Middle School: A Minefield


Envision being in a mine field. Everywhere are potential explosions just waiting to go off. A single step could trigger a cataclysmic chain reaction and you’ll suffer for the misstep. It takes careful and patient observation to figure out the best path to successfully get through on the other side, gaining confidence and invaluable experience with every firm and proper placement of your foot. This potential “danger zone”, this minefield is the middle schooler’s mind. Just like any good surveyor, our task as teachers is to be vigilant observers and map makers, discovering the best route to take, or better yet, the best route our content should take to successfully reach them amid their periodic quirkiness, their constant questioning of seemingly unimportant and surface-level content, their desire to be your equal combined with their desire to be your friend and your child. Yes, a minefield. There is no better description for this phase of development.


They can be a daily cause of frustration, doubt, entertainment, confusion, wonder, laughter, introspection, irritation, curiosity, challenge, ingenuity, flexibility, craziness, yelling, silence, foot-on-the-floor tapping, humor, enjoyment, prayers, creativity, frowning, smiling, gratefulness, and enjoyment. They are probably the best thing for a teacher to experience at least once in his or her career.


It’s a hard row to hoe, but we aren’t tending the field alone. I have gathered a few tidbits of insight on my middle school journey. I would not trade in this journey for anything…Besides, who would have guessed I’d become a mapmaker in the progress?



For those of you who are about to take the first step on this journey or you’ve been trailblazing the path ahead of me many years before I began, we are a special find. Be encouraged as we keep mapping out the path of the middle school mind.



Shifting Gears for Middle School Teaching


I was a high school teacher before I taught middle school, so my slant has always been to prepare students for college, for the “real world”. I emphasized study skills, responsibility and accountability, somehow hoping to inspire and ignite that innate thirst for knowledge and learning that each person has. However, regardless of how passionate I was teaching about science, or life lessons, I often felt as though I was spinning my wheels in quicksand, digging myself deeper and deeper, quicker and quicker into the abyss of futile fervor of giving knowledge and information to the generations behind me. Why aren’t they as excited and passionate about learning as I am? Why do I care more about their grade than they do? Why don’t they study? I don’t get these kids? Don’t they know how important their education is? Question after question, and still no answer. Only frustration. And that was while teaching high school.


The transition to middle school was an eye-opener. As I think back on that first year, I had no idea the differences between the two different secondary levels was so vast. I felt as though I might as well be teaching elementary students. That is how big the gap felt. It’s not as though middle school students are babies or inherently childish; but there’s a lot going on in these semi-children, semi- adolescent-wanna-be-adult individuals. They are a science fair project in and of themselves!


It did not take me long to figure out teaching these preteens would be more challenging, as it were, than rocket science. So we, the brave, the bold, –the “crazy”– middle school teachers face a dilemma: “How do we teach the required information to students whose development is in such transition and hormonal change and activity?


The “old school way “: Teacher lectures, students write, students learn, teacher tests, students may or may not  “make the grade”. Teacher feels helpless. Teacher appears incompetent. Teacher questions her call, desire and ability to teach.


Somewhere within that first middle school year for me, the shift began. The shift in the education field, as well as, at our school. Our principal Dr. Howell began challenging us to get the students working in groups in the classroom. Meet them where they are and guide them upward toward the standard, and they’ll “get it”. Incorporate more hands-on, less lecture. More student-centered, less teacher-centered. Bit by bit, the ideas came. Buddying with other teachers on this venture improved the outlook more and more. I shared a little, they shared a little and the pot of knowledge grew exponentially. Challenge the kids more. Have them come up with a lesson to teach their peers or demonstrate to the class. Become a facilitator for learning, not a disseminator of information.


See my earlier frustration is one many teachers feel. I’m working so hard and they still aren’t getting it! Could it maybe be that we’re working so hard that they feel they don’t have to? We are trekking to a destination on the map we chose. We’re making the route. We’re walking in the dust, sleet, heat and snow, making the trail, pointing out landmarks along the way, sweating, freezing, laboring, suffering…when all the while, the students– the focus of our venture– are riding on our backs for free! Their clothes are spotless, their shoes unsoiled, their bodies are fresh and relaxed, and their minds are uninspired, unchallenged and unmoved.


Our egos as teachers are always on the line… but more so within ourselves. We have degrees, we have knowledge in our content area. We have the skills, the know-how. We want notoriety for what we know and what we do. These are normal human desires, but when they inhibit the whole reason why we’re doing what we’re doing, we need to hold them in check, re-focus and re-direct  our knowledge, skills, and know-how in a more useful, practical and positive way so that real, deep, sustaining, anticipatory, “on the edge of their seat” kind of learning can occur.



Me Teach Middle School? Never!… No Way??!


I can’t believe I am entering my seventh year of teaching middle school students. See…I never wanted to teach middle school. To be honest, I never wanted to be a teacher. Post-college, living back at home, no job, no money, no boyfriend or husband-to-be on the horizon made the “never” become “(Sigh) If I have to”.


I vaguely remember my first middle school subbing experience. What I do remember is stepping onto the rickety wood-splintered stairs leading from the portable thinking, ” I will never teach or sub in a middle school again!” These kids were all over the place. Talking, throwing pencils, asking me tons of questions… Ugh! Never, ever, EVER!!!


What I didn’t know was that I was a magician. But the magic word for me wasn’t abracadabra; it was never. It worked like a charm, but I hadn’t quite mastered its power yet, because I kept using it incorrectly. It was like a moth to a flame: “never teach”, ” Me? A middle school teacher?”… “Never!”  


Fast forward about twelve years…

Me: “When some of you become a teacher you’ll understand…”

One of my students: “I’ll never be a teacher. I could never put up with the students like us if I were a teacher.”

Me: “Never say ‘Never’. “

Student: “No, I never will, Mrs.McCurdy…You’ll see.”

On that note, I walk back to my desk, disengaging from this debate with a knowing smile on my face. There it is again…that magic word, a future teacher in the making!