Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Why I love teaching middle school

Any middle school teacher can describe it for you. It's "the look." The look you get when you tell someone you teach middle school. It's a mix of sympathy and "are you INSANE?!" last night I was at a Giants baseball game. At one point, three other middle school teachers and I commiserated about "the look." Moments later, we shared with someone that we were middle school teachers and were on the receiving end of "the look." This time, it came from a high school teacher.

It may come from a fellow educator as it did for us last night. Anyone who teaches elementary or high school or college may have it. But, it is not limited to educators. Non-educators share "the look" with people like us as well. It's a "bless your heart" sort of look.

Now, I know, I have a strong admiration for kindergarten teachers (and other primary teachers as well, but especially kindergarten teachers). I try to avoid giving them a "bless your heart" look, but do not always succeed. Still, it seems middle school teachers receive it far more than any other teacher under the sun. If you teach anything between third and sixth, you likely are less familiar with this look. Somehow people do not have the same sympathy or concern for the middle grades as they do for primary nor for intermediate/middle school. The thing is that each grade presents its own set of challenges. Each grade calls a specific person to teach it. I admire those who feel called to teach what I consider middle grades. I once thought my dream was to teach fourth or fifth grade. I found out through career directional shifts that I was called to something more. My mom is a retired eighth grade teacher. She loved everything about what she did. In the meantime, she became an inspiration without either one of us even really knowing it. After my first year teaching middle school, I talked to her about how much I loved teaching eighth grade. She laughed at me. You see, at one point, I said I would never teach eighth grade. Funny thing, eighth grade is exactly where I want and need to be.


Well, isn't that the question.

Let me start with my seventh grade year. I was bullied. My best friend at the time and I had a falling out that lasted a few months. She made friends with some eighth graders. I had a "crush" on a fellow seventh grader. Turns out, one of the eighth graders considered him her boyfriend at the time. She challenged me on the playground. You know the drill. It was the late 80s, early 90s. She approached me, a large crowd gathered around. They all hoped for a fight. I was terrified. I told my parents. They called the school. Things got worse. It was bad. She challenged me to a fight. We were to meet at the elementary school by my house. My parents arranged for me to go to my brother's babysitter's house across the street from the school. So, I did. I watched intently. I had no intention of crossing the street to the school, but I watched. She never showed. Things stopped after that. Awhile later, the girl I had considered my best friend and I reunited and she told me she had smoothed things over. I'm not sure what happened, but it was done, in the past, and life went on. Seventh grade ended and eighth grade started. It was a new year.

And the new year presented new challenges. After the first quarter, my family moved to a new town. A house my mom loved, two doors up from my grandparents, went on the market. My parents bought it. We moved. Goodbye to the friends I had known since second grade, the best friend I had been through ups and downs with and recently reconciled with after a hiatus. Goodbye French class which I had enrolled in with enthusiasm and high expectations. Goodbye house. Goodbye.

And yet, there was also hello. Hello to new friends and new adventures. It was not easy, but it was something I could seemingly manage. Teachers who now instructed me knew my mom. The boy I had crushed on at the end of my seventh grade year was a year ahead of me and one of my mom's students. He was attending a high school in the district I moved to and that was kind of cool. There was a mix of anxiety and hope. Eighth grade is a really difficult year to change schools. But, there are positives to change, as well.

Turns out, the difficulties outnumbered the positives. I really struggled. I was sick, or "sick," more than I had ever been before in my life. I did not want to go to school. But, I had met a new friend. In fact, over time, she became my very best friend and is now more like a sister to me. It was far from easy, but there were teachers who made the difference. And, my new best friend made a difference. It only takes one good thing, one strong thing, to make a world of difference. I ran track and loved it. I confided in teachers. There was even a substitute teacher who influenced me incredibly positively. Over time, I came to accept this new place and these new people as home. I went on to high school with these folks. I attended that high school for my freshman and senior years. In between, I took a journey to the LA County High School for the Arts. Long story short, I returned to my "regular high school" for my senior year due to family reasons and family needs. When I returned, I was welcomed back with open arms. I got reinvolved with Whittier HS theater and even won an award for my performance in the fall play. All of it was pretty cool. Now, to reiterate, it was one friend and a couple of teachers who made the difference for me in eighth grade and that impacted my path forever. The boy I "crushed" on who was a student of my mom's, is still my friend today. We have a chance to visit every couple of years when he travels from his ("new") home in Australia back to the States. My "new" eighth grade best friend lives 20 minutes from me (we both moved to the Central Valley immediately after graduation; turns out we were destined to be "besties" for life and that's why I consider her my sister). But the difference made by teachers had a lasting impact as well.

I love being an eighth grade teacher because I know how hard eighth grade can be. When a student joins my eighth grade class, I know what to look for and how to look out for them because I once was a new student in a close-knit eighth grade class. I work in a school with far smaller class sizes, so it is a little different, but I generally can relate. I listen. I hear. I strive to do right by each student who is likely having their own set of difficulties. Some are more interested in personal relationships than others. Some have academic struggles. Some need more challenges academically. All of this is a part of eighth grade. Each student is unique. Each student has needs that I look forward to helping meet. That is my role, my job, my passion.  The greatest part of this is that I also love the curriculum.

The language arts and science are incredible and the history I get to cover with students is among my favorite. In fact, my love for "Hamilton: An American Musical" has joined with my passion for teaching eighth grade and awesomeness abounds.

Eighth grade is a challenging year for students, but it also can be very special. It takes a teacher with a heart for it all: the students, the struggles, the curriculum-- to see a group of students through the challenges and triumphs of eighth grade. While I understand "the look" when you send it in my direction, know this, I don't need a "bless your heart response" but rather, a "thank you for what you do." Still, you will look at me as you will, and that's ok. To the high school teachers, you know someone needs to do what I do. And as such, I know you appreciate what I (and others like me) do. So, thank you for "the look." To primary teachers, I know that I cannot do what you do and that I appreciate what you do. (I did my student teaching in kindergarten and third grades, and my teaching career started with second graders, so I know what you do presents its own challenges.) I thank you for sending me the students you do. To the non-teachers, I know that we all have a role to play in this world. Thank you for thinking highly of what I do, appreciating what I do. To my middle school friends and teachers, thank you for helping to make me who I am today. Thank you for showing me what helps make eighth grade awesome.

And to my eighth graders (past, present, future), thank you for being you. Thank you for the opportunity to be your teacher.

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