It’s hard to imagine a more transitional phase of a child’s education than middle school. No longer in the sheltered embrace of the elementary classroom, but before entering the big, bad high school. Oh, and no more recess, which might be the ultimate tragedy. When student-teaching in middle school, you have a unique opportunity to guide your students through this time. This also means it can be an especially demanding role, but you might find you get as much out of the experience, if not more, than you put in.
1. Middle schoolers are as afraid as you are
If you remember being 13 years old, then it is unlikely that you would ever want to be 13 again. And if you don’t remember your time as a young teen, let me remind you: You were probably awkward, gangly, and pubescent, with emerging responsibilities and limited freedom. You're entering a new school full of exciting potential—and it’s downright horrifying. How do you use the lock on your locker? Where is third-period history, and can you run fast enough to get there between bells? How do you find X in Algebra, and why would you want to?!
As anxious as you might be as a student-teacher, remember you couldn't be any more frightened then your fresh crop of students. If you're worried about your first day of teaching outfit, they are more concerned about the way they look. If you think you might lose your way to the bathroom, they've been up all night studying the map of the school. But all this fear is okay; in fact, it will bond you tightly together.
As you show up and teach each day, you'll learn that it is okay to be scared of talking in front of your class, to be worried about knowing the material you’re teaching, and to be nervous of how to handle classroom conflicts. And as you learn to deal with and shake off your fear, you can assist your students with the same. Much of their acting out will stem from a place of fear—fear over where they fit in socially, if they can trust you, or their competence in your class. You can help your shy students blossom by boosting their confidence, you can provide structure for your boisterous students, and you can offer the comfort of boundaries for students who like to test limits.
2. Middle school is a time of possibility, change, and development
For me, teaching in middle school was a big change from my college courses. Until then, I had spent my time taking notes, reading textbooks, and writing essays. I was rarely expected to engage in public speaking, and even courses on classroom management were grounded in theory. Stepping into the classroom was a completely new world. But I quickly recognized the opportunity it was to grow my skills in teaching and sharing all the facts I had just spent the past four years shoving into my brain.
For middle schoolers, they are used to the world of elementary school, with recess and snack time and teachers who mistakenly get called “mom” because they're safe and gentle. Middle school is the transition from childhood to the young adult years and preparation for the pressures of high school. You, then, get to become the tour guide as they explore their identities, personalities, dreams, and goals for the future.
It truly is an exciting stage of intellectual, emotional, and social development that your middle school students are entering. Starting around age 12 or 13, they are able to have greater empathy for others and engage in critical thinking. The contents of your lessons can engage these new intellectual developments too: you can start teaching more complex math problems, study books that explore abstract concepts, explore more fully in the scientific method (especially when it comes to making and testing hypotheses), and pick out the patterns of cause and effect in historical events.
3. Middle schoolers desperately need mentors
Middle school gets a bad reputation. When I first told people that my student-teaching semester was going to be spent in a small city, at an overcrowded school with youth who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and, worse yet, at a middle school, people politely wished me luck. And not-so-politely questioned my sanity. But not only can I confidently say that my student-teaching experience in middle school is not full of horror stories; I know it actually offered wonderful chances for connections with students.
It is often said that youth need one adult role model or mentor in their life in order to achieve their goals, like graduating high school or college, successfully. You can be that mentor to a student, or students, in your classroom.
As middle schoolers begin the process of breaking away from their parents and claim their autonomy as people, they still need positive adult influences in their lives. They aren't yet emotionally, socially, or physically able to handle adulthood, but simultaneously, they want to try. While parents, and even some of the other older teachers, are uncool, you, as a student-teacher who is more familiar with the grind of classes, can connect better with students while serving as an example of what they can achieve.
As a mentor to your students, you have a lot to offer; you can provide guidance on strategies for completing homework, you can explain how to appropriately interact with peers, you can show how discipline in the classroom can lead to self-discipline, and you can demonstrate courteous and respectful behavior to everyone you interact with.
Remember, middle school is a tough time for youth, but an exciting one full of growth and change. You, as a student-teacher, can be a mentor and positive influence on the lives of your students.