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.

“Thank you for being their teacher.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead my first Parent Teacher Conferences. Most teachers dread these, or at the very least, they’re definitely not excited. I guess I’m not most teachers. For days leading up to them, I couldn’t help my excitement. I think that parent-teacher interaction is so important and I was excited to be able to tell parents what I had been seeing in their children.

Much of my conference time was spent with my not icings of students. I told parents how their students were doing both academically and socially in my classroom. I made sure to not start each session with the student’s grade. To me, grades really aren’t that important. And, they aren’t the best indication of students’ learning. So, I began with each student’s positive contributions to class. And I had a lot of them. Throughout this process I found out just how lucky I am to have every one of my students. They each contribute something so unique to class and it was easy to tell their parents what positives they brought each day. These qualities ranged from the fact that students were vocal in class with their ideas about mathematics, they worked well in collaborative groups, they brought a positive energy and interest each day, etc.

One of the most amazing things about PT Conferences, though, was hearing from the parents about my students. Some parents shared their concerns about their student with me. Since I teach all honors mathematics courses, it was typical to hear that students were striving for an A that they didn’t quite have yet. But, what I found to be the most amazing thing was hearing parents say that this was their student’s first honors class, that they never expected this track, and how proud they were. It was inspiring hearing parents talk about how happy they were at their child’s success. A lot of the parents thanked me for what I had been doing in class, which was so rewarding.

My entire life I have wanted to be a teacher and it’s the most amazing thing to hear the words “thank you for being our son/daughter’s teacher.” My goal in this field is to help students be successful, no matter how they define success. For some of my students, success is that A. For others, it’s learning what they need to know to be prepared for their future careers. For others, it’s to just do their best, no matter what grade that brings. I want to help all of them get there. PT Conferences really hit me hard. They made me realize how important what I’m doing is. I’m affecting these students, their parents, and their lives. I don’t take that lightly. I also realized how special each student is. Everyone says that, but I never really knew what it meant until I got the opportunity to discuss each of my students. They are all such inspiring individuals and I’m proud that I get to be a part of their lives, even if it is only for a semester.