Middle School vs. High School

Let me preface this post by saying that I have always wanted to teach high school. Since I started my career in education, I have been thinking of my “perfect” job and it was always in a high school. Every time.

And then I was placed in a middle school.

When I started teacher assisting at a middle school, I was hesitant, to say the least. I went into it having these assumptions about middle school teaching and about middle school students. In the first weeks of observations and planning, I began to think about the lessons that I would want to teach. All my assumptions about middle school education led me to believe that the way that I wanted to teach wouldn’t work. That I couldn’t do student-led instruction, that I couldn’t use collaborative work, that I couldn’t maintain a looser classroom management plan. Then I just realized that these were assumptions. I could teach however I wanted. So I did. I began to create collaborative lessons and student-led lessons. At first, my coordinating teacher was hesitant. she let me try it anyway. And it worked, most of the time. The students that I had were so much more capable than I had been led to believe. All of my assumptions got in the way of being a good teacher. After I had let them go, I was able to focus on the teaching and on the students.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. It was hard. I was in a middle school rich with diversity and filled with students from various socio-economic backgrounds. There were classroom management issues. There were motivation issues. There were issues with student abilities. The experience taught me to just push through these. Good teachers don’t settle with what has always happened or what is easy. Good teachers push their students to their limits, no matter what age they are. When I entered that middle school, I thought my students couldn’t handle certain things, like rich mathematical tasks and collaborative work. But I challenged them. I threw it at them anyway and they exceeded my expectations.

During this placement, I fell in love with the middle school level. The students were young enough to be playful, interested, and still new at mathematics. They were also old enough to have complex mathematical discussions, use collaborative work effectively, and rise to the challenge. It’s an age that I am so endeared by and it’s content that I am so excited for.

This semester, I was placed in a high school in a setting that was almost the polar opposite of my middle school setting. There was very little diversity and not as large of a gap between SES of students. I was also teaching only honors classes, meaning the mathematical ability of my students far exceeded some of their peers.

In my student teaching, I had far different issues than I had before. Classroom management was hardly an issue. But, now, I had to worry about appropriately challenging students who were above the norm in their age group. My strategies for this were different than in a middle school. In a middle school, I had focused on allowing for a little bit of a struggle before students gave up. And this happened quickly in my middle school room. Now, I allow students to struggle far more. The high school students can struggle longer and harder before they will give up, allowing me to challenge them further. I love this aspect of high school teaching. These students aren’t that far from being “adults.” They’re capable of struggle and perseverance and I can use this productively in a math classroom.

Another thing I learned in a high school setting is how different classroom management can be. In my middle school, I had to maintain a more strict policy than I would have liked. But, students needed more order to maintain focus. In the high school, I had a loose classroom management policy. I treated my students as adults and they rose to that expectation. They were missing homework? They made it up on their own time and got it to me. They needed help? They came before or after school to ensure that they understood concepts. I fully believe that students will rise to the expectations you have for them. While this works in the middle school, I think that their social and emotional development is working against them during this time.

Overall, I really learned to stick with my passion, which is teaching. I loved both of my placements and I think that I will love any school that I am at. I want to teach and I want to inspire and I want to take everything that I learned with me to be the best teacher that I can be. And I don’t think that I could choose between a middle or a high school. I used to only imagine myself happy in a high school. Now, I know that I will be happy wherever I am teaching.


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