Saturday, December 17, 2016
What it's really like to be an elementary teacher in a middle school teacher's body.
If you know anything about my teaching story, you know that I am a fifth grade teacher, turned 6th grade teacher, to now turned middle school English teacher (and absolutely 100% in love and obsessed with it, despite never thinking I would do this).
But as someone who was absolutely 100% obsessed with and stubbornly a fifth grade teacher, I know a lot of questions that people probably have about this switch, especially because my bachelor's degree is in elementary education. So basically I am an English teacher, without any type of English degree (it's better that way, in my personal opinion.. but I'll get to that).
Here are some questions I had, and here are my absolutely honest answers to those questions.
Q: How are you able to teach middle school English, when you don't have an English and/or secondary degree?
A: They hired me! Ha! I do work at a charter school, so that may have something to do with it. I am also getting my masters in K-12 literacy. That also was factored in. Also (and not tooting my own horn-- I just know my strengths) I am super good at interviews. I actually love interviews. I kind of come to life in them. I like talking about myself :). Ha! In all seriousness though, interviews don't scare me, because I am myself, I'm honest, and love teaching. That always comes through in the interviews and that was the case here.
I also told them, "You will not regret hiring me no matter what grade it is." I knew I would and could figure it out. Growth mindset people. It's the real deal.
Q: Is it hard to teach "English" to 7th and 8th graders since you don't actually have an English degree? How do you know what and how to teach?
A: I'm going to answer in a way that may not be politically correct, but I think all "secondary" teachers should have to be an elementary teacher first (and honestly vice-versa). I truly think I am WAY better off having a teaching degree, as opposed to an "English" degree.
First of all, I don't know all the answers to "English" questions, so my 7th and 8th graders see me struggle through stuff with them. Obviously, I didn't know all the answers in 5th and 6th either, but in 7th and 8th, they literally see me Google stuff almost every day... you know, like real people do.
When they write essays, I write the same assignment (on the overhead projector so they can see me do it) so I can feel and experience how dang difficult it is with them. I have to Google certain grammar rules, because I literally have no freaking clue.
I also literally had to Google, "What is a rhetorical analysis?" despite the fact that I took, "Advanced Composition and Rhetoric" in college. And I don't care that they see my ignorance, because they also see how I learn new information as well.
I don't make them say, "May I go to the restroom?" because I really don't care whether or not they "can."
But mostly, I teach them, instead of just giving them assignments. I still read all our "required" novels aloud, because I know that the whole class novel is not best practice.
I don't expect them to complete assignments and know what to do simply because they are in middle school. I think about how much I don't know and realize, they probably really don't know, so I HAVE to teach them. I would have this same philosophy if I taught seniors in high school.
I think this can tend to happen when students go from elementary to middle school/high school. I am not putting ALL secondary teachers in this category, because on this crazy journey, I have seen and met some of the most amazing secondary English teachers (TPT has the best of the best on there).
But there is a lot of "English teacher" mentality out there that needs elementary teachers to come in and balance it all out (just like I have had to balance my elementary mindset with some English teacher mindsets as well).
I have a kind of interesting dynamic at my current school because we are K-12. I used to teach elementary at a school that was K-8 and I remember there always being this divide between elementary (K-5) and our middle school (6-8). Back then, I was on the elementary side.
Now I am on the 6-12 side of my school, and now I watch the K-5 side think we are nuts all the time. Everyone always thinks they know better. Honestly, they do. Both sides are right and know about what they need for their kids and think that their grade level is harder. But as someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I just want to say that all teaching is hard. It is hard for different reasons in every grade, but it is ALL HARD.
We are all on a team to help send our kids into the world, and if we could stop having a divide between what elementary teachers need to do and what secondary teachers need to do, and what "degree" you need, then the world would be a better place.
Q: Are middle schoolers rude and or disrespectful?
A: No. I kind of just wanted to say, "No" and leave it at that, but I will elaborate :). I am being 100% honest when I say that my 7th and 8th graders, in general, are much more respectful than the 5th and 6th graders I taught (and I had REALLY good students in those grades too).
They are also more respectful than the 2nd and 3rd graders I teach art to (for one hour a day). Please understand that my second and third graders are great kids too, but I literally have zero "behavior" issues in my middle school English classes. Like it freaks me out how good they are, especially considering how bad of a reputation middle schoolers have for their attitudes. I think elementary kids are still learning. I also wonder if only having kids for 55 minutes a day, makes it so they don't get on each others (or my) nerves so much.
Seventh and eighth graders just know. They have to be trying to be disrespectful to do it, and if you make expectations clear, it's second nature for them to be respectful. I have become a better teacher, but I also think we don't give 7th and 8th graders enough credit for the fact that they are young adults who really can make thoughtful decisions if you let them.
Q: Aren't you kind of naive in thinking so highly of your middle schoolers?
A: Sometimes I still even ask myself this, but honestly, I don't think so. I am on a middle school team with three other teachers who are "true" middle school teachers. I think sometimes I drive my team crazy, but I also think I have loosened them up a bit. I truly believe in the good of all people.
I have students who still try to get on their cell-phones, students who are still "sneaky," students who push the limits, and some who still struggle to read and write.
But, in general, I think about myself in middle school and remember I just wanted to be treated like a normal human being, be recognized for what I could do well, and not be treated like some stupid 13 year old.
I trust them with their cell phones, I listen to their "dumb" drama (in short spurts with time limits), and I tell them they are smart all the time. I leave INSANE amounts of feedback on their essays and writing, even when other people tell me they don't care (this is BS... they ALWAYS care. Even if some never tell you they care... or you find their graded essay in the trash... they still care).
And like I said, I honestly never have any issues, because if they need to get on their phone, they just ask me. If they have a question, I don't make them feel stupid. And when they mess up, I treat it like a learning opportunity, and not an opportunity to berate them. They like me. They know I like them. They want to work for me because I believe in them and respect them. This doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen if you believe the best in them.
Q: Is is hard going from having 24 students all day (about 6-7 hours) to having each class for 55 minutes? Don't you miss the relationships you formed?
A: This was 164% my biggest concern and fear of going from self-contained to middle school.
Guys. I LOVED fifth grade so freaking much. It didn't seem like there was any better grade for me.
Then I taught sixth and thought I could never go back to fifth, though I REALLY wanted to do sixth self-contained. Then when my life just kind of did it's thing and I realized what I was "giving-up" to teach real middle school (and I would definitely not be self-contained in any way) I was honestly kind of sad about all the things I would be "losing."
BUT I was so WRONG.
I can't explain it. I really can't, but the relationships with students are just as good, if not better, with my seventh and eighth graders, despite our 55 minutes together.
First of all, they think I'm funny because they actually have fully developed sense of humors. Second, they are actually funny, and not just obnoxious #sorrynotsorry. Third, they learn SUPER fast, and are SUPER independent (sometimes I feel useless-- in a good way though). Fourth, they play sports and do activities through the school, so I actually get to see them as humans outside of class (and trust me, they LOVE when their teachers come. After I went to a couple of extra curricular activities, they started ALWAYS asking if I was going to the next).
Lastly, I'm a middle schooler trapped in an adult's body. HA!
Seriously though, I am already sad about my 8th graders that will be going to high school (6 months away) and SUPER grateful that I get to have 7th again next year.
I will be honest, and say it does take a little bit longer to get to know your students, but in general, the relationships are most definitely there.
Q: Do you really like it more than elementary?
A: Gah! Sometimes, it kills me to answer the question, because I feel like I'm cheating on elementary school, but yes. So much yes. It's weird, because obviously I got my degree in elementary, but I was so destined to teach middle school. Once you are actually able to teach a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds how to write a thoughtful literary analysis or rhetorical analysis, the thought of going back to teaching paragraph structures, even in upper elementary, makes you want to poke your eyes out. I loved teaching those things when I taught fifth, but I just don't think it would ever be the same.
I'd also like to say that I think part of my love of this comes from the fact that I just think it was just destiny (even if I didn't know that).
The thing I loved about fifth and sixth was the content. I mean, I really have never taught a kid to read (Disclaimer: If I have a struggling reader, I do go back to the basics to help them, but it's not really my strength or love). I love reading novels aloud. I love doing book clubs with books I actually like reading too. I love seeing them learn how to actually write an essay while I am saying, "I didn't do this until college." I love teaching them to analyze the text, cite textual evidence, and I LOVE teaching older kids to THINK. Moving to 7th and 8th was freaking scary, but everything I loved about 5th and 6th grades is absolutely even better in 7th and 8th. They are my people.
Q: Middle schoolers all write like they text. Kids "these days" can't write. Doesn't it drive you crazy?
A: I'm not going to sugarcoat this. That is a bunch of BS. First of all, I am a "Millenial," I guess, and I feel like I am right in the middle of the "old" and the "new," so I think I have a pretty good perspective on this... but that statement is SO not true.
I seriously want to do a study on this, but in the meantime, look at your Facebook feed. I am "friends" with a wide variety of age-groups. From people in their 20s all the way to people in their 70s and 80s. In every single age group, there are people who can write educated and grammatically correct posts, and some who make me want to poke my eyes out. But there is not one single age group that is the worst.
People totally generalize that statement. And just like anything in life, if you set high expectations, then students will rise to them. I realized the power of this statement this year. Because I went from 5th and 6th to 7th and 8th, I just automatically had insanely high expectations because I didn't really know better. In hindsight, I probably gave "more credit" to them than what was actually due, buy you want to know what? They have risen to my expectations and beyond. That mindset totally works, if you believe in it.
Q: What about the hormones? Is that a real thing in middle school?
A: HECK YES! HA! It so is. At first, I was kind of like, oh whatever. They aren't as big as I thought. They're just a little bigger than my 5th and 6th graders....
But now? Not so much. Ha!
They do get taller, they do get more emotional, and some of my boys have such deep voices that they are only allowed to whisper when they talk or they make my whole classroom vibrate if the acoustics are right (I am seriously not exaggerating-- I had to move one boy from the corner area of my room because his deep voice traveled up the walls and made the room vibrate).
There are "relationships."
There is drama.
There is crying that literally doesn't make sense and it has made me have to say, "I don't understand why you are crying, and you should stop, because you seem crazy." (They know I mean that with love... and by they, I mean the girls... so emotional...)
There are occasional fist fights (I've never seen one, but I've heard about them haha!)
There is limit pushing.
There is food everywhere, all the time, because they are always starving.
But at the same time, they are seriously so sweet to each other because they are all going through it together. They all just "get" each other.
They've been in school for 8 or 9 years by now (some of them being in school together that whole time), so they are helpful (like actually helpful and not the "want to help, but it's actually more work for the teacher in the long run" kind of helpful), they are smart, they can think -- though some still choose not to :) --, they still want to please me, and they WANT to do good in class and on their work.
I know people will want to sit her all day and tell me that their middle schoolers don't do this, but that's a waste of time. My mindset is that my kids are good, so they just are.
Q: I love teaching ____ grade. Why would I switch?
A: I am going to say something that some people won't like (and probably won't listen to) but I think I have earned my keep here. You NEED to switch grades or jobs AT LEAST ONCE in your teaching career. Even if it's one grade difference. You can ignore me, but you shouldn't :).
I've already said that ALL teaching is hard work... and once you get in a groove of a grade level (I think it takes a solid 2-3 years for this) it can even seem stupid to switch grades, but it is THE smartest thing you will ever do.
If we are comfortable, we are not learning. I was the fifth grade teacher who went to EVERY SINGLE professional development class I could, because I have always been about improving myself and my teaching... but I didn't truly become a good/confident teacher until I had to teach 5 different grade levels, and 3 different set-ups, in a matter of three years.
Growth doesn't come from your comfort zone, so step outside it.
You will not regret it if you embrace all the learning that will occur.
If you had asked me two years ago if I would teach anything besides 5th, I would have said, "No." In hindsight, despite my amazing job and amazing students back then, it would have been one of the biggest mistakes I could have made.
I actually applied to teach kindergarten at my current school (simply because I wanted to get out of my previous school and my current school was my dream school in my new town), and was instead offered 7th and 8th grade English. Both options terrified me. I questioned every decision I was making because there were "safer" options... But I knew that this school was where I wanted to be... It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. And it was all because I left my comfort zone.
Q: What do you miss about elementary?
A: Probably other elementary teachers, but I get a good dose of that by just going to the elementary school. My mindset is a little more elementary in nature, but again, I have grown A TON because of how differently I have to think now, by being on a middle school team. I actually kind of love having a middle school team. Trust me. We don't see eye-to-eye on most things, but in a good way. We all make each other think differently and we all bring something different to the table.
I also miss only having to get stuff for 24-48 students. Now I have to think in numbers of 100-150, but honestly, I've just gotten more creative.
I think that's it! If I get more questions though, I will totally add to the post...
AND if you're wondering if you should make the jump and switch grades, then the answer is YES! ha! #butseriously #justdoit
Posted by Martina Cahill at 11:43 AM