I never considered changing careers when I was a newly minted teacher. I got my first job teaching high school English, and I was ecstatic. I taught five sections of sophomore English (two honors, two regular, and one remedial) and one senior elective. I had almost 150 students and I was also the cheerleading advisor. I used the last period of the day to prepare for the following day, but by that time, all I could do was sit in the faculty room, sip a bottle of water, and wonder how I was ever going to grade all the papers stacked in front of me.
There were bright spots. I had good rapport with my 10th graders, and even though I was just a few years older than my seniors (or maybe because I was just a few years older), I got along well with them. But the day wasn't long enough to finish all my lessons plans, read papers, record grades, advise the cheerleaders, and still have a life outside of school. To top it all off, the principal added the role of yearbook advisor to my list of responsibilities the following year.
Toward the end of that second year, I decided to look for another job before I had to coach football too. As much as I loved teaching high school and felt like I was getting good at it, changing careers could allow me to actually see my own kids in the evening. That spring, I got a job as a middle school English teacher in another district—and I learned quite a few valuable teaching lessons through this change.
Middle School Isn't High School
I thought that teaching high school was all the preparation I needed for teaching middle school. I told myself that middle school would be the same, only easier; the curriculum would be the same, only simpler; the students would be the same, only younger. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Almost nothing that routinely worked for me in high school worked in middle school. My high school kids came into class and sat down, and my middle school kids couldn't walk from Point A to Point B without bumping or hitting someone. My former students didn't shout out in class but my middle schoolers couldn't control their excitement. In situations where my high school students would easily understand straightforward directions, my new students acted as though they didn't hear anything I said.
I felt less competent every day in terms of managing my classroom. In fact, I was having a surprisingly terrible year and my students were too.
A Turning Point
One day, my principal came to observe my class. I divided the students into five groups to work on a project. I had done group work when I taught high school, and students were always able to handle it with ease. However, my middle school students thought group work was like free time. Some girls took out their makeup and started applying mascara, and some boys started pushing and shoving one another. I tried to get them to quiet down but they interrupted me and shouted out questions. The principal left before it was over. It was a complete disaster.
When the period ended, I fled to the women's faculty lounge next door, completely mortified. I closed the door, sat down on the couch, and cried. In a few minutes, the lounge phone rang—it was the principal. I prepared myself for my inevitable firing.
"Look," he said. "I know that class didn't go exactly the way you wanted it to, but I could see the teacher you can become with practice. I'm not going to write this up. Hang in there. They're good kids, but they're middle schoolers and they need a little more direction."
I thanked him and hung up. Then I cried a little more, not only because he didn't fire me but because he had been so unexpectedly kind.
Knowing What Kids Need
When I was calmer, I had a chance to reflect on his words. My students were just middle schoolers. They weren't miniature high schoolers—they were something else entirely, and up to that point, I had done nothing to change my classroom practices. Instead of thinking about what my students needed, I focused on what I knew how to do. And rather than changing my approach when it didn't work, I doubled down and acted annoyed. As a result, I didn't like my students and I was pretty sure they didn't like me.
I finished out the year as best I could and vowed that the next year would be different. I talked to the principal and other teachers to figure out what I could do to improve. They told me that puberty takes up a lot of space in a middle schooler's brain, so my students needed simple, clear directions that weren't unloaded on them all at once. I learned that these kids needed to be taught how to work in groups. As time went on, I learned to understand and appreciate my students—their humor, revelations, honesty, surprises, and goodwill.
I ended up teaching middle school for more than 10 years. It was a rough start, but it became much easier when I realized that middle school isn't just preparation for high school; it's something else entirely. For me, changing careers required different skills, insights, and teaching strategies. When I figured that out, I learned to love working with kids who were not quite children but not quite teenagers.