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 schoolers...wow. 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:
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!
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!