These past few months had been and have been particularly trying for me, as I have made the important decision to return to work after my abrupt psychiatric leave of absence. Simply put, I had to, I was falling apart on an hourly basis, to the point where I was starting to endanger myself and my job. It was a very dark period, but one that I managed to overcome.
Though a few months have already passed, I still recall the strong sense of dread that haunted me in the days leading up to my return. How would I be received? Would there be any hard-hitting questions that I would have to answer? What about my middle school students? Had they forgotten about me? Or worse yet, did they resent me for having left them so unexpectedly?
I needn’t have worried.
Coworkers, administration, and students alike greeted me warmly, welcomed me back, and played a significant role in helping me pick up where I had left off. Now with that anxiety-inducing time period well in the rearview mirror, I can start to focus on continuing to get well and getting on with my job.
I would be lying if I wrote that I didn’t entertain the idea of leaving my middle school post for good. After all, teaching is stressful enough… and teaching middle school kids? Pffffttt! Not always the best recipe for someone with mental health issues!
And yet, all this time to reflect has left me with a sense of gratitude for what I do, where I work, and most importantly, who I work with. In the span of my career in education, I have had experience and expose at all three levels of the K-12 spectrum. As tough as it really is dealing with crazy, hormonal middle school kids and their never-ending tween drama, I guess I knew all along that this is where I belong (I know, I know… *Awwwwww!* 😛 )
Seeing how I have neglected to update my blog in earnest, I spent a few peaceful moments on this Sunday morning musing and reminiscing, and then it dawned on me… Why not write on a positive note about something that I regard so dearly?
So, without further ado, in no particular order mind you, here is my list of reasons why teaching middle school really is the best (really!):
1. They are not too old for high-fives or for stickers
Perhaps it is the kid in me who refuses to outgrow such things (or I am actually the reincarnation of B.F. Skinner), but I feel like positive behavior ought to sometimes be rewarded. While I am known throughout my school as “that teacher who likes to bake,” most of the time, it is actually a steady flow of stickers that keeps my students motivated on an “off” day. While high schoolers might scoff at such a reward, my middle school kids covet these quirky and colorful adhesive pieces of delightful randomness (and put them all over their faces and their eyelids, but I digress…).
As for the high-fives? During my teacher training days back in my Washington, D.C. based university, it was sharply drilled into my head that, under no uncertain terms was I to EVER touch a student in any way, shape, or form, lest I invite a potential lawsuit. However, here in Argentina, the warm and affectionate porteño culture means that hugging and air kisses are the norm. Both staff and students alike are platonically touchy-feely. That is fine and dandy, but what can I say? You can’t teach an old dog (err… teacher) new tricks. I just don’t feel comfortable accepting anything more than a one-armed hug. My best alternative for now are some super rad high-fives. Bring ‘em on!
2. While middle schoolers may often act “too cool for school,” they still haven’t lost their elementary instincts to be sweet and affectionate
The junior high school years are undoubtedly a time of self-searching and discovery. Once these kids graduate elementary school and start getting their own lockers, class schedules to follow, and no longer equate a playground with breaktime, some of them seem to grow too big for their breeches overnight. No longer the big fish in the small pond, they cop an attitude with their parents, with their peers, and most of all with authority. They push limits, they defy boundaries, and they break rules (again. And again. And AGAIN). Classroom management is admittedly my greatest weakness when it comes to dealing with preteens, and when a lesson goes haywire, I question my life’s choices that brought me to middle school to begin with.
But unlike some of their high school counterparts, the middle schoolers who I have encountered still know what it is like to demonstrate empathy when needed, to be an upstander, and what it means to unashamedly care about what matters most to them.
Case in point: About a year ago, I had broken down in tears in front of one of my classes. I will never forget how, despite breaking the number one rule of teaching (“Thou shalt not cry in front of thine students”), in the span of mere seconds, my squirrely group of loud sixth graders morphed in front of my very eyes. They were falling over themselves to come to my aid, complete with concerned expressions, meaningful hugs, and most importantly, a large box of tissues. I will never forget that.
3. It is impossible not to stay abreast of current trends and fads
Dabbing? I’ve got it down. Water-bottle flipping? Been there, done that! Fidget spinners? Those are SO last year! Dealing with preteens on the daily often means hearing about the latest and greatest in the world of junior high hijinks, where England is apparently a city and knowing who Chance the Rapper and Fetty Wap are can score you some major street cred with your kiddos.
By the way – Who is Logan Paul and why do I care about him?
Respect from your junior high students. Yes, it is as rare and elusive as a unicorn sighting, but once you can truly command respect from middle schoolers, you know that you have genuinely made it in the teaching world. In the meantime, just mentioning to adults that you teach middle school is enough to instantly earn major respect (and on occasion, condolences).
At the very least, you are always sure to have some very interesting anecdotes to tell at friendly get-togethers!
5. “Kids Say the Darndest Things!”
“Last night I dreamed I was dancing on mountain of cookies.”
“What did the banana say to the banana?… Nothing, because bananas can’t talk!”
“Ms. White, can we sing Christmas songs?” “But it’s May!”
Despite having finally mastered the “teacher look” (you know the one I’m referring to!) after all these years of practice, my students have been able to beguile all-consuming laughing fits from me at the drop of a hat. These student-induced giggle attacks are rarely premeditated; they are typically the result of some spontaneous observation or a kid being just a *little* too transparent, but are memorable enough for me to recall and still enjoy a good chuckle long after the class has been dismissed.
As I recall a student’s innocent mistake when pronouncing Krakow, I affirm the cherry on the cake of crazy for me is when you throw English language learning pronunciation into the mix. It can often result in some unexpected hilarity, but always remember to laugh with the student, never at them. This leads me to my next point…:
6. “It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times…”
There is a reason why so many books have been published about the impressionable, difficult junior high school years (such as the “Wimpy Kid” series or James Patterson’s, “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” series).
As the subheading for this reason suggests, my own middle school experience was indeed “a tale of two cities.” There were undeniably times when my school building represented a war zone to me, a cruel, daily gauntlet to endure, and the perpetual sensation of feeling like a foreigner in my own country.
Let’s be realistic: Very few people look back on these years with blissful nostalgia for a reason. Middle school can be unspeakably hard (for both students and teachers alike). Even fewer make it out unscathed in some way.
However, to be fair, middle school also proved to be a time of personal enlightenment, renaissance of sorts for me, thanks to some incredibly devoted and passionate teachers. They changed me. Not because of WHAT they taught me, but rather HOW they aided me in learning about their subject (and admittedly, about myself, too). As the late Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This, to me, is middle school in a nutshell.
My lessons to take away from this?
These young students are still very much figuring out who and what they are (much like I still am, in a way). I suppose that is why I identify with them quite a bit and probably take my job a bit too seriously. Choosing to return to middle school year after year is a decision that sometimes calls my sanity into question, that brings equal parts of bitter tears and incredulous smiles, but one that am very proud of.