Hi. Sorry. Don’t mind me.
I just realized…I talk about this all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually written about it, and that’s bugging me. And I seem to be on a bit of a writing kick lately, so what the heck.
Here’s the thing: you know how everyone has that thing, the one they tell people about and know going in that the first response they’ll get is sympathy? Like the second you finish the sentence, they’ll get that sad-puppy look on their face and say something like “Oh, my goodness” or “I’m so sorry” or “Are you okay?”
In my life, I’ve had precisely two things like that. One of them is that I’m adopted, although that honestly doesn’t happen as much these days…I think the world has finally figured out that you can be adopted without being an orphan.
The other thing? That I’m a middle school teacher.
It’s inevitable. I tell someone I teach middle school, and they immediately do that sympathy wince, like when you’re describing that time you stepped on a thumbtack. And then the next thing out of their mouths is always something like “that must be so hard.” Or “you must go through a lot of wine.” Or my personal favourite, “you’re a better person than I am, those kids are a**holes.”
(That last one was a direct quote, by the way.)
And every time this happens, I find myself running around the same well-beaten track in my head, and the words on the starting banner are: Why does everyone think we’re so miserable?
I mean, I know why. It’s hard not to know why, because there are so many reasons. For one thing, everyone in my social circle seems to have hated their middle school years, so any talk of those years is planting them right back in their own personal hell. For another, the stereotype of selfish, entitled young teenagers is a relentless trope that just won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to slap it down.
It grinds my gears the most when the question comes from other teachers (high school or kindergarten, take your pick!), because of all people, you’d hope other educators would understand how kids of any age can be equal parts awesome and terrible in different ways, but no. Tell them what grade you teach and they’ll make that I-just-stepped-in-dog-doo face and go “oh, I could never teach middle school,” in that gossipy, inside-jokey voice, as if they’re expecting you to go “yeah, me neither, haha, it’s terrible.”
I think, in those cases, it happens because middle school is less relatable. Younger kids are cute and older kids are practically adults (ha, ha, as if) but folks see middle schoolers as the worst of both worlds: young enough to be annoying but old enough to have an attitude. And, I mean…not that there isn’t some truth to that, but it’s like saying all cats are affectionless a-holes because they aren’t as unapologetically happy-go-lucky as dogs.
Yes, I’m a cat person. Don’t change the subject.
Coming back to the point, among the remaining possible answers to the question of why people look at middle school as some kind of paid purgatory, I end up coming to the natural, unpalatable conclusion: there might actually be more middle school teachers, compared to other grade levels, who do hate it.
I don’t actually think it’s that simple, though. I don’t think middle school gets a bad rap simply because it’s harder. All teaching is hard, if it’s done right. It’s tough, exhausting, stressful, and uncomfortably political. That’s not unique to middle school, and let’s be honest: I wouldn’t last a month trying to teach Grade 2.
So what is it then? Why, even among teachers, does middle school get so much flak? Honestly, I think the uncomfortable truth of the matter is pretty simple.
Middle school makes teachers feel vulnerable.
Think about it. Teachers, as a group, run the gamut in terms of personality, strengths, and weaknesses, but there are some details most of us have in common.
First, we were probably good students ourselves.
This hardly seems like a groundbreaking point; if you finish school willing to turn around and go right back in for the rest of your career, you probably enjoyed it on some level. Maybe you’re an academic, and you just enjoy learning and watching those A’s roll in. Maybe it was your teachers, and the positive impact they had on your life. Maybe you weren’t even a “good” student at all, but there was something about school that made a difference for you.
Whatever the case, most teachers were successful in school as students (they had to be, in order to get into obnoxiously competitive teacher’s college programs). We grew up knowing the answers, and so we like problems that are easy to solve. If there’s a problem, this is the answer. If there’s a mistake, this is how you correct it. We don’t like complicated, messy problems without direct, practical solutions.
On top of that, though, I think when we’re successful in school, we’re biased. We believe the system works, because it worked well for us, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This means we have a harder time empathizing with the people who were less successful, because if we made it through and did well, so could anyone. We don’t see the flaws in the system as easily – mostly because we don’t want to.
(Incidentally, this is exactly how something like white privilege works.)
So, having done well, graduated, and then become teachers ourselves, we end up doing the same things our teachers did. We propagate the same methods and traditions without stopping to examine them. Why do we have students write tests and do homework? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The result is a group of professionals that are hesitant to challenge the status quo, because the status quo has always seemed to work. That’ll be important in a minute.
Second, teaching tends to attract control freaks.
If that offends you, honestly, good. And if you’re a teacher and not a control freak, also good!
I should point out, though, that I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism. In fact, given the amount of organization and planning required to do well as a teacher (not to mention the challenges of managing kids’ behaviour), being able to take control is a valuable, sometimes necessary trait.
For better or for worse, most teachers are at their best when things are predictable. We lay our plans, we deliver our lessons, we do what we need to do, and we have to function this way in order to survive. Teaching comes with so many endless lists of things to do and manage, so many consecutive things to think about, that we have to organize that chaos into something we can control.
The thing is, though, that possessing too much of this quality can bring issues of its own. On the one hand, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they need it. They can’t handle the stress of spontaneity, fall apart when things don’t go as expected, and have difficulty when students are struggling to understand.
On the other, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they want it. These are the ones who always dreamed of being called Mr. or Mrs. Lastname and enjoy the power and authority that come with the job. This leads to power struggles with students, petty and spiteful choices, and the constant need to be right.
Those, of course, are the outliers. Most of the time, teachers are people who just kind of like to have things a certain way, and that is very relatable.
Third, teachers tend to carry a lot of love for kids.
Again, no surprises here (teachers love kids? SHOCKER), but stay with me. Granted, teachers don’t always connect well with all of their kids, but to survive in this job (and, y’know, actually do it well) you need to be the kind of person that is capable of bonding and building relationships with kids or teens. So it’s kind of a natural fit: we work our butts off in our work because we actually give a crap.
And that can be the issue, too, because what happens when you really care about someone? When they don’t treat you the way you want them to, it hurts. You take it personally. And the thing about a classroom full of kids is that they don’t see the kind of work we put in. They don’t even always see how the things we’re doing for them are actually for them at all. So if a teacher can’t take a step back and look at things objectively, a kid acting out of line becomes a personal attack. You fall into the trap of thinking “they wouldn’t do that if they liked or respected me.” Or, worse: “they wouldn’t do that if they were a good kid.”
Because that’s how teachers like this one survive. They can’t be objective enough to examine their own methods, or consider what else might be going on with that kid at that time, so they protect themselves by labelling the kid. You see this all the time, and not just for this reason. He’s a bad kid. She’s a C student. You name it, it’s been said. And then – because teachers talk – that label gets stuck to that kid so strongly that they spend the rest of their academic career struggling under the weight of it.
Mind you, most teachers are amazing, fantastic people, and you don’t need to be an awful teacher to be averse to middle school. So let’s imagine our hypothetical case study: a teacher who was likely a successful student, probably has some control freak tendencies, and on top of that, cares deeply about their kids.
You might be able to see how this is a perfect storm in middle school.
See, my argument isn’t that middle school is more difficult. It’s that the ways in which middle school is difficult are a perfect match for many teachers’ insecurities. The nature of the challenge is what makes it so threatening. It’s like…teacher Kryptonite.
The funny part is, though, that for some teachers (like myself and the majority of my colleagues), that challenge – the Kryptonite, as it were – is what we enjoy most about what we’re doing. The stuff that turns a lot of professionals off the job are the parts that make it fun.
So what are those parts? Well, we’ve all heard most of them before, but let’s look at it through the lens of our hypothetical teacher, whom we’ll call Mrs. Doe.
First, middle schoolers are a hormonal mess. Everyone knows that, and I can’t even argue: it’s true. They are at the age where they’re figuring out how to be people, and at the same time their physical bodies are undergoing chemical changes that affect every aspect of their behaviour, one way or another.
At the same time, the world is getting less black-and-white. The innocent filter of good and bad on the old ethical compass is getting more layered, fuzzy, and grey. They begin to deal with more adult, complex challenges in their social and personal lives, but don’t yet have the maturity or life experience to know how.
That means middle school problems are messy. Friendships are born and broken, change becomes uncomfortable, and emotions run high. Situations that seem like no big deal to us as adults (because we have the benefit of knowing about the much bigger deals down the road) seem like the literal end of the world to the kids.
So our Mrs. Doe, who’s a good student and much better at dealing with problems that have straightforward, understandable solutions, is caught off-guard. She has prided herself on knowing the answers, but in this case there aren’t any, and that makes her vulnerable. How can she be respected by the kids, or herself, if she gets this one wrong?
The next thing everyone knows about middle schoolers is their famous attitude. More accurately, middle schoolers are at an age where they are learning that they are allowed to have an opinion that is different from the adults in their lives. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own beliefs, and are beginning to figure out who they are.
So, they’re flexing these newfound muscles. They question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They want answers that wouldn’t even occur to most younger kids. They try out their growing sense of humour, and test you to see what they’ll get away with. Their social lives become more important, so their schoolwork is suddenly competing for their time.
Enter Mrs. Doe, who is, as we have established, a bit of a control freak. She loves it when the younger kids look up to her, hang on her words, and do what they’re expected to do with a cheerful “yes Mrs. Doe.” It makes them happy to see her happy, and things proceed according to plan.
(Yes, I’m well aware this isn’t how it always – or even often – goes in primary, but stay with me.)
Now she’s surrounded by these big kids, putting on the teacher mask, and realizing that being “in control” may not be as straightforward as she wants it to be. Maybe she can’t pick her battles, and she ends up being very strict, because of the frequency of things she sees as “misbehaviour.” She sees it as disrespectful for students to question her choices. Maybe she doesn’t know how to answer when she’s asked: “why are we doing this?”
Regardless, it can be very easy in middle school to be drawn into a struggle for power, where your opponent is your own student and you find yourself trying to “win.” For many of us – adults in general, not just teachers – the hardest thing in the world to do is to decide not to play. When you’re faced with that on a daily basis, it can be exhausting. Surviving it requires you to have a sense of humour about yourself, be willing to be wrong, and make some tough decisions about when to just…let go.
And that kind of feeds right into the final quality I mentioned above: our good Mrs. Doe really cares. She loves her kids, even when she hates them. She wants to see them blossom, and most of the time, she’ll be rewarded.
But what she may not be prepared for is that as kids age out of the phase of their lives where adults are respected simply because they’re older (and sometimes wiser), as we’ve already established, kids grow more distant. Working with younger kids, you’re enveloped by the omnipresent sense that you are needed and wanted. In middle school, you see this change.
Make no mistake: as much as they may deny it, middle schoolers still need you. In some ways, they need you a lot more than they would have when they were younger, as their lives and challenges grow more complex, and the consequences are greater. But that need takes on a different form, one you sometimes have to dig around a little to see, and sometimes you don’t get the payoff of seeing that smile and hearing them say “thank you.” Sometimes they trust you enough to walk in your door, sit you down, and say “I need to talk to you about something.” Other times, the best you can hope for are those little moments, like when you ask them how their soccer tryout went, or gently help them answer a question they’re stuck on, and you catch the little grin, or hear the words of gratitude.
It’s an entirely different world in some ways. And it’s hard. I would never shame a teacher who couldn’t handle the world of middle school at all, because first of all I wouldn’t last a week in kindergarten, but more importantly, every one of us functions in our own way.
As I said, I love middle school. I love how honest they are. I love their sense of humour, and I love the pity-laughs and groans I get when I tell an awful joke. I love helping them navigate complex emotional problems, even when they seem petty or trivial. I love getting that split-second moment with a kid who’s been driving me up the wall, where you catch their eye and genuinely know that you reached them, if only in that instant.
Most of all, I love that I get to be myself, and in the end, I think that’s when any teacher is at their best. Some of us are at our most authentic when we’re corralling a group of six-year-olds for a singalong, others when they’re leading detailed, complex discussions of literature in a room full of university-bound Grade 12 scholars. Me…I think it’s when I’m talking to my kids, sharing with them, and seeing the look on their faces as they understand that I see them not just as “children,” but as people, sometimes for the very first time.
Like I said, it’s not for everyone. Middle school lives up, in many ways, to the reputation it gets. But to me, it’s a magical, transformative, dramatic, hormonal, utterly chaotic rollercoaster ride that I wouldn’t miss for the world.