Thursday, October 9, 2014

Moving Middle School from the Back Burner

Now that I teach in higher education I have joked to colleagues that I might look like a professor, but I'm still a middle school teacher on the inside. I taught in middle schools for the first 14 years of my teaching practice, and while I love what I do now (teaching future teachers), I do miss working with young adolescents on a daily basis.

That might sound crazy to you, if you aren't a middle school teacher yourself. Actually, it might sound crazy to you even if you are a middle school teacher. Teaching young adolescents is not for the faint of heart--and it isn't for everyone! But for those of us called to teach middle It's amazing!

The other day in my Introduction to Education class, I asked my students to participate in a poll as a hook to bring them in to the topic of the day (student development.) I asked them, "Which is the most difficult age group to teach?" Of the 30 students who participated in the poll...15 answered "Middle School."

Here it is--the actual poll results.

Clearly, teaching in the middle school is not for everyone!

I am privileged to teach a course in middle school curriculum and instruction. It's usually a smaller group of students who take the course--only 10 or 12 at a time--so I tend to run it more like a seminar, with lots of discussion and interaction and rarely a lecture in sight. (I've written previously about how I'm flipping the classroom for this course.) We focus in the class on making school a developmentally appropriate experience for young adolescents. It's an absolute blessing for me to work with these pre-service teachers, and to help them see the history of and the current state of middle-level education, and hear them planning and dreaming about how they will arrange their future teaching practices.

But it also means challenging, difficult thoughts crop up for them. For example, a couple of weeks ago, one of my insightful, passionate, future middle school teachers emailed me:

Professor Mulder,

In thinking about our class discussions on having developmentally appropriate middle schools for young adults and gaining the "right" training to teach these individuals, I happened upon a question to think about. If indeed middle school students require special teachers who are trained specifically for their age group, why, then, do we pair most (if not all) of our middle school methods courses with either elementary or high school content? In my experience so far, when middle school is partnered with either elementary or high school for learning the methods of teaching a content area, either elementary is extremely focused on, or in the case of pairing middle school with high school methods courses, high school is extremely focused on. Should we not have courses that better equip middle school teachers specifically?

Isn't that a great question? You see, here in Iowa, "Middle School" is recognized by the State as grades 5-8. But here is the challenge: we don't have a separate teaching license for grades 5-8. Our graduates either earn an elementary or secondary teaching license, and then can add a middle school endorsement to that license. And here, I find my insightful student is calling out the way that we are preparing future teachers who will be working with young adolescents.

And I agree with her.

After some thought, here is how I responded to her email:

I’m SO glad to hear you thinking this way! You’re right on the money, as far as I’m concerned. Middle school students need different things than either elementary or high school students. And I think we do some of what you are describing; this course, for instance, is intended to be very specifically “just for middle school.” So is Applied Ed Psych for Middle School. But I wish we could have specific methods courses just for middle school teachers too, and we don’t, as you know. 

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One of them comes back to licensure from the Iowa Department of Education. While the DE recognizes middle school as grades 5-8, they haven’t restructured the licenses to reflect this; the DE still issues a K-6 license or a 7-12 license, and the middle school endorsement can be added to either. I think it would make MUCH more sense for the DE to offer three licenses: K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. But the reality is—sadly—that many folks who wind up teaching in middle schools are there not as their first choice. And so it is helpful to have the other licensing, I suppose.

Another reason—and this one is pretty cynical, I’m afraid—is that those classes would be really small classes. Unless there was the kind of licensure change I describe above, there just aren’t going to be too many students who would take a middle school math methods course, for example. As I look at our class, I think there are only four people who are specializing in math as one of their subject areas. Not a great reason, is it? I know there are other courses that have very small enrollments, but I think that kind of course, even if offered every other year would probably only have 5-10 students in it each time it’s offered. If the licensure issue was changed, this might change as well…but until then? Ugh. Frustrating, isn’t it?

But I’m glad you’re thinking so reflectively about this! I hope you’d be willing to bring this topic up in class tomorrow; I think it is worth us talking about it.

Keep thinking deep thoughts!
Prof. Mulder


The point I made in my response to this student about teachers "ending up teaching middle school even if it wasn't their first choice" actually describes me. 

I planned to be an elementary teacher (though, to be fair, I wanted to teach the upper elementary grades.) When I began looking for teaching positions, however, I felt strongly called to teach middle school. Eventually, I just owned the fact that I have been gifted to teach young adolescents (and now teach future teachers of young adolescents, I suppose!) I used my gifts to the best of my ability to make a difference in the lives of my students. 

But I confess that I wonder sometimes about teachers who "end up" teaching if middle schools if it wasn't their first choice or preference. How many of them are there because they are "settling" for a middle school position? And should we be worried about this?

It sometimes feels to me that middle school is placed on the back burner in American education. We focus a lot on getting kids off to a good start in preschool. We devote a lot of time and energy to elementary grades--learning foundational skills for literacy and math. In high school, spend a lot of attention toward college and career readiness. But what about the kids in the middle?

Just like every other child in school today, young adolescents deserve an educational experience tailored to their unique needs. They deserve teachers who are well-prepared to teach them, and passionately excited to work with them. They deserve the best that we can offer, not the leftovers warmed up for them and served half-heartedly.

Let's move middle school from the back burner! 


  1. Great points made here David! I teach in Michigan an when I recorded my certificate we did not even have a middle level endorsement! Middle grades are the "forgotten" years for most. I feel the most goes on in the middle. Needs to be more training not just a place where HS and elementary teachers end up. Thanks for sharing

    1. Glad this resonated with you, Todd. I was in the same situation--the middle school endorsement in Iowa was brand new the year I graduated from college (so I didn't get it.) I was able to add it to my license when I did my M.Ed. work. I think the deliberate training for preparing to teach the kids in the middle grades is so important--and even more important, having teachers who really WANT to teach young adolescents!

      Thanks for the feedback, my friend!

  2. Great post Dave. Even up here in BC, we have a similar problem. While we do have a MIddle School program at the University of BC (of which my wife is a graduate), it is a very small class. And even with that, they get an elementary degree with a Middle level specialty. And yet there is no doubt that the philosophy and dare I say, the mindset required to be a quality middle school teacher does not have any room for those who are "settling." Working in a middle school is an adventure, one not for the faint of heart. And what our middle system needs, in America and in Canada, it educators who not only get specific training in these years, but goes in knowing that is where they want to end up.

    Part of the issue in BC, and maybe is the same in American jurisdictions is that not all school districts follow the middle philosophy. And sometimes even when they have middle schools, there is differing philosophies being employed. I know our district has some regions with middle schools and some without. And teachers move between those regions often looking for work as oppose to a real commitment to the pillars of middle (as laid out by AMLE and other organizations).

    I'm not sure what the answer is. But I know for me, while I was never middle trained (it wasn't an option when I went to UBC) it is where my heart and passion lies.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Shawn. Sounds like BC and Iowa are pretty similar in that way. So many schools are "middle school" in name only--and actually function in ways that might in fact be opposed to the true middle school concept.

      I have my pre-service middle school teachers read several things from AMLE, including _This We Believe_, which is helpful. But I still worry sometimes that they are going to land in a junior high school where the culture is often so opposed to the middle school concept, that they are just going to be overwhelmed by the challenge of changing the culture and give up.

      I love your last statement, and I know that's why you're a great middle level educator! Thanks for taking the time to comment.