Why Teaching Middle School Is So Hard

Everybody thinks middle school teachers are crazy…and they’re not entirely wrong.

Tell people you teach middle school and you’ll get one of two responses. Either they will tell you you’re a saint and launch into a story about their terrible middle school years, or they’ll back slowly away from you, eyes frantically searching for the exit as they try to figure out what, exactly, would launch a seemingly sane person on such a terrifying career path.

Middle school teachers can go on for hours about why it’s the best age group…and it totally is. But it is incredibly difficult, too, for a whole plethora of reasons.

1. It’s hard to get middle schoolers motivated to learn.

Elementary schoolers love learning. You tell them they’re going to learn fractions or write an essay or whatever it is they do, and they express their joy with hugs and handmade drawings. Middle schoolers don’t do that. High schoolers, on the other hand, see the real world rapidly approaching, and eventually realize they should probably get their shizz together before it hits them like an oncoming bullet train. Middle schoolers don’t see that, either. Instead, school is an eight-hour-a-day prison that serves no higher purpose, and good luck convincing them otherwise.

2. School is totally not students’ top priority.

It’s not academics that make our middle school years the most universally reviled. It’s the terrifying social milieu, in which only the strong survive. Friends betray you, crushes embarrass you, and your body suddenly becomes a horrifying stranger. Exponents and thesis statements are the least of their problems.

3. Middle schoolers will do ANYTHING to fit in.

And more and more, “anything” is synonymous with “send nudes.” Seriously, middle school kids will do whatever it takes to feel accepted by their peers, and creating a culture in which it’s okay to be smart and motivated is insanely difficult. It requires an army of teachers and administrators and parents all sending a consistent message, and even then it can be derailed by one popular kid with a bad attitude.

4. Middle schoolers have terrible judgment.

Scientists have discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of the brain, doesn’t finish developing until a person’s mid-twenties. What any middle school teacher could tell them is that the damn thing disappears completely from the beginning of sixth grade to the end of eighth grade. Seriously. Ask a thirteen-year-old why he did something and he’ll just stare at you blankly, as if confused about why you think there should be a reason.

5. Middle schoolers are a little bit evil.

I mean, I love them. But take that steaming hot brew of insecurity, impulsivity, and hormonal imbalance, and you’ll find it’s the rare middle schooler who doesn’t occasionally victimize someone in their life to make themselves feel better. It’s hard to balance high expectations with compassion, especially if you remember just how tough those years can be.

So basically, if you teach middle school, you’re thrown into a cross between Lord of the Flies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Goodnight Gorilla (in which all the animals have escaped from their cages but are inexplicably exhausted). Yet rather than focus on basic survival for you and your charges, you’re expected to make them proficient in a variety of multiple-choice-assessable skills while also preventing total emotional meltdown (theirs or yours) on an hourly basis.

Hang in there, middle school teachers. Don’t let the chaos—or the smell—get you down. They’re hearing you, even if it doesn’t seem like they’re listening, and you’ll often find that the things you taught them bear fruit years down the road. Because that’s the part that makes teaching middle school worth it. Eventually, these awkward critters you shepherded through a difficult year will come back and visit you. They’ll be taller, better-groomed, and astoundingly articulate. And probably hungry, so keep a box of granola bars in the file cabinet. And seeing them semi-grown up and functioning like human beings will remind you why it’s all worth it.

What do you think are the best (or worst) parts of teaching middle school? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, check out how to teach middle school in 49 easy steps.

Why Teaching Middle School Is So Hard

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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