Middle school isn’t an easy period of childhood due to being a time of transition. They still have the energy levels of elementary school students, but puberty has begun, resulting in hormonal and physical changes. Indeed, teaching middle school differs from teaching elementary or high school students, but does this mean teaching middle school is easy?
Teaching middle school is not easy. The students are going through physical and emotional changes. Consequently, their priorities are less about academics and more about dealing with the complex psychological and social issues they face. Middle school teachers must lead students through this trying period where they are no longer young children but not quite teenagers.
Teaching isn’t easy, regardless of the grade being taught. Each group is in its own particular phase of development. Choosing which grades to teach depends on what challenges an individual would enjoy or be well suited for helping students navigate.
This article examines the unique experience of working in middle school and why it isn’t an easy age to teach.
Is Teaching Middle School Easy?
Teaching middle schoolers is not easier than teaching elementary or high schoolers. The level of difficulty with teaching different age groups is subjective and depends on the educator’s preference and skill sets.
Nonetheless, there are particular challenges and aspects accredited to middle schoolers that make teaching in middle school unique.
1. Middle Schoolers Are Going Through Physical Changes
Most middle schoolers are not teenagers yet, but their bodies are going through significant physical changes, including:
- Hormones change
- Hair grows in new areas
- Getting acne
- Females begin menstruating
- Males’ voices change
These physical changes impact students’ views of themselves. Common reactions to these physical changes include:
- Being self-conscious or embarrassed
- A growing awareness of their body weight or shape
- An increasing desire to be viewed as attractive
- Feeling stressed that their physical difference set them apart from their peers
Because of these physical changes and resulting views, students become less concerned about their studies. For this reason, getting students to complete assignments or follow instructions is not easy in middle school, which can be a major source of frustration and tension.
It is worth noting that any unruly, rebellious, or disinterested behavior should not be taken personally by middle school teachers, but instead, they should endeavor to show more patience and understanding toward students during this transitional phase of their lives.
2. Middle Schoolers See an Increase in Mental Health Issues
Students can experience stress at any age level, but due to environmental factors and their cognitive development, elementary students are less likely to suffer from mental health issues.
However, as they reach middle school, the reported levels of stress and anxiety escalate. The increase in homework load, having several teachers for different subjects, peer pressure, and image concerns can all contribute to the greater pressures and worries they face.
Consequently, elevated stress levels often lead to behavioral issues where students are more likely to act out and cause disruption, ultimately affecting children’s mental and physical health.
As evidence, more instances of self-harm and suicide attempts are reported among middle schoolers than elementary students, while according to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, death by suicide is the third leading cause of death in children aged 10 to 14.
The Covid pandemic has made the problem worse, where the number of students referred by school districts for mental health treatment has increased to record levels.
Students dealing with mental health issues are not exclusive to middle school. In fact, most would argue that the pressures of high school are far more significant due to important academic testing and college preparation. Yet many of these mental health challenges begin in middle school, where students are caught in this tug of war between elementary and teenagehood.
So as enjoyable as it could be working with middle schoolers, middle school teachers must help their students navigate through complex psychological dilemmas.
3. Middle Schoolers Are Less Interested in School
A decline in interest in school work can happen to any student, irrespective of grade level. But just as is the case with mental health, there is a noticeable shift from elementary to middle school in that middle schoolers are more likely to show a lack of interest toward school.
There are numerous reasons why students might lose interest in school, such as disengaging lessons and activities, a lack of support or challenge, poor student-teacher relationships, or exhibiting the characteristics of a fixed mindset.
But the reason most attributed to explaining why middle schoolers become more detached from schoolwork is the shift in priorities that compete for their time and attention.
At this age, the physical and emotional changes they go through, along with the social dynamics and pressures of middle school, certainly occupy greater precedence.
These students haven’t had the opportunity to properly understand themselves and their goals yet, so how can they be expected to show sufficient focus and engagement toward their studies?
Consequently, they are too engrossed in trying to fit in rather than realizing the relevance and importance of their classes, which gets translated into a lack of interest in school.
4. Middle Schoolers Have No Filter
Tweens are blunt!
Once they graduate from elementary, an air of heightened self-assurance and a know-it-all attitude can take over. This, together with impulsivity and hormonal imbalance, means that middle schoolers do not hold back.
If they have an opinion, you’ll be made aware of it in no uncertain terms. For example, if they believe the information you are presenting is inaccurate, they’ll correct you. Or if they think your lesson is boring, they’ll let you know. Even your choice of clothing will be frequently scrutinized.
These judgments are also often blurted out at the most inopportune times, so be prepared.
They can also be very loud about their ever-changing emotions. This is not the case for all middle schoolers, but enough that it can become overwhelming at times, especially when dealing with overblown feelings like anger, distress, jealousy, etc.
As a teacher, you must remain patient and professional at all times and not be provoked or tempted to use crude language with middle schoolers for the sake of appearing relatable or “cool.”
5. Middle Schoolers Deal With Fluctuating Moods
A big challenge that comes with teaching middle schoolers is dealing with students who are not at a consistent maturity or mood level.
As they are at the onset of puberty, they have minimal capabilities to regulate their emotions. As a result, it should come as little surprise that this age group endures the most turbulent mood swings.
A study of around 500 Dutch adolescents from ages 13 to 18 found that cognitive control systems do not grow at the same rate as emotional development in the early teen years, making it hard for middle schoolers to manage and cope with their feelings.
Therefore, middle schoolers need teachers who can provide a steady balance of staying calm and showing understanding while providing clear and consistent boundaries.
Luckily for high school teachers, students’ mood swings tend to stabilize as they get older.
6. Middle Schoolers Still Have High Energy
Children in elementary school are known to be more lively and active. This doesn’t necessarily disappear as they move up to middle school. Tweens can still be as high energy as nine-year-olds, springing up from chairs and impulsively throwing things across a room.
Studies have pointed to diet and caffeine as factors contributing to high-energy behavior. For instance, a study by Yale University revealed how energy drinks are linked to hyperactivity and lack of focus in middle schoolers.
Students who drank energy drinks were significantly more likely to demonstrate adverse behavior like an inability to pay attention, forgetting or losing things, constantly fidgeting, and difficulty getting along with others.
Some of the points mentioned above highlight the typical characteristics of middle schoolers (physical and mental changes, no filter, fluctuating moods, etc.) and make for an unendurable cocktail for any teacher to swallow. Now add to this the high-energy component of middle school students, and you are left with the question: why would anyone want to teach in middle school?
Teaching in middle school is far from easy, but many teachers would vouch that it is exceptionally gratifying!
At this age, middle schoolers have a good balance of independence and naivety. They aren’t as heavily reliant on you as most elementary children, while at the same time, they still possess most of that innocence and sincerity that comes with childhood.
Middle school teachers also feel tremendous satisfaction and achievement knowing that they are helping their students navigate this transformational period.
Would I Enjoy Teaching Middle School?
The best way to know if teaching middle school is right for you is to try it out. Thom Gibson recommends first working with this age group as a substitute teacher. He explains in his YouTube video that while his first day was far from enjoyable, it gave him a unique insight and taught him valuable career skills.
If you can’t work as a substitute, find a place to work with this age group in another capacity, for example, by coaching middle-school basketball and volleyball or giving writing workshops at local schools.
Teaching in a classroom is very different from coaching or offering the occasional workshop. But those experiences can go a long way to determining which age group you feel most comfortable teaching.
Other ways to interact with middle schoolers could be through:
- Working at a summer camp
- Teaching Sunday school or helping run faith-based events
- Volunteering at a community youth club
- Working or volunteering at scouts
The more you interact with children, the easier it is to gauge what age group fits your personality and skill set. Without getting to know the kids, it’s impossible to determine whether teaching middle schoolers is right for you.
Those who thrive as middle school teachers do so because they genuinely enjoy helping students cope with the changes and facets that come with early adolescence – however challenging they may be.
Teaching middle school is an exciting time where you can witness people discovering themselves as they advance from being a child into a teen.
It’s not an easy stage as students have high energy and deal with some radical changes, but with the right attitude and strategies, it is a manageable and enriching task.
- YouTube: 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Middle School Teacher
- We Are Teachers: 12 Reasons Why Teaching Middle School Is The Best Job Ever
- Hey Teach!: Changing Careers: What I Learned By Going Down A New Teaching Path
- We Are Teachers: Why Teaching Middle School Is So Hard
- NPR Health News: Young Teens Suffer Most From Turbulent Mood Swings
- Classful: Teaching Middle School Students Can Be Tough
- Coalition to Support Grieving Students
- NPR: Kids are back in school — and struggling with mental health issues
- Society for Research in Child Development: A 5-Year Longitudinal Study on Mood Variability Across Adolescence Using Daily Diaries
- Academic Pediatrics: Energy Drinks and Youth Self-Reported Hyperactivity/Inattention Symptoms