Since high school, college, and into adulthood, I’ve discovered many people remember their middle school years primarily as awkward and unhappy.
I definitely felt these concerns in my own middle school years. But somehow, I managed to end my eighth grade year with a stronger and more positive self-image. And while there were plenty of stressful moments, most of the time I felt like I was holding my own in the tumultuous world of middle school.
Contrary to the findings above, these two years were the first time I felt like a smart and capable student. I was lucky enough to “loop” with the same teachers in seventh and eighth grades. They launched my love of school, and I attribute my desire to become a teacher to many of my positive middle school experiences. I owe much of the joy and confidence I discovered during these years to four people I have never properly thanked. These letters are to them, but it’s also to every middle school teacher out there making a difference.
To my language arts teacher:
As a tween, I found you intimidating.
You were a veteran teacher, set to retire after a two-year cycle with our team. As an adult, I realize what I thought was pure strictness was an unwavering commitment to hold us to the highest standards. In retrospect, I recognize that you had routines and procedures down to a science. You took a no-nonsense approach that kept even the unruliest middle school boys in line, and conveyed clearly to us that our work was important and worth caring about.
Additionally, I am so grateful that you looked beyond my, erm … “inventive” spelling and recognized my potential as a writer. You challenged me to submit my work for publication and take an advanced writing course in eighth grade. You taught me the power that words have to communicate meaning and emotion.
I think of you often as I’m working on an article—especially when I use comma rules.
To my math teacher:
Math never came naturally to me. Throughout my elementary years, it was a source of anxiety. But in your class, I felt like I never had to worry. No matter what the topic, I knew I would leave your room feeling like I understood the lesson. And if I didn’t, the supports were in place to help me get there.
You are one of the first adults I remember complimenting me on my work ethic, which is something I’ve never forgotten. Hearing an adult I trusted and respected describe me as hardworking did wonders for my self-image. Suddenly, I wasn’t “Amy, who struggled to remember multiplication tables.” I was “Amy, who isn’t afraid to ask for help when she needs it,” and “Amy, who is willing to put in extra time if something is hard.”
Please know I still remember the impact your words had on me then, as well as all these years later. It is a powerful reminder of the weight a teacher’s words carry, and it helps me remember to choose mine carefully.
To my social studies teacher:
You were the cool teacher (Side note: Why is the male social studies teacher always the cool one? But I digress).
In your room, I learned that school could be fun and rigorous; that we could explore content in exciting ways. I still remember creating a board game about Ancient Egypt and constructing my own Roman Coliseum. A special highlight was learning about the first Olympics by competing in our own. I held on to my plastic medal for an embarrassingly long time.
In your room, I felt like I could bring my creativity and artistic flair to school projects. You were a master at incorporating student voice and choice. And while the room was fun, the expectations were high—a balance I now strive to emulate.
To my science teacher:
I see so much of myself in you. You were a newer teacher when I was your student, but you had a passion for science that drove our class. My mother frequently reminds me, “Your middle school teacher said you had an aptitude for science.” At the time, I didn’t believe it, but you saw something in me before I could see it in myself.
Thank you for your belief in me. Neither of us knew it at the time, but my two years in your classroom laid the groundwork for my future career.
To every middle school teacher reading this:
So many adults I know look back on their middle school years and cringe. Research supports this anecdotal evidence, with a 2021 study demonstrating that tweens experience a decline in self-esteem after beginning secondary school. Students in the study’s focus group attributed this to “concerns about being judged and not fitting in.”
This isn’t surprising. These transitional years are confusing, awkward, and leave teenagers vulnerable to harmful narratives about themselves.
I’m bad at math.
I’m not good at anything.
No one likes me.
No one sees me.
Teachers, hear this: You have the power to help shape those narratives.
My teachers said positive things to me and about me. That I had potential as a writer. A strong work ethic. That I held a creative power and an aptitude for science. Hearing these things from adults I respected made them true to me.
What could you make true for your students?
You never know how far-reaching your influence will be. I don’t think any of my seventh or eighth grade teachers could have predicted that their examples, words, and lessons would inspire me to become a teacher myself. Their empathy, confidence in me, and willingness to push me shaped the student and teacher I have become.
Please know that you are doing the same for your students every day you show up in the classroom. Most of the time, the students we teach don’t have the emotional maturity or vocabulary to express what we mean to them (I know my middle school self didn’t). So, on behalf of every former student who wishes they could go back in time and talk to their teachers, thank you.
Never doubt that you are making a difference for the better.