Thoughts from My First Year “In the Middle”

Is the middle ever a good place to be? We hear about the woes of being a middle child, hate being stuck in the middle seat on an airplane, and dread the inevitable “middle age.”

And then there is middle school. Ugh. Jeff Kinney, author of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, writes, “I’ve never run into a person who yearns for their middle school days.” So true! Middle school brings back memories of struggling through the awkward years of puberty, cruel and judgmental classmates, and school pictures I would have paid my parents NOT to order.

Actress Zooey Deschanel said, “Nothing could be as hard as middle school.” Yet this year, after many years teaching elementary grades (3-4) and leading a high school youth group at church, I ventured bravely into the middle… the “Land of the Gland.”

Venturing into the Middle

In the months before I began this new adventure I met with our guidance counselor who had a slideshow to share with me, depicting a wonderfully hilarious look at what it meant to be a middle schooler.
Despite the lighthearted tone, the tug on my heartstrings was powerful as I was reminded of the struggles middle school kids face. I suddenly wanted desperately to make middle school better for my students – to give them a safe person to confide in – to help them love themselves and each other through these difficult years.

So how did it go? Yesterday was our last day of school, and I think it’s safe to say I survived and mostly prospered. It would be tough, though, to determine who grew more this year. Probably me.

Here are a few things I gleaned

If you’ve spent years as a middle school teacher, this likely won’t be new information – but a reminder is always a good thing. If you’re new to teaching or just new to teaching in the middle, you might find my new-found insights can help you along the way.

  1. PRAISE IS CRUCIAL. Middle schoolers have huge self-confidence issues – even if they cover them well. Compliments, both personal (notice the new shirt or the haircut) and academic (praising an assignment or test that helps bring up their average), go a LONG way. They crave the positive attention and the realization that you notice AND care.
  2. MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE. Offer to meet before school, during study hall, or after school for extra help, and open your room for students to “hang out” in the morning or during breaks. Give yourself this opportunity to get to know them. They will inevitably begin to trust you and share with you.
  3. SNIP THE SNARK. Although middle schoolers try to act “cool,” they are incredibly sensitive and will take your sarcastic or snarky comment to heart. They can dish it out, but can’t take it. They’ll laugh it off now… and then dwell on it for weeks. Weigh your words carefully.
  4. PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE. For reasons we cannot totally understand, middle school students are, by nature, inconsistent. They will ace one test and fail the next. Hormones are coursing through their systems, causing a wide range of issues regarding maturity, commitment, emotion, and ability to focus. They are painfully disorganized and distractible. This too, shall pass…
  5. LOVE THEM. Their parents are yelling about messy rooms and grades, their “friends” are judging their every move, and their bodies are changing faster than they can process. Don’t judge them. Encourage them. Smile. Laugh. Have fun with them. Be the oasis in the middle of these tumultuous years. The joy will be returned to you tenfold…

5th girls 580

Photo credit:
Drawings & feature image (State College Middle School)

3 thoughts on “Thoughts from My First Year “In the Middle”

  1. I loved teaching Middle School! I have worked with student right up to lecturing at college and it is absolutely my favourite group. Older students can produce more sophisticated work and college students are so nice because they never present any discipline issues but Middle Schoolers still feel it is OK to say WOW! when I show them something extraordinary while the older students somehow don’t think that is cool! I did enjoy my time with K1 through 3 but too often, as a mathematician and scientist, fell into the trap of offering a second explanation (when the 1st had not gone across) that was more complex than the 1st! I am not sure why I can’t share my website using the box above but it is www dot wheresolly dot com slash davidhtml
    Cheers – and keep up the good work!

  2. As a teacher who spent 17 years teaching various subjects to 7th and 8th grade students I loved this post. You are right on the money in your advice of how to treat middle schoolers. They need lots of reassurance and an adult they can trust.

    I loved teaching this age group, because I felt I could make a difference for them at a time in their lives when they were just beginning to figure out who they are as a person. I enjoyed their humor and their energy and found, as long as I kept my sense of humor I could enjoy my time with them. I have many students who have stayed in touch through the years, so I think I must have done something right.

    Thank you for an insightful post that should be taken to heart by anyone who dares to teach middle school.

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