Crazy Love: 6 Reasons Why I Teach in the Middle
By Beth Morrow
If you’re nodding your head at the suitability of my title, you’re either one of us, or you think we must be… well, crazy.
Middle school students, that group of energetic, misunderstood and sometimes misguided kids between the ages of roughly eleven and fifteen, bring a unique perspective (which often changes by the day) to the classroom that their primary and secondary counterparts do not.
If you read the title and felt a warm glow of validation, you know just how wonderful middle school students can be. There’s a resiliency, a curiosity, an awakening that takes place over the middle years that slowly transforms the naive elementary student into a semi-worldly adolescent.
In those three or four years, the world and everything in it changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but having a front-row seat is a special treat for those of us who don’t mind the human drama.
Consider this my valentine to those volatile adolescents and the educators who cherish them: my six reasons why middle schoolers are such a pleasure to teach.
1. They remind us that no one is perfect
And that’s perfectly okay. For every positive characteristic each student possesses, they’re working to hide multiple struggles. Each day is a literal hard reset in terms of making choices that will move students forward toward maturity or keep them in a holding pattern of emotional reaction. What’s wonderful is when students’ metacognitive growth converts these moments into concrete opportunities for choice, and they have the chance to begin taking ownership of their own lives.
2. Oh, the brutal honesty
Middle school kids evince a certain flair for giving an honest opinion, whether or not it’s what the receiver wants to hear. Generally, the tact filter in students doesn’t develop until the early high school years. In the meantime, if you’re seeking feedback on your hairstyle, wardrobe, musical preference or anything that involves sharing opinions, you can bet that a middle schooler will offer the unvarnished truth.
3. We can give them hope for the future
As a writer and voracious reader, I believe in the power of story. The power of stories shared from generation to generation remind us all, in some way, of our humanity. The egocentric middle school mind is hardwired for the biological fear that they are the only person in the history of the universe to fall down at lunch – wear non-matching socks – fail a test – have a cowlick on picture day.
Since my family is tired of my own awkward adolescent stories, sharing them with a new, rapt audience each year is my way of giving students some sense that they aren’t uniquely geeky and that they might survive the next several years on their way to becoming that elusive man or woman of mystery: the high schooler.
4. We can gain hope in the present
As painted by daily news reports, the world can be a depressing place. Although a cloud of anxiety and angst is common during the middle school years, watching these young folks first-hand overcome their personal struggles on their way to building the foundation for their future dreams brings a refreshing, uplifting quality to the classroom that, when properly highlighted, can be positively contagious.
5. We get to watch curiosity blossom
Primary students usually just ‘do’ things without much personal investment. High schoolers often ignore their own interests to maintain the social status quo. But middle schoolers, when their interests are tapped, become singularly focused and intensively determined to find out everything they can on a topic.
I’ve seen struggling readers devour thick fantasy trilogies, apathetic learners become technology experts capable of teaching staff and students, and disruptive students create social service projects that fill their need for connection, build their self-confidence, and make a real difference to someone in the world.
6. We get free daily hugs
Around the fourth week of school, one of my students, a petite seventh grader who wears a smile 24/7, walked into my room during the last period of the day as though she belonged there. She came to my desk, threw her arms around me and told me to have a good afternoon before disappearing into the hallway.
This continued almost daily until Winter Break when I happened to remember to ask her last period teacher about the behavior. “I have that group for two periods in a row,” she informed me. “I allow each of them one restroom pass a day whenever they want to take it. She told me a while ago she didn’t want to use it for the restroom but to come give you a hug every day.”
What did I do to earn this hug? How did I come to trump a restroom pass? If you’re fortunate enough to teach middle school, neither the circumstances nor the answers will surprise you. With this age group, every day is an adventure and every adventure is guaranteed to reveal another facet of the wonderfully rough and resilient gems that are middle school students.
Beth Morrow is a veteran middle school ESL/LA/reading educator, freelancer and columnist. Most recently, she has written for ASCD Inservice, ASCD Express, MiddleWeb and Education Week, as well as Diabetes Health and Camp Business magazines. She spends her summers as a program director at a residential camp for teens with diabetes. Connect with her on Twitter @BethFMorrow or her blog, Morrow in the Middle.