5 Gleanings from My First Middle School Year

By Patti Grayson

Is the middle ever a good place to be? We hear about the woes of being a middle child, hate being stuck in the middle seat on an airplane, and dread the inevitable “middle age.”

And then there is middle school. Ugh. Jeff Kinney, author of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, writes, “I’ve never run into a person who yearns for their middle school days.” So true! Middle school brings back memories of struggling through the awkward years of puberty, cruel and judgmental classmates, and school pictures I would have paid my parents NOT to order.

Actress Zooey Deschanel said, “Nothing could be as hard as middle school.” Yet this year, after many years teaching elementary grades (3-4) and leading a high school youth group at church, I ventured bravely into the middle… the “Land of the Gland.”

Venturing into the Middle

In the months before I began this new adventure I met with our guidance counselor who had a slideshow to share with me, depicting a wonderfully hilarious look at what it meant to be a middle schooler.

ms-portrayals-sqDespite the lighthearted tone, the tug on my heartstrings was powerful as I was reminded of the struggles middle school kids face. I suddenly wanted desperately to make middle school better for my students – to give them a safe person to confide in – to help them love themselves and each other through these difficult years.

So how did it go? Yesterday was our last day of school, and I think it’s safe to say I survived and mostly prospered. It would be tough, though, to determine who grew more this year. Probably me.

Here are a few things I gleaned

If you’ve spent years as a middle school teacher, this likely won’t be new information – but a reminder is always a good thing. If you’re new to teaching or just new to teaching in the middle, you might find my new-found insights can help you along the way.

PRAISE IS CRUCIAL. Middle schoolers have huge self-confidence issues – even if they cover them well. Compliments, both personal (notice the new shirt or the haircut) and academic (praising an assignment or test that helps bring up their average), go a LONG way. They crave the positive attention and the realization that you notice AND care.

MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE. Offer to meet before school, during study hall, or after school for extra help, and open your room for students to “hang out” in the morning or during breaks. Give yourself this opportunity to get to know them. They will inevitably begin to trust you and share with you.

SNIP THE SNARK. Although middle schoolers try to act “cool,” they are incredibly sensitive and will take your sarcastic or snarky comment to heart. They can dish it out, but can’t take it. They’ll laugh it off now… and then dwell on it for weeks. Weigh your words carefully.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE. For reasons we cannot totally understand, middle school students are, by nature, inconsistent. They will ace one test and fail the next. Hormones are coursing through their systems, causing a wide range of issues regarding maturity, commitment, emotion, and ability to focus. They are painfully disorganized and distractible. This too, shall pass…

LOVE THEM. Their parents are yelling about messy rooms and grades, their “friends” are judging their every move, and their bodies are changing faster than they can process. Don’t judge them. Encourage them. Smile. Laugh. Have fun with them. Be the oasis in the middle of these tumultuous years. The joy will be returned to you tenfold…

5th girls 580

Photo credit:
Drawings & feature image (State College Middle School)

Patti Grayson is a middle school teacher at Hampton Roads (VA) Academy and is a member of their digital learning leadership team. She currently teaches Math, English, and a Computer Skills/Digital Citizenship course at the middle level, but has spent most of her teaching career in 3rd and 4th grade. Her articles have appeared at Powerful Learning Practice, MiddleWeb, MindShift, and Teach.com and were featured in Powerful Learning Practice’s book, The Connected Teacher: Powering Up. Her Mystery Skype Lesson Plan is available at the PLP Store. She was named a Top 10 Teacher in the Hampton Roads community for 2012, and blogs at Patti’s Ponderings. Follow her on Twitter @pattigrayson.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

10 Responses

  1. Your students are very lucky they have a teacher who appreciates, cares for and understands them! So glad you are enjoying this new adventure!!

  2. Molly Day says:

    Great insights and useful strategies!

  3. I also just finished my first year of middle school, and I agree 100%

  4. Karen Macke says:

    This is great! You hit the nail on the head every time. I went into my middle school teaching experience kicking and screaming. Now rabid hyenas couldn’t get me to leave! Kids are chameleons with their abilities to change at the drop of a hat. This kaleidoscope makes every day new!

  5. Bettyboo says:

    Good points! I spoke to someone today who counseled to never smile for the first three months. Yikes! I smile all the time. I want to be happy at my job. The teacher who shares a room with me, never smiles and she teaches in lower school. I would expect her to smile more, but it swear, not once.
    Although teaching for years, this will be my second middle school year.

  6. I’m with you! The kids make me smile… Pretty sure I couldn’t turn that off if I wanted to. When they come in for the first time, I want them to see a warm, FRIENDLY face! Hope you are gearing up for a great year!

  7. Patti, I hope your new year is off to a great start! Thanks for sharing your reflections. They resonated so much with me that I had to make my own reflection and recommended other check out your thoughts here (http://tech4teaching.blogspot.com/2015/08/dear-first-year-middle-school-teacher.html).

    • Laura, you make some really important points in your post! I totally agree that it’s good to do the research, but then do what works best for you and your kids. Support is also critical! Some teachers are afraid to reach out, I think.

      I appreciate the link back to my post. Will be tweeting your post out as well! Have a great year!!

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