While helping stimulate the economy one manicure-pedicure
at a time, I was surprised at the salon cashier’s
reaction to my response to the typical question, “What
do you do?”
The cashier, attempting to make idle chatter while
swiping my debit card, had just processed transactions
for a bank teller, a homemaker, and an office manager—
the types of jobs she knew how to generate conversation
around. When I replied, “I teach middle school,” the
conversation came to a dead halt. My answer left her
speechless. Why does our career choice leave so many
At some point in their career, most middle grades
teachers experience similar reactions from non-educators
who struggle to understand why we do what we do. We
receive smiles of gratitude from appreciative parents,
pats on the back from colleagues and administrators who
celebrate achievement levels and, of course, adoring grins
from students. However, every so often we might get a
reaction unlike any other. For me, it came from Tally.
I’m Just Sayin’
Prior to my mini spa trip to the mall, I was having a typical
Thursday at school, when a group of teachers asked if they
could observe one of my class periods as part of a staff
training program. Although it was last minute, I agreed. It’s
not as though I’d have to change anything to accommodate
them; I’m the same teacher, with or without guests.
Self-reflection was built into the professional development
model we used school wide, and the kids had seen teachers
observe in other rooms, so they paid little attention to the
visitors. However, on this particular day, the ignore-the-extra-bodies-in-the-room
message escaped an animated and sometimes self-absorbed seventh grade girl named Tallessa,
or Tally for short.
The lesson began as usual with students answering a
journal prompt in their tablets, sharing thoughts with peer
partners, and analyzing posters at their desks. The activity
continued with students moving from table to table,
examining photos and articles tied to the unit.
During one of the rotations, the bouncy young lady who
thrived on lessons that involved movement sidled up to me
and said, “Why are they [teachers in the back of the room]
here?” Not even trying to be inconspicuous, she pointed
and stared. Patting her on the shoulder, I responded, “Don’t
worry about them, Tally. They’re here to watch me.” I nudged
her back to work.
Her furrowed brow showed reservation, and her
narrowed eyes told me she wasn’t buying my answer.
A student who had spent her share of recesses in timeout,
Tally wore skepticism like most girls her age sported
designer brands. She was also bright and appreciated
When she still hesitated to return to the group, I said,
“Tally, please don’t worry about our guests; they are here
to make sure I’m doing my job.” I paused before adding,
“They want to make sure I’m not just sitting behind the
desk painting my toenails!” Thinking this would send her
back to her task and me to mine, I was not prepared for
Tally glanced down and stepped back to get a better look
at the floor—or actually, my feet. She cocked her head to
one side and then to the other before looking me straight
in the eye. Shaking her head as only a 12-year-old can do,
she sympathetically replied, “Ms, no offense, but I think you
should give up being a nail tech and just be a teacher. Stick
with something you know how to do.” She turned with a flip
of her hair and rejoined the class.
Initially stunned, I glanced at my open-toed sandals with
Avon’s Passion Pink peeking through the straps and noticed
that my toenails were a bit ragged. Embarrassment really
wasn’t the emotion of the moment, nor was being tickedoff.
I felt an odd sense of pride.
In her own seventh grade manner, Tally had paid me
the ultimate compliment. She’d told me to stick with what
I knew best: teaching. And, not just teaching a subject or
content area, but teaching her, an average 12-year-old girl.
Her affirmation made my day!
Middle Grades Memories
As I stood at the counter waiting for the cashier to complete
my transaction and finish our conversation, I asked,
“What are your favorite memories of middle school?” The
20-something employee was caught off guard but then
pondered the question.
“Um … I suppose my friends, oh and the dances.
Definitely the dances!” she said with a grin spreading ear
“Yep. Our students love the dances, too!” I said, handing
her the signed receipt.
As I turned to leave, she added one more comment, “Oh yeah, there was also this one teacher who made us laugh and made learning fun. That's what I remember about middle school."
I smiled back at her as I left, and I could hear her telling
her co-worker about her eighth grade year—and laughing.
It made me wonder what Tally would remember from
her middle school years: the subjects learned, the dances,
or a random teacher who didn’t flinch when a bad pedicure
got a critique in the middle of class. I can only hope she
remembers she was cared for in an environment that let her
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012.