks to the students as one adult to another.
Good teachers try to keep up. I don’t mean friend all your 13-year-olds on Facebook, but monitor things when you can so you’ll know what your kids are talking about when they try to tell you that so-and-so is twerking in front of the boys behind the bleachers before first period. Don’t try to be one of them, but be the adult in their lives who understands. These things have to be done carefully. Don’t make the mistake of trying to ingratiate yourself with students by using their generation’s groovy, out-of-sight, beat-me-daddy-eight-to-the-bar, gnarly vernacular. Some words were never meant to come out of the mouths of actual adults. Am I right, peeps?
Sometimes, other teachers sense something different about a teacher with that awesome internal attitude, and there can be clashes. Age has nothing to do with it; some of the very best teachers are 110 years old if they’re a day, and some of the least savvy ones are 24.
It really bothers me when teachers say that the middle grades are a nightmare. Such statements are unkind, and untrue. Middle school students are young enough to still be eager, enthusiastic learners, and old enough to be able to actually do and understand a lot of things they weren’t ready for down in elementary. Middle school students are bright and kind and interested in so many things and quite capable of learning and doing these interesting and sometimes not-so-easy things.
Challenging? Oh yes. Quite. But they’re supposed to be, aren’t they? I think so.