Teaching Middle School English

Have you ever had the misfortune of seeing a toddler have a full-on nuclear meltdown? That was me when I found out that my return to teaching from maternity leave would not be to the high school English classroom I loved so much. Instead I would going into the hostile, alien planet known as middle school. I went to school kicking and screaming. I was prepared to last the day … and only the day.

It took me about 11 minutes to fall utterly, completely in love with 7th graders. I’ve finally found my place, the place where a teacher’s personality and energy is wonderfully matched to her audience.

I love middle school for all the reasons so many run from it: the kids. Middle schoolers are vibrant, throbbing masses of insecurity, hyperactivity, creativity, indecision, certitude, compassion, and silliness. Or, they try to render themselves into faceless, apathetic puddles of “Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me, go away, leave me alone, you don’t understand, what do you know?” All of them scream, “Come closer, understand me, find my potential, see me, love me.” For the teacher who takes to time to make that journey to meet them, sometimes a bit past halfway, there is treasure.

Kids will work so hard for a teacher who sees them and who cares. No lesson is too odd, no activity too creative, no concept too mundane to deserve robust discussion and work. They can simultaneously discuss the ramifications of a poverty-free world or the thematic similarities in Steinbeck’s works while at the same time collapsing into a fit of giggles over the bee that flies into the room. And I laugh with them. At my core, I’m a 12-year-old dork who can still marvel at the wonder in our world, question the possibilities before us, and embark on crazy adventures with my 150 sidekicks. That we are on a quest for academic and personal excellence makes our journey no less fun or noble. Kids will work so hard for a teacher sees them and who cares.

To survive as a middle school teacher, you have to believe that wonderful potential lies within these not-quite-kids, not-quite-adults.

Kids tune out, they act up, they crackle with energy and creativity, they break down, they lash out. They try on a new personality every day, and they want you to approve of all of them. You have to work harder than other teachers to swat aside their attempts to alienate you, to test you, to see how far they can go before you blow. They will give you every reason to walk away or to want to quit, but you must keep reminding yourself that no child is done developing by middle school. You have to grasp tightly the vision of their future selves and the beauty of that image while you wrestle with the gangly adolescents who’re often quite pleased if you’d just let them be.

It’s safe to say you must have acres of patience, and love, and a well-developed sense of humor. If you have these talents and a real thirst for finding ways to innovate your instruction to meet this fascinating group’s own thirst for learning, then you will love middle school as much as I do.

Teaching middle school is the ride of a lifetime. What are you waiting for?

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a 7th-grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, Calif.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Middle School English

  1. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing of yourself in this article and also biggest sharing of all, yourself to middle schooler! I have been working with middle schoolers for the last 23 years and everything you have written is so very true! They have been my life journey, as hard some eggs have been hard to crack, but I would not have changed my life’s career for one second!

  2. Rebecca, This is Fabulous! – Having just received a “Chair” for 20 years of teaching middle school, I am heartened and exhilarated by your comments. I,as I’m sure you as well, have answered the query so many times – “Those kids must be really difficult. How do you do it?” Somehow I’ve passed the love onto my daughter, as she is in her 6th year of teaching 7th grade at a charter school.
    Thank you so much for your honest, inspirational comments!

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