For the last year, I have been working in a Middle School teaching grades six, seven and eight. For the eighteen years previous, I have worked in Secondary Schools teaching grades eight to twelve. I have worked with Girl Guides of Middle School age level and I had taught grade eight in high school, so I figured it would be a fairly straight forward adjustment. It wasn’t.
It was strangely reminiscent of my year as an exchange student. The mantra definitely applied: Not better, not worse, just different.
I learned a lot from my year on Planet Middle School. Here are some pure generalizations. Obviously there are exceptions, but in most cases, this is what I observed.
High schoolers are often juggling jobs with school. Some are balancing babies. I am used to respecting their need to have some flexibility with deadlines. Middle Schoolers want to be allowed to make their own decisions about time. Unfortunately, many don’t have the maturity to see the consequences if they don’t use the time that they are given wisely and they procrastinate about the deadlines until they can’t possibly catch up. Lesson: Check with them every day to make sure they are keeping up.
High Schoolers in our semester system get four classes a day, 84 minutes each. They are able to focus, with breaks and variety, for the entire class. Middle Schoolers, particularly boys, can’t concentrate for much longer than 30 minutes, and they really need some physical activity in their day. Lesson: incorporate movement into the class room through games, group work, carousel activities, etc.
Middle school kids complain and say that they don’t want to do anything that you suggest. In High School, I grant my students the right to make these decisions, and will modify lessons to accommodate their opinions. If you listen to Middle Schoolers’ complaints, you will never do anything fun, because they are afraid of being un-cool. They don’t want to welcome any suggestion that comes from an adult about what they would enjoy. Lesson: Play the game despite the whining. Force them to participate and then chuckle behind your hand as they laugh and thoroughly enjoy themselves. It’s their job to be oppositional at this developmental stage.
Secondary students expect to be treated as young adults. They are willing to accept the consequences of their actions, and they can understand what those consequences are when they are explained. They have real, complicated lives and they appreciate when the teacher works with them to help them do the best they can in their personal situation. Middle School students want to be treated as young adults, but they aren’t able to clearly recognise consequences. They are more likely to be ruled by their emotions. Lesson: give them opportunity to voice their opinions and feelings in a respectful manner, but provide a lot of safe structure.
Secondary students are generally respectful of individuals and property. If something goes missing, they tend to take it personally, and will work to ensure that it is returned to the owner. Middle students have less impulse control and so things disappear around them. They are too concerned about their status in the group to risk telling what they know. Lesson: lock up any valuables, don’t bring anything to the class room that you aren’t willing to have wrecked or stolen.
High schoolers know that they are responsible for their future and that working well with adults is a necessary skill. Middle schoolers are resentful of adults and their power. The Middle schooler needs to push the limits and challenge adults. It is important that there are adults who can recognise the learning that happens in that challenging, while providing clear boundaries. What the kids want to know, is where those boundaries are. They are happiest when they can function within them. Lesson: be honest with genuine questions, but insist on respect to everyone in the room. Be consistent in your expectations and responses.
When I was in grade six, I had a fantastic year and made some life-long friends. For grade seven I went to Junior High and more lasting friends. Several of these friends are still in my life, decades later. I had two really great years in grades 6 and 7. Then we moved and I went into grade eight in a new school. It was not a good year. It was a year of learning how to be in a new environment. I kept looking back with bitter sweet fondness to the two great years just past, as I struggled to adapt to new ways of doing things, new people, new attitudes and a new life.
Memories of those years came to me several times over this year. I had just had two of the best years of my career in the high school before I accepted a job in Middle School. I’d had classes that had bonded tightly together, and I loved going to work every day to spend time with them. At the Middle School, I experienced the same kind of jolt I had years ago when I was a grade eight myself. As I attempted to adapt to new methodologies, new people, and new ideas this year, I frequently felt awkward, uncomfortable and unappreciated in the new environment.
It was a hard year. It wasn’t bad, though, it was just challenging. I couldn’t coast on the way I’ve done things for years in the high school. I had to find new ways to deal with the new reality. I wish I had the knowledge at the beginning of the year that I had at the end. It was frustrating for me not to be as good as I wanted to be (or expected to be) in my class room. If I have the chance to do it again, there are a lot of things I’d do differently. I would apply all those lessons I learned. Middle School is an energetic and amusing place to be if you know how to live on the balance point that is the special ‘in between’ place that these students inhabit.