I Have to Teach Middle School?

A teacher’s story of finding joy working with middle schoolers

I didn’t want to be a teacher. I just didn’t. Even though I had teacher Barbie and played teacher on an old chalkboard in our basement, I didn’t want to do it. I think I just wanted to tell a bunch of stuffed animals what to do.

I hadn’t really liked school, especially middle school (or junior high as we called it). I barely remembered my junior high years, other than awkwardness and a few great friend stories when I had them. I had hidden them in the deep recesses of my school memories, behind all the picture days. It was also when I remember the worst of the teasing—bullying not having been an issue for discussion back then.

No, I would never be a teacher.

What I did love was learning languages. I took a Saturday class on French at seven years old and was instantly hooked. I took language all through high school and college, continuing with my French and adding Spanish and even some German. I wanted to do something with my language, but what.

No, I won’t be a teacher. International business? Maybe… No, not my style. Translator? Freelancing work is hard to find, and the computer age was making translation jobs scarce. Interpreter? Sadly, my skills weren’t there. Oh no, am I living up to the cliché? Those who can’t, teach?

So there I was with a degree and no job prospects. I started temping and a coworker tells me about a Master of Arts in Teaching program. Is the universe trying to tell me something? Ok, but I made myself a promise. If I don’t like it, I’m not doing it, no matter how much money I invested in the program.

I didn’t believe you should teach if you didn’t like it. Wish everyone felt that way, eh?

Midway through the program, one of my methods professors told me that Michigan secondary certification included grades 7-12. What? Are you crazy? It took enough for me to agree to teach high school… older kids, kids with whom you could have real conversations. Now, you’re telling me I might have to teach middle school, the age group that I dislike the most? No way. I would just make sure I found a high school job.

I did and I loved what I was doing. Go figure. Teacher Barbie and those stuffed animals must have affected my subconscious somehow. About 10 years into it, they added sixth grade to the certification. As I sighed, grateful that I was teaching high school, my administrator told me there were cuts (always to language and arts programs, right) and I’d have to teach part time at the middle school. I wanted to drop my certification right there. I wanted to find a hole and crawl into it or find a new life, anything except teach middle school. I had heard middle school teaching was a punishment for crime in a past life.

I remember that first day: the smells, the weird looks, the judgment, the DRAMA. There was drama in everything. I wanted to die and cry and scream and leave.

About three days in, I started to tell them about an adventure I had while in Mexico. They were silent. You could hear the proverbial pin drop.

Wait… they’re interested in my stories? They aren’t giving me that apathetic, “really, old lady?” look I usually get from my high school sophomores and juniors. What? They want more information? They’re eating this up! We’re interacting. They’re making me laugh.

It’s passing time and they’re talking in the hallways. We pass each other and I hear “Hola, Señora!” as they greet me with smiles. Wow, these kids are kind of sweet. They’re so young and full of life.

I realized that even though I loved the (sometimes) maturity and conversations with my high schoolers, I never got this: the sense of wide-eyed optimism not crushed by the harsh realities of the world yet.

It was innocence and it was beautiful.