What I Miss About My Middle Schoolers

A MiddleWeb Blog

Teaching via Zoom at my kitchen counter, laptop perched on coffee table books, is not the top way I would choose to interact with my eighth-grade U.S. history students.

However, by the time we reach the end of each period – usually a combination of full-class current events discussion and group or individual project work – I find myself reluctant to say goodbye.

Because I miss them. I really miss them. I miss them like I wouldn’t have predicted a month ago.

I’ve adored teaching middle schoolers for the past 21 years. But, to be honest, this school year – before we started teaching from home – my faculty administrative work was ramping up enough that class occasionally seemed like an interruption to getting things done.

I hate even writing that down, because I’ve loved teaching for forever. It shapes who I am. In fact, one of my worries about retirement, two-plus decades away, is that I’ll have to step down for health reasons before I’m ready to stop teaching kids.

But at times this year, there just hadn’t seemed to be enough hours in the day. While I invariably loved being in the classroom once I walked through the door, sometimes I had to psych myself up, drag myself away from necessary adult conversations, to jump into the breach with loud and dynamic middle schoolers, who were justifiably asking for every ounce of my attention.

Longing for Loud

Yet now, when my interaction with students fits on a two-dimensional screen, when their mics are on mute much of the time, I’m wishing for that loud classroom.

I’m longing to scan students’ body language. To see the girl who puts her head on her desk because she’s tired, or worn out, or something else I’ll want to ask about. To redirect the boys elbowing each other at the back of the room, fresh off drama class, who are sorry it isn’t lunch yet. To note who’s with me and who’s not. To tease kids gently. To laugh together.

I also miss what I never realized is the relentless physicality of school. Crossing paths with colleagues and students on the lunch patio, brushing shoulders in the halls, putting papers on desks. Taking a half-step back from a 13-year-old who hasn’t yet figured out the boundaries of personal space. Jabbing the A/C button after everyone has just spilled in from P.E. Leaning against my desk at the end of the day and watching students stream out, swig from a water bottle, find their people.

This Helps, a Little

Without seeing students physically every day, I look for more reasons to connect.

Sometimes I think of students I can email individually, to mention that I read a book they recommended or to commend them for leading discussion well.

While they’re doing independent work during part of a period, I keep my video chat open, hoping that someone will drop in with a question so I can spot their cat in their background, or ask how they’ve been spending their time since they can’t swim with their team.

When the eighth graders enter and leave our video session, I ask everyone to unmute so we can all say hi and bye and thank you, to marinate in a bit of our usual cacophony of settling in and departing.

We as teachers didn’t choose middle school because we want a class of easily muted kids. Part of the reason I love this age group is that it’s a messy, evolving, nonlinear process to grow from here to there – from sixth to eighth grades, from 5’1” to 5’8”, from child to young adult.

Standing in the center of my kitchen, cardigan and blouse over pajama pants and house slippers, the dishwasher burbling under my laptop, I inhabit my own kind of messy. But it’s just not the same.

For ideas on folding current events and civics into your classes throughout the school year, try Sarah Cooper’s book, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6–9, a Routledge/MiddleWeb publication. MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount from Routledge with the code MWEB1.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is Associate Head of School at Flintridge Prep in La Canada, California, where she has also taught English Language Arts. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge, 2017). She presents at conferences and writes for a variety of educational sites. You can find all of Sarah's writing at sarahjcooper.com.

12 Responses

  1. Sarah, this is a beautiful depiction of exactly what it’s like to teach middle school from the heart of a loving, caring educator. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You have me so missing being a middle school teacher!

  2. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Sarah, I’m retired and you had me missing junior highers. I loved their energy and honesty and yes, even often their challenges. Best wishes as you adjust to this new way of teaching for awhile. I’m sure your students have been missing you, too.

  3. Sarah Cooper says:

    Mary, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. I can imagine missing junior high students when I’m retired, too… at least sometimes! I just taught a class and it was a pleasure to “see” everyone in Google Meet Grid View.

  4. Annette Fenton says:

    Love you. Love your writing, just like I loved your mom and her writing.

  5. Heather Rhodes says:

    I appreciated this article, being a middle school educator since 1997. Middle school is such an awkward time! But, there is beauty, humor, and growth that occurs before our very eyes. I noticed that you’re at an independent school in a very affluent area (I’m from the San Fernando Valley) and I have to say, I wish my teaching gigs were more like yours.

    Public schools, especially in “tough” parts of town, are brutal. I’ve experienced massive burn-out and one too many days in tears, head in my hands, because the level of blatant disrespect is rampant and my administration seems powerless over it, too. I’m on a much needed break from teaching for the moment, but I look forward to returning next year (hopefully) at a school that is more supportive than what I’ve dealt with for the past 5 years.

    • Sarah Cooper says:

      Heather, thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story here. I hope you find a wonderful place to land for next year where you can see the “beauty, humor and growth” that you describe.

  6. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Sarah, I so relate! I taught a live lesson today; I thrill as the “doorbell” on Zoom rings and they enter the virtual space. I smile as I watch their little thumbnails. I watch one of them as her face lights up because she is on her phone. I sigh, as I think, “figures, that she’d be on her phone” and then learn, after class, that she had been on the phone with another of my students whose chromebook wasn’t working and wanted to join the lesson.

    I also tell them to unmute themselves to ask questions, and to say hello. I ask questions like, does that make sense? Do you remember that from a previous lesson? I am used to a chorus of “yeahs” and forget that they have muted themselves. “Nod if you remember,” I tell them, and then watch to see them nod in their little thumbnail “cubicles.” Today I had 2 “newcomers”–students who I hadn’t heard from since our school closed on March 13. Such a thrill.

    At the end of class, I said they were free to go, but I’d hang out for a bit if they had any questions. Five students did, and we just talked to each other. One barely said a word. I watched him get up to get something to eat (he mentioned at the beginning of the 12:30 lesson that he hadn’t had breakfast yet) but then he came back, put on his headphones and just “hung out” with the rest of us. I think we were all sorry when it was time to go.

  7. Sarah Cooper says:

    Lauren, your story fills me with the feel of the classroom. I love the “hanging out” at the end. Thank you for inviting us in!

  8. Jacob Kraft says:

    Hello Sarah!

    I am a fellow social studies teacher at the middle school level for 16 of my 17 years in education. I just happened to stumble upon your post and I felt compelled to respond. Immediately I can tell that you teach because you love kids. Teaching middle school students is such a unique experience and one that brings so much happiness. I really enjoyed how you explained the physicality of your middle school. You said, “Crossing paths with colleagues and students on the lunch patio, brushing shoulders in the halls, putting papers on desks. Taking a half-step back from a 13-year-old who hasn’t yet figured out the boundaries of personal space.” These are great examples of why so many of us love teaching. Yes, the curriculum is important, but relationships and in-person experiences are what make schools so great. Sitting in a Zoom with a group of students can never take the place of a classroom, especially one from a middle school.

    I too, “Long for Loud.” Thanks again for sharing your experience!

    • Sarah Cooper says:

      Jacob, thank you so much for this energizing post. From your comments I can feel how much you appreciate your students, too. Here’s hoping we can be surrounded by loud early adolescents sooner rather than later!

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