“You teach middle school?!”
If people look at you with a mix of shock, fear, and horror when you tell them this, then you should know you are not alone. Yes, teaching tweens and young teens has its fair set of challenges, but it’s also one of the most rewarding jobs you could ever have. Here’s why teaching middle school is the worst (and the best).
Teaching middle school is the worst because …
1. The Smells
The problem is not just standard BO, like you’d expect. The problem is the stuff students use to cover it up. To get from my desk to the door, I have to wade through a miasma of teen-product vapors that make me want to shower in bleach. I’d describe it as a base of BO and nachos, with bright, nostril-burning top notes of AXE body spray, finished with a haze of sixteen different Bath and Body Works scents.
Glade doesn’t produce enough PlugIns to make a dent in it. Maybe if you had one oil diffuser per table, that would work, but I think the only solution is to burn it down and start over. Don’t worry; the air is extremely flammable, thanks to aerosol products and Taki farts.
2. The Schedule
I know what you’re thinking. Did a teacher just complain about the schedule? Someone who never has to work weekends, who gets summers off, who leaves every day at 3:30 p.m.? (Haha, right.) But think about this: If I need to go to the bathroom during class, well, too bad. If I leave 30 seventh graders unattended for upwards of 15 seconds, there’s no telling what will happen. It’s safe to assume that when I return, someone will be in tears, someone’s shoe will be in the trash, and the history on at least one classroom computer will be suspiciously blank. And that’s in my good class. I’ve trained my body to pee twice during the workday, and that will just have to suffice.
There’s also the fact that you teach (theoretically) the same topic four times a day. Lots of teachers cover the same material six times a day to 150. This means that when one class writes a paper, everybody writes a paper. Which means you have anywhere between 90 and 7,000 papers in need of grading all crashing down on you in the same week.
3. The Drama
So. Much. Drama. Shanya can’t concentrate on her work because Brittany is sitting across from her, and on a group text last night Brittany said that Shanya was fake, but Shanya’s not fake; Brittany just said that because she knows that Amaury likes Shanya even though he and Brittany used to go out in the fifth grade.
Oh, and Jose and Dave can’t work together on a project because Jose doesn’t feel comfortable because Dave bullied him when they were in pre-K together, and it just makes him nervous. And can you move Sebastian’s seat so he doesn’t have to look at Victoria? It was a bad breakup. (More on teen relationship drama here.)
That’s a typical fourth period—before the parents get involved. You can open class with some basic conflict resolution and a corny joke when it’s just the kids, but when you get emails from parents about who was invited to whose birthday party (or who wasn’t), a job handing out salmon samples at the local Costco starts to look appealing.
4. The Priorities
With all the aforementioned drama, can I tell you how much my kids care about the MAP test today? Not much at all. They couldn’t care less. I’ve got my hands full shepherding these spider monkeys through the day without loss of life and limb sometimes, but I’m supposed to make them care about not only the real standardized tests but all the practice ones? Right.
A kid in the midst of trying to figure out why hair is suddenly growing in funny places and how the kid who sits next to them became so hauntingly attractive overnight just isn’t that focused on the Pythagorean theorem.
5. The Dirty Minds
Here’s a linguistic dance I do a few times a year: “Everybody open your books to page 70. Oh, wait, no. The page before that.” You know why? Because you can’t say “69” in a middle school class. Teaching middle school, much like teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, demands constant vigilance.
Once I was teaching Romeo and Juliet and trying to explain the context in which Romeo and Juliet meet. I said, “So in Shakespeare’s time, wealthy families would have these ENORMOUS BALLS …” I still have nightmares about that class. I know science teachers who are afraid to write “organism” on the board because it’s only a couple of missed letters away …
On the other hand, teaching middle school is the best because …
1. You get to read great books.
The Outsiders. Eleanor and Park. Crossing the Wire. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There are so, so many awesome books for middle schoolers. And the kids don’t know about any of the ones that haven’t been made into blockbuster movies in the past four years. So not only do you get to read these awesome books again, you get to watch a whole bunch of kids discover them for the first time.
Middle school is when a lot of kids stop reading for pleasure and teaching middle school English is like being a battlefield medic. You’ll save their love of stories or die trying.
2. You get street cred.
Go to a party and tell somebody you teach third grade, and they smile and coo at you. Tell them you teach seventh grade, and they have one of two responses. One, “Oh, wow, you must be a saint!” or two, they take several steps back, shake their heads before running away, and leave all the hors d’oeuvres to you.
If you’re at a tough school, it’s even better. Nobody remembers the seventh grade fondly, and anybody who willingly puts themselves back in that milieu is clearly a force to be reckoned with. That’s right, teacher. Have some more spinach dip, you magnificent beast.
3. It’s endlessly entertaining.
I have a game I like to play. It’s called My Friends Who Work in Offices. Throughout the day, I like to compare my activities to what I imagine my college buddies who chose to go into consulting might be doing. (Also, what do consultants do? Does anybody even know?)
It’s a great game because I always win. For instance, I bet not a single consultant yelled, “For the last time, Justin Bieber is NOT a subordinating conjunction!” today. I’d also wager that none of them had a conversation that began, “I understand that stapling string cheese together to make a lasso seemed like a good idea at the time, however … “
Sure, they don’t have to hide the wine at the bottom of their cart in Target in case a student walks by, but I think the trade-off is worth it.
4. No matter how bad your day is, theirs is worse.
You got observed by the meanest administrator during last period on a Friday in a class that’s half special needs when your co-teacher was absent? The kids are 13.
You got more furlough days this year, and you’re not sure you’ll be able to pay the mortgage anymore? They have to keep being 13.
You’re at school with what is—let’s face it—probably the beginning of the flu and your head feels like it’s going to explode every time you stand up and you have a broken leg and your dog ran away and your parents are getting a divorce after 30 years of marriage and you’ve recently discovered a deadly mango allergy? Look on the bright side! When you wake up in the morning, at least you’re not 13.
5. You end every year with 86 I-knew-them-when stories.
Or however many kids you teach. They start middle school as cute, eager-to-learn children, then suddenly morph into weird, smelly, hormone-driven angst factories that can barely be described as human. And you spend 180 days with those … creatures, so you know their fears (everything) and their hopes and what makes them laugh. Chances are you’ve also been a witness to at least one of their top ten most embarrassing moments.
So when they come back to visit in two or three years, and they’re suddenly articulate and considerate and responsible, it’s like you’ve witnessed a miracle. And seriously, the bar is so low to start out with, it’s really impossible not to be impressed by their growth. You get to watch little kids turn into human beings every single year. Who else is so lucky?
We’d love to hear from you. What’s the worst or best part of teaching middle school? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.