For the first four years of my career, I taught middle school.
When you tell people you teach middle school, they often respond with a sour look, and a “wow, that must be so difficult.” And, at times, it was difficult. Of course, they should also know that middle school is arguably the toughest time in a kid’s life. They’re not quite a young adult, but pushing back against the idea that they’re a child, too.
I always used to tell people how much I loved teaching middle school – kids were old enough to understand my sarcasm, but still young enough to be kids. They were sweet, excited to learn, and somehow thought I was “cool.” And let me be clear, I was never “cool” in middle school. The reality of middle school is that students are at a time in their lives when they’re tough to love – they’re moody, awkward, and trying to figure out who they are – but also at a place where they need to be loved the most. I loved teaching middle school because I DID love my students… and I think they could tell.
Now that I’ve moved on to high school, there are many things I love about teaching older kids too. I love that they’re independent, and more motivated to get work done. They want to talk about real things going on in their lives, and I love talking with them about their post-high school dreams. It’s also been fun to be able to teach higher level concepts.
But I have to be honest: I am a better high school teacher because I taught middle school first. Here’s why:
Differentiation is king. When I taught middle school, both Computer Science and Tech Ed were elective courses that kids didn’t actually get “credit” for. This meant I often had large classes (typically 30-35 students), that were pretty diverse in terms of academic needs. I had students with IEPs, 504s, English Language Learners, students with varying reading levels and math levels… all in the same class, and often without the support of a dedicated special educator or co-teacher. The result? It was nearly impossible for me to meet every student’s needs at any given time. Because of this, I learned how to create resources that students could use to scaffold learning — resources that helped support content acquisition without sacrificing rigor. In my transition to high school, I’ve brought with me choice boards, review videos, and differentiated opportunities for students to both learn and show mastery of content.
Organization and structure matter for big kids, too. When you begin your first middle school job, the focus is on class structures – not content. You spend the first day of prep figuring out things that non-teachers may see as trivial: how will they ask to use the bathroom? What’s your procedure for when a student is absent? Where will they find a pencil should they need one? Routine is also emphasized: start your class with a warm-up, teach your students routine for how class goes, and always end with some sort of closure or wrap up. Of course, all of these things are just good teaching practices, but sometimes can get lost in the transition to teaching true young adults. Easy structures that should be in every high school class? A place where students can go to retrieve work they missed while absent, easily accessible resources for makeup work and – of course – a canister of pencils that they can grab if (let’s be honest, when) they need one.
Give directions more than once, and in multiple ways. Anyone who has taught middle school knows that simply giving directions is not enough. For one assignment, middle schoolers may require directions projected on the board, printed on a sheet of paper in front of them, and their teacher going over them… usually, more than once. The same applies for high school, and it will still save you tons of confusion as an assignment progresses. My favorite way to begin a project or introduce an assignment is to post all necessary documents and directions on Google Classroom, and then review the rubric and directions as a class while they’re projected on the board. Finally, I ask students to come up with questions someone might have about the assignment/directions, which takes away some of the fear of their questions being perceived as “dumb” by classmates.
Bring the fun. Every day. Middle schoolers have notoriously short attention spans. Add that to the fact that they’ve still got their kid streak going strong, and I felt challenged to bring the fun each day I taught. Whether that was silly attention getters like trying to balance cups of water on my head (the room went silent — try it!), building out full immersive experiences that led to me teaching in costume, or flash STEM challenges that let kids build with candy, I genuinely had fun most days I taught. I think there’s this misconception that high schoolers just want to come to school, take notes, and earn their grades so they can move on to college or the “real world.” And while high school fun may look different than middle school fun, happy students learn better than unhappy students, and prioritizing fun every once in a while won’t take away from your content. This might look different for everyone — I make fun of myself, build in immersive lessons (more on this next week), bring donuts, talk sports (and yes, take their smack talk), and let them build the playlist.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to teaching middle school, but I am so grateful that it’s where I spent the first four years of my career. Most important of all, starting in middle school taught me the importance of loving kids, no matter the grade you’re teaching. I learned to keep my love for students central to my classroom and teaching practices. Loving kids means assuming positive intent, trusting them, and giving them a fresh start every day. While loving kids doesn’t automatically make you a great educator, it is a prerequisite for greatness.