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Volume 4 Number 2

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Teacher Tax Relief Act Leaves Many Teachers Behind by Kathleen Alape Carpenter
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Polar Bear Theme by Kerry Weisner
A Teacher/Students Dialogue on Ernest Hemingway's Short Story, "A Day's Wait" by L. Swilley
Greetings from Ross Island! - Update from Operation Deep Freeze by LT. Marshall Branch
Editor's e-Picks - February Resources by Kathleen Alape Carpenter, Editor
What Does It Take To Teach Middle School? by Middle School Teachers
Technology Curriculum Tips by Jeff Cooper
Writing Tips for Teachers - Part 2 by Joy Jones
Which is more important: Teaching or Research and Publication? by Bikika T. Laloo
"Three Little Pigs" Activities from the Kindergarten Chatboard
Centers in a Tub from the Kindergarten Chatboard
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Teacher Feature...

What Does It Take To Teach Middle School?

Middle School teachers responded on the Teachers.Net Chatboard

Mimi posted:
I am 23 years old and would like to know what it takes to become a middle school science teacher, besides getting certified . What kind of person is best suitable to teach this age group? Do age and looks matter? I am 5' 3'' and look young and I have been told by my friends that my looks and my soft nature could become limiting factors for me in a teaching job, as students may not take me seriously.

Before I make a final decision about my career, I would like to get the opinion from some of you on this, so that later I do not regret for not pursuing a career in teaching. Thank you very much.
Regards, Mimi

Survival for those in middle school education of those who aspire to it...

Some rules to follow

Rule middle school, there are no rules That was an easy post. Actually, I do have some observations for teaching at this level. (in no particular order.)

  1. Be prepared to sacrifice your favorite unit or classroom lesson at a moment's notice.
    In middle school, there are many disruptions. Not just the fire drill, concert assembly, and occasional trip to the nurse or bathroom. MANY disruptions. Kids at this level are leaving the room for a multitude of reasons including guidance appointments for counseling, special testing, sports, band, etc...etc...

    I suppose it may be that way at the high school, but the kids at that level can handle the disruptions better. Colleagues who have gone from middle to high school comment on "not missing all the disruptions to class."

  2. Keep your sense of humor
    Middle school kids, at times, say and do some very bizarre things. It's not likely that a high school kid will stick a pencil up his nose, or an elementary student will zip a rubber band at a girl to get her attention. It helps a great deal to remember we were this age once. Roll with the punches. Mark Twain once said that "the American male does not live beyond the emotional age of 14." Maybe that's why middle school is like a beer certainly keeps your attention.
  3. Teach the child, not the subject
    The biggest problem I see with teachers at this level is they are totally engrossed in their subject matter. It is fine to be dedicated and love your subject, but at this level (in this setting), it is the kid that matters. If you keep in mind the difficulty of living through this age (remembering perhaps your own experiences) you'll understand more about why a kid doesn't see the "Quartering Act of 1765" as quite important as the note about the Valentine's Dance they received in the hall just prior to your class . Stay in touch with the age group. Indeed, you are still the adult, but compassion is key at this level, especially when seeing what peer pressure can do to students.

    I work with a few teachers who plow over subject matter and tend to ignore the needs of the kids. Halloween tonight? Who cares, there's a math test tomorrow! Kids can juggle a lot easier at the high school level. At that point, they will have made their choice about what sport they want to play and whether or not band is their thing. At middle school, you want to encourage kids to try different activities so they can find out what they like...that sometimes means taking your foot off the gas in class.

  4. Uniqueness
    Middle school kids come in all shapes and sizes. In high school, things tend to even out. Girls who wear a pair of shorts to school in September cannot fit in them in the Spring. Guys change shoe sizes a couple times a year. These growth spurts can cause havoc in a student's focus. Work with them. Understand how self-conscious they may be when they get that first pimple. Look at the class pictures and see how short some kids are and how tall others are. This is what you get in middle School.
  5. Firm but fair
    The most overworked phrase in middle-school is "that's not fair." Get used to it. Students are watching and judging all the time. This is often difficult to do and directly conflicts with #3 and #4....that is the dilemma of middle school. Enjoy it. It is a riddle that cannot be solved.

    How do you give a kid an extra day on an assignment because their family went to a funeral, then justify telling another student their paper is late because they left it at home? That is easy for an adult, but not so easy for a student to understand. So be it.

  6. Organized chaos
    You'll be amazed that some students can even find their way home when you get a peak in their lockers. Some students will be very organized and proper while others will be a walking fire-hazard as they leave a trail of papers throughout the school.

    What's that smell in the hall? Johnny left a sandwich in his locker from last October. (Hint: Have locker clean-outs from time to time, especially before holidays or you'll have the CDC in your building checking for a new killer form of bacteria.)

    Repeat things. Repeat things. You can give a complete set of clear directions only to have a student immediately raise his or her hand and say "what do we do?" Repeat things.

  7. Compassion or cruelty?
    Middle school has both. Kids can be ruthless towards one another and teachers then at the next moment show unbelievable acts of kindness. It's never totally one or the other though. If I could explain why, I would be writing books about it. Sometimes you see these from the kids you'd least expect and at the moment you'd least expect.

    The girl who comes in mouthing off about this and that, then the next day says, "Good morning." Eliza Doolittle?

    The boy who helps pick up a student's books that dropped on the floor, then, a few minutes later, calls her a name.

    There are a great many Jekyls and Hydes in middle school. Have fun trying to identify which is which! If you learn the secret, write a book.

  8. When will you "know"
    If you make a few years in middle school, you are hooked for life. High school colleagues pat me on the back and say..."whew" when we tell middle school stories. It really does take a different breed to teach at this level. It may be scary and you will make mistakes, but kids at this level tend to see things on a day to day basis so recovering is easy...until the next time, then you get back on the horse again, and again, and again.

It can be a very fulfilling experience. Smiles are genuine. Did I mention keep your sense of humor?

I once referred to them as "schizoid" and got flamed by an irate parent whose child had an emotional disorder and thought I was poking fun, but the term fits. If variety is what you like, middleschoolers are for you. It's like Forrest (and middle school) are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.

Funny...I saw myself in many of the "no-no's" that Tony alluded to. I have made just about every blunder imagined (and some of them might not have been) with this age group, but of my 21 years in the classroom, 16 of them have been at the middle school level.

There really isn't a magic formula. How big you are and how young you look won't really matter if you are able to meet the challenges that Tony details in his post.

I would add a few things: In addition to keeping that sense of humor, learn NOT to take yourself too seriously either. In the wild world of middle grades education, you are going to trip and fall many a time. Don't feel ashamed of it. Don't try to hide it either. The kids will know. Something else kids at this age respect is honesty. You can't fool them.

Tony mentioned this too, but let me put a different spin on it: be flexible, not just with your lesson plans, but with your personal "agenda." If you aren't able to work with other teachers, and roll with the constant disruption that Tony mentioned, then you won't make it in middle school. More than once I've had to deal with teachers who just had to do it their way every time and usually, that teacher didn't last. Middle schools are (or should be) very people- and team-oriented. As Tony said, subject matter IS important (L. Swilley would rightfully be furious if I said otherwise) but it's that emerging adolescent that matters most in the true middle school. That is what sets middle schools aside from junior high schools.

I did elementary school the other five years in the classroom. The last time was back in 1999, when I tried to do third grade. No way will I ever do that again! I have the utmost respect for the elementary teachers. I cannot and will not do what they do. It takes a special kind of person to endure the demands of their job as well.

I guess it comes down to the kind of person you are. If regimen and routine are things you feel comfortable with and constant flux, occasional "soap opera" moments, and teaming are things you don't particularly like, then you might want to try a different realm. Regardless, best of luck with your decision!
Bill T


You got many good responses here. I teach K now. Taught 1st 12 yrs before. Taught Sunday School & MYF (youth group) for 7 years & loved them. IMHO, middle school kids are SO like my K & 1st. What it takes to be a good teacher though is a GOOD FIT for that age group. You will know when you begin teaching & it might take you a couple of years to decide! I have worked with teachers who were in elementary a couple of years & they knew right way they wanted to move up. A sub came to my room after being in 6th a couple of days ago & said, "Never again!" I love kinder kids, because when they are hot & sweaty, they smell like dirty puppy dogs. When my MYF kids were hot & sweaty (at mission trips in Mexico), the B.O. would knock me over. :o) Good luck. Science teachers are in demand now!

Do you have an avenue to spend some time with middle school kids? Everything Tony and Bill said is true. I've been called nuts (and many other things!), but I love middle schoolers! Spend some time with them and see if you are a good fit for them.

Mimi, I just wanted to let you know that I don't feel what you look like has anything to do with success or failure. I have recently left a middle school position to teach 3rd grade due to a job transfer for my husband. I started teaching when I was 24. I am 5'4", 125 lbs, blonde, and WAS extremely shy and soft spoken. My first job was teaching 8th grade math/Algebra in January. Looking back, the start was difficult, but I did what I had to do to survive. The second year was wonderful as well as the next 3. Junior High kids are a whole different breed, but believe it or not, they still want to impress you and make you proud of them. I found that you have to be very strict and consistent at first and can gradually ease up as the year goes. My kids have always told me that they felt I would listen to them and tell them how I really felt. In other words, I was honest with them. "That was stupid" was something I was not afraid to say. They always seemed to agree after they thought about what they did. I would also never shy away from a hug.

I miss my 8th graders right now, but know that I will come to love 3rd graders too. Right now I believe I am more nervous about teaching 3rd grade than I was teaching 8th grade.

Good luck with your decision. Don't ever give up too soon!

Tony and Bill were definitely on the mark. (Maybe they could write a book together) I have a few things to add. I taught PK to 3 (mostly 1st) the first 15 years of my teaching career. Have been in Middle School the remainder 15+. Love them both. Lower grades was best for where I was in my life at that time and the same with Middle School now. I do not think size or age has too much to do with teaching middle school, unless you allow the kids to think that because of your size and age, you are one of them. Believe me. You have to be as firm and consistent with elementary school as you do with middle school.

The one thing I noticed with new teachers coming into our middle school is that some of them try to be their friend. There is a huge difference between being friendly and being their friend. The line gets very blurred with middle schoolers and it is easy for them to cross. They start treating the teacher like a peer instead of their teacher and then the teacher wonders where he/she lost control and respect. Our last new teacher had that problem, and it took her a couple of years to get it turned. She is still very well liked and the girls especially will go to her with their problems, but she has firm control of her class. The students have a clear understanding of her expectations both as learners and in terms of their behaviors.

I think consistency is one of the key things to remember. At this age they want to know what to expect. I try not to change procedures or rules on them once the year has started. We once had a teacher who kept switching procedures because the ones he had weren't "working for him." Then he couldn't figure out why there was always chaos in his classroom. Think through your procedures carefully before school begins. Talk with experienced middle school teachers and find out what works for them and use ones YOU are comfortable with. Then, if at all possible, don't change them unless it does not work for the kids.

I laughed at Bill's description of the paper trail. Since I teach 6th grade half the day, I spend a lot of time on organization skills. In fact we spend the first week of school practicing them. It's January and I still have to remind at least half of them that the procedure is to write down the assignment in their assignment book BEFORE starting the assignment. We spend the first five minutes of the day filing returned papers in the appropriate place in their trappers and I STILL see papers falling out of their lockers. Oh well, some learn, some don't. I too have learned to verbalize directions, read directions, model directions, and have someone repeat directions - and absolutely KNOW someone will immediately ask me a question about the directions.

They are heavy into peer approval. The class leaders have a lot of influence on the others. One year you can be an extremely well liked teacher and another year the worst. I have learned not to take it too personally. Two years ago I had an 8th grade class that pushed every one of my buttons and challenged everything. Thought that year would NEVER end (and I only had that class once a day). Since then I have had wonderful classes (not to be confused with perfect- LOL).

Keep in mind their hormones cause wild mood swings. Interestingly, being the age I am, I also have the "hormone thing" going. However, because of my age, etc., I understand what it is and can keep it under control. However, I find I have a greater understanding of that "hormone thing" that goes on with middle schoolers. While I still think there ought to be a law against them - or at least a vaccine - I have an easier time understanding and dealing with the mood swings.

Finally, I would agree with Bitsy. Spend some time with middleschoolers. If you belong to a church, see if you can help with their youth group or teach a Sunday school class.

Good luck with your decision. Middle school is definately not for everyone, and that is OK. Having taught elementary school, there are very heavy demands on them, too. Both have their rewards.

Mimi: I congratulate you on your decision to teach middle school science, it is very important that they get a good background in the sciences and you can help.

Now that the public service message is over we can get to the real issue-Are you a child at heart? Middle school teachers must be in tune with all the current gossip, music, clothes, etc. cuz that's the world of the middleschooler. The other posts were correct in that you teach the child not the subject but must make the child learn the subject for them to be successful in high school. This the paradox of teaching middle school. No matter how short or young you are, they will find something to criticize about you, but know full well they will take ownership of you and allow no one else that authority.

Plan 3 to 4 hands on activities for each class session, even if you only use two. Write the directions on the board and say them aloud. Be prepared to repeat them, even if they seem to understand. I always told them I wanted to look in their beady little eyes to make sure they were listening to me so everyone was to look at me when I talked. Circulate around the room at all times and move when you talk. One of the biggest mistakes a rookie teacher can make is to situate themselves in front of one group only - you unconsciously do this cuz these kids respond to your questions.

If you do labs, have the stuff prepared before hand and do not allow any student to do the labs until they pass your safety test. This way if they do goof off or screw up (and they will) you can cover yourself with the copy of the test they took proving they knew what to do. Have them copy notes from the board and keep a notebook to study, many can't or won't be able to read the book. Reading aloud with special sections that are high interest is okay once in awhile but don't plan on it every day, you'll lose the bright ones. Oh yes the classes are not grouped by ability so you will have some who read above and below grade level. Computers will be a lifesaver and a nightmare but technology is here to stay so use it, especially power point presentations, even though you may have to teach them how to do that.


Your efforts will not be immediately evident to you but rewards do come, I know. When 10 of my students who had me in 6th grade came back before they graduated and thanked me for all my support, I nearly cried. By the way, five of them were the top five in the school. But that's not the good part. When one student, marginal at best, recognized me years later when he was running his own business and set me up before others he was working on, I knew that rewards do come.
LocoLouie in NY

Mimi - I've been teaching 8th grade for 15 years, and I can say with all honesty that what you need more than anything else to deal with middleschoolers is a sense of humor. If not, they'll plain drive you nuts. Lots of fun though!

The best middle school teacher is patient, tough, and fair. Looks, height, and demeanor are factors, but the students must trust the teacher for the teacher to be effective. We have a 24 yr old, very attractive young lady that teaches here. She knows how to lay down the law and does not put up with any junk. At the same time, she is fair, sets reasonable boundaries, and realizes that the students are still kids. If you get hung up on your age, height, or looks, I strongly advise you not to go into teaching. Teaching requires a maturity that goes beyond superficial things like these.Good luck!
CJ Cavalier

Hi Mimi: There are many types of teachers and as many teaching styles. Teachers also come in all shapes, sizes, and orientations. If you are serious about going into the profession of education I would suggest that you contact as many different schools in your area that you have time to visit. Make an appointment with the principal and explain what you want to do...observe "master" teachers in action and then set up observations with specific teachers and see if this is something you want to do. Teaching is a wonderful learning experience and profession.

Mimi, Please don't be insulted, but I would seriously reconsider any friendship where my dreams were not supported. I laughed out loud so much that I nearly woke my daughter: your looks and your soft nature could be limiting factors???? My dear future teacher of America, children will only accept those that they can relate to, which clearly defines a young soft spoken person. It sounds to me like your friends are reflecting on harsh rigid teachers that taught with negative reinforcement rather than the 21st century progressive teacher that seeks only positive reinforcement. The difference is that a true educator teaches students, not disciplines. If you grab your audience you will spend more time educating and less time getting them to follow your rules. As to what it takes to become a teacher, you will need to type in your state in a search engine: for example, I live in New York so I would go to Yahoo and type in New York State Department of Education. However, prior to doing any of this you should contact your local university and go talk to someone within the Education department. They will give you sound career advice. Another thing, please remember that there are different qualifications for a middle school science teacher, an elementary school science teacher and a high school science teacher.

The common denominator is a degree: if you had a bachelor's in education I would not think you would have posted this question, so your first task is going to be to go to college and register for education related classes. Your school will guide you through the entire process. Good Luck in your future and do not let any one talk you out of your dreams or make you doubt what your instincts have already told you is true.

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