For all their awkwardness, they often surprise me with their creatvity

8th graders are the most understood people on the planet.  Perhaps even the universe.  Sure, they might talk too loud or tell a sub to fuck off or wear jeans that vacillate between sagging to their knees or skinny jeans that severely limit their movement.  True, they have a tendency to be self-centered and to care too deeply about peer approval and to say things that are socially awkward or rude as they try to be ironic or cynical or whatever it is that grownups hold as social capital.

Get past this facade and you’ll see that the act is so opaque that the student becomes transparent.  You see the pain and confusion of inhabiting a world of childhood and adulthood.  You see the insecurities that they haven’t learned to mask as well as adults.  You’ll see that they are misunderstood.

Look even further and you’ll see generosity and kindness.  You’ll see an honesty that is rare among adults.  You’ll see that they’re just beginning to question the answers after spending so long answering the questions.  They haven’t bought into the lie that it must be “practical” to be important.  You’ll see the dreamers, the existential wanderers, the rule-followers who are now questioning the world of rules that they’ve spent so long serving.

You’ll see documentaries that aren’t professional, but are amazing in their viewpoint.  You’ll see murals that aren’t flawless but are beautiful in their flaws.  You’ll hear voices passionately pursuing social justice without yet feeling jaded by the system.

And you’ll hear laughter.

You’ll see smiles.

You’ll see why some people have discovered that this age group is the education system’s best kept secret.  And you’ll realize why we feel fortunate to have this job.

So I invite any middle school teachers to mention why they enjoy teaching middle school:

31 thoughts on “Why Middle School?

  1. I have been fortunate enough to have taught middle school for the past 15 years. That was not my plan. I student taught 1st grade and was in love with the idea of teaching little kids. As you can imagine, I was horrified when they wanted me to interview for a 7th grade Language Arts / Social Studies position. Well…you know the rest…I got the position and never once wanted to go back to cutting out frogs, wiping noses, and organizing trips to the pumpkin patch…I have 3 kids of my own for that now!

    What I found out that first year teaching middle school was that if I applied what I had learned about teaching first graders, middle schoolers would be completely engaged. I use curiosity, play, discovery, and collaboration in all of my lessons…just at a different level. It was amazing to see 13-year-olds want to experience school…not just sit there and be bored and hormonal!

    I love teaching middle school because I laugh every day! It is such a weird time for kids, that if you can’t laugh with them, you may as well turn in your keys. They have the ability to really push themselves, be independent learners, and tap into their creativity and curiosity. They are constantly questioning who they are, so it is an ideal time to focus in on that as a teacher. They are on the cusp of adulthood, yet teetering on childhood…they can’t help but want to learn and play.

    I’m so glad that my first principal took a chance on me by placing me in middle school. I have learned so much over the years from this age group, and continue to be amazed at what they are capable of each year. Thanks for letting me share why I love teaching middle school. (Most people I know think I’m crazy that I enjoy hanging out with 13 year olds every day!)

    1. I think it’s interesting that they need curiosity, play and other strategies that might seem “childish” but are precisely what engage them as learners.

  2. I LOVE teaching middle school – and I returned to my beloved seventh graders after a three year sojourn teaching juniors and seniors. Why? Because they are funny, they trust us still to not mess with them for our own egos, and they are open to all kinds of experiences. They love to move around. They can imagine six impossible things – if not before breakfast – before gym class. I love watching them think: they move so fluidly between concrete (“I hate this book”) to abstract (“oh, so you mean this might not be real?”) and every day is a roller coaster ride of change. Look at a middle schooler’s school picture next to them on the last day of school. Wha? Who is that person? The change in them is overwhelming.

    And middle school teachers are the best in the business, I think. Good MS teachers are ready for anything, prepared to just ‘call an audible’ when something needs to change on the day. They work together as team member. If I get to pick, I won’t work any place else.

    1. The transition to the abstract is pretty cool. It’s fun to see them fall in love with literature or grow to really care about social justice. They are at a time when they finally have to decide whether they care about their education.

  3. It’s never the same class, never the same students, from one day to the next. And they are such sponges! Behind the 8th grade assumed boredom they want to know everything about the world. And they crack me up (usually at times when I am not supposed to laugh).

    1. I totally agree! They are searching for life’s answers. I watched my students practice inquiry and their minds were all over the place. Makes me want to incorporate it into all of their learning.

  4. I have taught seventh grade for the past 16 years, and I have never regretted a single day spent with those kids. I love how changeable they are; I never know who’s going to be in my class on a given day. I love how they are beginning to find their own voices, and I cherish my role in teaching them how to do this.

    Yes, seventh graders are hormonal and the girls can be mean, but they are also funny and caring towards each other.

    The key to teaching middle school is to love middle schoolers!

    1. I love the idea that you never know who will be in your class. I often feel that the same student will have such a range in personality that it makes it completely unpredictable.

  5. I feel like Megan already told my story. I student taught in 1st grade and 5th grade but no elementary jobs were available. My, “But I don’t know anything about middle school!” was met with, “You’ll be fine.” I quickly learned that I loved middle school students for all the reasons already mentioned. They are a blend of sophisticated thinking and child-like curiosity that make every day interesting.

    1. I see a common thread there – the notion of child-adult, of sophistication and wildness, of deep thinking and misconceptions. I think that’s part of what makes each day interesting. I’ve met middle school teachers who are happy, excited, bitter, angry, even a little lost. But I’ve never seen one who is genuinely bored.

  6. Great post John.

    One of the reasons Middle School students are the best kept secret in education is because people only see one extreme of a beautiful dichotomy.

    People fail to understand that a Middle School student vacillates, sometimes daily, err hourly, along a scale of deep depression (for both real and imagined reasons) and pure jubilation (for both real and imagined reasons).

    People want a neatly boxed in, this or that, type student: an easily defined problem to solve. This makes the classroom even more like factory. Students become nuts and bolts in a machine.

    A Middle School student does not fit into a box and is a this AND that type of student: a double headed Janus. The world is a factory to a middle school student. Students want to create a new machine.

    That new machine students want to create is themselves.

    1. “People fail to understand that a Middle School student vacillates, sometimes daily, err hourly, along a scale of deep depression (for both real and imagined reasons) and pure jubilation (for both real and imagined reasons).”

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone articulate so clearly how the middle school psyche works.

  7. When I got my middle school teaching job, I was really excited and wanted to tell everyone. However, the typical response from people was something along the lines of, “Oh…really?” or, “It takes a special person to be a middle school teacher.” Never “Hey, that’s great!”

    But I knew what I wanted to do. I think about when I was a middle schooler and how much more knowledgeable and in tune with the world my students are now then I ever was. It’s that mix of being old enough to able to talk and analyze a piece of text or poem, yet young enough to think it’s really cool when they realize those connections. It’s that fun, exciting challenge for me to find that happy medium and get my students to buy in.

    While I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me that she loved her job because she laughs everyday and their dynamic changes day after day. Now that I’ve been doing this for a year, I’ve learned this is so true. The students are so malleable at this time that I rarely see the same students from one day to the next. And it’s exciting for me to know that I may be the part of the impact that molds them to who they become.

    Twitter: @danwitte

    1. I get the same reaction still. They believe I’m either a saint or a lunatic or maybe even both. But few of them seem to understand why it’s such a cool gig.

  8. Wow, I do not even know where to start…I am just so passionate about teaching middle school – 8th grade in particular. I teach on an 8th grade campus and I laugh when pretty much every primary teacher openly tells me that they are deathly afraid of my students. We even have a 1st grade teacher who also taught in high school and told me “I have no problem teaching on both ends but will never go near the middle!”.

    I feel the key to teaching this age group is realizing that you absolutely have to teach to the whole child and not just curriculum. It is crucial to realize that self-discovery and defining their social boundaries are paramount in their lives and many times takes precedent over anything you are teaching on a given day. Countless times I have had girls come into my class laughing and singing and then an hour later they are an emotional wreck crying because somebody looked at them in a certain way.

    Even though I am paid to teach only 8th grade Science, I find it more important to teach my students how to learn, think, prioritize, and what it means to be accountable to self and others. They soooo want to be thought of as all grown up but at the same time they get more excited for the sticker I put on their paper instead of the “A”.

    And on a side note, I could not recommend highly enough the Middle Level Education on-line Masters program from Walden University. I finished it last year and it blew me away in how much of a better middle school teacher it made me. Twitter me if you have questions at @SciTeach3

    1. I think it’s tragic that at the age when they need consistency, they have to switch classes. At the age that they need whole learning, the subjects grow more rigid. It was in seventh grade that I learned to hate science. It was in eighth grade that I lost my love of math. It wasn’t the teachers, either. It was the textbooks.

  9. Awesome. That’s what they are. Middle school students bring energy, passion, and humor from all angles. If you can break through their facade and touch their hearts and minds, they will inspire you to be a better person. I have taught this age group for 12 years and I absolutely love the challenge each day brings. I also look forward to bumping into former students in the community. They remind me of our purpose as teachers…we are molding adolescents into contributing community members.

    Twitter: @mthman While your at it, follow #midleved

    1. Thanks for mentioning the #midleved chat. That’s been a really cool phenomenon.

      I agree that we have the chance to inspire them to be better people. To me, that’s the real beauty of it.

  10. I am blessed to teach music to many students for number of years they are at our small PreK-8th school. I have the privilege of seeing them grow into beautiful group of people. Here are some of the reasons why I love teaching my middle school students:
    ~ their keen awareness of their environment despite their “I don’t know”guise
    ~ ability to articulate deep and personal stories to illustrate a point when given the opportunity,
    ~ their level of energy & how they use it through out the day doing millions of things
    ~ when they know you trust them, they trust you back
    ~ that they are maturing young people, learning and figuring things out, just like me
    ~ they laugh at my corny jokes & that I learn something new from them every time I see them
    ~ their ability to say in honesty, “I don’t know”
    ~ their curiosity and ever present dash of mischievousness,
    ~ that we can cry together watching/reading touching stories
    and their desire to be better (at something).

    Thanks for your post, John!
    Here’s to a great year of learning!

  11. When I, at age 49, was in graduate school to become a teacher I thought that it would be most important to make a small difference early enough in a student’s life that, over time, it would grow in effect. I also thought that anyone who wanted to teach middle school was — at best — delusional.

    After two years shuttling between 2nd, 4th and 5th grade classrooms I had to leave my abusive principal behind and find a new position. The only offer I got was from a middle school to be a 6th grade special education teacher.

    I started that job with trepidation, even more than I felt my very first day as a teacher. I should not have worried. I LOVE middle school students. They are just so darn interesting!

    Now I teach social studies to inner-city 7th and 8th graders and much of the time the emphasis is more on social than on studies. Many of my students do not have parents at home and most have absent fathers. I do what I can to ameliorate the gap in their lives.

    These kids are simultaneously looking for that spot in the world where they fit in and aching to create spots in the world that don’t exist yet. They alternate between absolute self-confidence and abject self-doubt, usually without a middle ground. They have bravado and timidity in alternating layers, and more questions than answers.

    But what I like best about my students, especially the 8th graders, is that I can have conversations with them that are just not possible with 2nd, 4th, 5th or even 6th graders.

    Middle school is the shortest length of years of any schooling period for a reason. It is the fulcrum of a child’s life; they enter as young children and, if we do our job well, leave in the earliest stage of young adulthood. The transformation that occurs over the three years is astounding in its depth and speed. Watching it, being part of it, is a challenging but deeply rewarding experience.

    1. I think you hit on something with the absolutes. They haven’t hit the moderation point. It’s often a polarizing either/or. The cool part is watching that middle ground slowly develop.

  12. I enjoy the JH level because its a time where I think I can be a major influence in their lives. Its that in between time in their lives. They are not in elementary and not in High school.

  13. Mr. Spencer,
    I fucking hate these middle school kids. I started teaching because I figured I could do something good in the world. These kids don’t give a fuck about me, school, or anything else. I am the point were I don’t even like who I am anymore. I am quitting when this year is up.
    I can’t get the kids to do anything and they are not held accountable. In middle school they are passed along no matter if they pass or not because of funding and they know. The administrators put shit on us all the time to make the kids learn but the core problem is that I cannot make them learn. I have my life, i hate these stupid brats, and I hate every night when I know i have to go to work the next day. I get mad at people I love because I have to tell some of the stupid derelicts who try to wreck my class that they are smart when they are not and that they are not bad when they won’t listen to anything I have to say. I feel like I am trapped. I want to fucking go after the dumbass professor that convinced me to become a teacher because now I can’t do shit with my education degree. Either you teach or you dont, nobody wants a teacher with 2 years under his belt and a bachelor’s in education. I feel hopeless. You take this rollercoaster ride as if its beautiful. We had 13 arrests this year at our middle school. One teacher got hit, another student told me to “fuck off” after I tryed help him with his assignment. At school we are taught to say “ouch” if a kid tells us to fuck off or says something mean to us. When the are put in detention thats a vacation to them.
    I have so many “F” words written in this post because I am “F’n” angry at this system. Its parents, faculty, students, and everyone else against the teacher. If little Johnny is getting an F in my class its my fault because he didn’t do his homework or paid attention in class. If he isn’t behaving then its my fault for not providing entertaining lesson plans to keep him focused. When I was in middle school 25 years ago if I didnt like a teacher TOUGH! You dealt with it! If your teacher was boring and you hated her. Tough! You learned self-control or you faced consequences. Today, they give bad students rewards and fruit punch if they can make it through the day without swearing at a teacher! How is that for being screwed up? That is like saying..I will give this criminal money if he stops stealing for a day. Gee, how nice!
    It is non-stop drama for 8 hours from these worthless punks everyday then I have to coach sports afterwards. This is the worse job in America. I would rather clean toilets for a living then deal with garbage youth of today. I knew teachers who started teaching in the mid 80s, kids were teachable back then. Over the years they have become fucked up. Too many of them think they are entitled to pass on to the next grade. They’re job is to come to school, act like the baddest fucking ass around, and fuck with the teacher. The end result being fucking up the other 80% that would be okay if you could cut out the cancerous pricks that come from screwed up homes. One teacher I knew enjoyed her last year of teaching because she KNEW it was her last year of teaching. She told me that after she resigned.
    This is my last year and I can finally say “fuck you, too” back at students who said “fuck you” to me. I could scoff at the principal when he called me in, and snap back at him with sarcasm. He never supported me. He didn’t care.
    When people ask me if I’m going to miss the kids, I will just say, “Are you fucking kidding? Because of teaching I no longer want to have kids, because I don’t want them to become like the stupid, smelly, disrespectful, selfish, disgusting brats (literally). Teaching made me hate kids in general…I am starting to have an honest disgust towards them, and if they’re around me I just start feeling annoyed and sometimes physically sick. It’s probably PTSD from teaching in a hell-hole school that didn’t even give me a proper classroom or funds to buy school supplies for the rotting assholes they called students. There were maybe 2 or 3 sweet ones in my class, and I felt bad for them because the evil problem kids took up most of my attention. I hope those good kids were able to prosper in spite of the unsupportive school system they got stuck in.
    A lot of the teachers I have come to know are drinkers; I don’t know why the anyone would want to be a teacher in today’s world, except maybe a college professor where the students are bucking to get a job when they are done. 50 years ago teaching was good but nowadays the youth of today is on a power trip, they are self-involved, ignorant pieces of shit who act as though we owe them something and I wouldn’t spit on most of them if they were on fire. Don’t get me wrong I will be out of this ‘profession’ soon but I feel sorry for those who have been doing it for ten years or more. Also teachers should start a sight called ‘Rate my student’ in response to the ‘Rate my teacher.’
    Mr Spencer, when I saw your positive perspective on middle school I almost regurgitated on my chicken dinner. Why would anyone want to subject themselves to today’s awful youth that are nothing but cancerous little pricks ready to spew their venom on you and every other teacher in America. I’m finding a better paying and a much happier job.

    That is my rant.

    Signed,
    Mr. Williams.

  14. Wow Ted, you really need to find another job….and a counselor. I hope you find whatever makes you happy.

    I thought I would teach 3rd grade but found myself teaching 4th and 5th. Then the next 7 years teaching 6th, then a few years at 7th and have been happily teaching 8th for the last 8 years. Life is never boring in middle school. The students are finding their voices, discovering who they are and what is important to them, and how they fit in this world. I love being along for the ride.

  15. I taught high school for 5 years. University for three. Today was my first day in middle school and I am hooked. I set the bar as high as the sky and they rose to meet it and break it. I finally felt at home as a teacher in 8 years of doing this job. They are authentic in their quirkiness…. unjaded by the cynicism rampant in our society. If there is any hope for a just and equitable future it lies with these children. I will bend over backwards to give them as much knowledge of spanish as I can pass on. They let me push them to the max today…. tomorrow I will push harder and bathe in elation as these kids take flight and perform at maximum. I am teaching at the middle school I went to as a kid, so the experience is especially personal and touching.

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