Given a choice, would you rather teach high school or middle school?
My reply is based on teaching in a small high school for eight years and in a large junior high for twenty years.
First I taught high school. Their grades count towards their college transcript if they are college-bound, towards being accepted in competitive vocational programs and towards graduation if that is their main focus. (This is a plus.)
Some states give better insurance rates to young drivers on the honor-roll and that becomes important to new drivers. Preparing for their driver’s test can take away from school studying. (Guess that is a wash. )
Past ninth grade, the focus shifts from teaching basic study habits, as we do in junior high. (That can be a plus if you don’t enjoy reminding them to write down their assignments and take out their binders.)
Students tend to settle down to a small group of friends or even just one good friend and the intense group social scene seems to melt away, because it tends to be replaced with serious dating. (No one wants to publicly discuss this but from what I have observed, once bullies become sexually active they tend to have less time/interest to bully.)
Sexual activity can bring unwanted pregnancies. In the 80’s and 90’s when I taught a high school of 500, we would average about 6 – 7 girls a year dealing with unwanted pregnancies – that we knew about. Girls would drag themselves into school on Tuesdays no matter how sick they were to avoid smirks about being absent on Tuesdays, the day the local clinic performed abortions.
Students start working and that interferes with studying. Some are actually supporting their families financially or by providing health care to sick relations. Some students find themselves homeless because of issues with parents and stepparents. Some students discover that their parents misled them because they actually have no resources set aside to help them with college.
While the social scene can hurt a middle school student, the high school students have much more heartbreak and you will become part of the fabric that keeps the school together. While keynoting once Iowa, I met two teachers from a small school that had a student become homeless because her only parent unexpectedly died in her sleep, a car accident involving several students, and three suicides over the course of one year. They were dreading the anniversary dates, but proud of how their community has pulled together.
Your heart will break more teaching high school. You will loose more students to death. A horrendous car accident can wipe out a group of wonderful people. You will rally to raise funds for someone with a relentless disease.
In high school you see them enter as adolescents and emerge as young adults. There are so many good stories and triumphs that will warm your heart. You might take them on a trip overseas and develop close relationships with them, or have them several years in a row.
You’ll be included in their reunions and know them when they start to appreciate what adults do for them. I have that with some of the students I taught in high school 20 years ago and it is what I miss the most about teaching just seventh and eighth grade. I truly enjoyed attending the 20th anniversary of some of my high school classes and staying in touch with them on Facebook.
You will be overjoyed when you find that the couple who married right out of high school have done amazing things – he is at Harvard graduate school of Education and she is running a bio start-up company! You will be so proud when the teen mom is now a teacher winning awards!
It was heart warming to have one student tell me that he came to the reunion just to thank me for one decision I made that completely changed the course of his life. (He had so many family problems that he could barely stay focus and missed the grade he needed by one point to play basketball. I recalculated and he played. His friend who didn’t play did lots of drinking, his friends who played didn’t because of their coach.)
Another student sought me out to thank me for being only one of the two teachers who saw past his little crime spree and valued him. He is now a lawyer who helps families with teens who make their first mistake. Little details that I could barely recall but they appreciated it years later.
With that said, for this part of my life, I love teaching seventh grade!
A junior visited yesterday to work with me for School Service Day. She couldn’t believe how much the seventh graders just love learning Spanish! She had been one of my better students and she was wishing that her Spanish Four class had that level of enthusiasm.
Of course, the tweens have many problems. They are at that point where they are learning to develop their logic and have a need to debate for the sake of debate. Developmentally, their feelings are stronger than their logic and if they can feel something, then it is true for them. They struggle to separateout logic from feelings.
Tweens become totally self-absorbed. Sometimes when I give my pep talk about doing homework, a student will call out “is that remark about people needing to do homework directed at me? are you saying that to me?” Well, I was actually addressing the whole class, but it is a reminder as to how self-absorbed they are.
We have many more fights in 8th grade than I ever experienced at my high school 9th – 12th. I believe that among other things their impulses are uncontrollably dominant. These impulses lead them to say and do such terrible social blunders. Frequently I deal with this kind of blunder, by saying “that is your first reaction, how about taking a minute and I’ll ask you for your second choice of responding?” Most times, they realize that they made a mistake and are about to get into more trouble. Usually, they apologize, give me their second and more appropriate response, and I thank them and sincerely tell them that I believe that with practice they will internalize their first response.
In junior high it is such a wretched time that although many of my students were very kind and told me lovely things at the end of the year, I am told that most students just want to forget this painful part of their lives.
At my school we give them their first exposure to another language and yet we don’t get to bump into them in the halls when they are finally able to flow in a language. We work hard to make it fun and to give them a love for the language and then frequently hear from high school teachers “boy, if we had these kids for two years of a language they would know more than they do, how come you only played games with them?” Yes, I agree if I had them as 15 and 16 year olds, they would know more also. Piaget discussed how around age 15 they come out of their self-absorption.
I believe that many middle/jr. high teachers are unsung heroes – high schoolteachers are mentioned when high school students perform well on standardized tests and teachers are needed to write college recommendations. But it is the middle school teachers that teach them how to get ready for finals, become organized and responsible and transition them to independent learners.
So should you switch? All I can tell you is that I enjoyed my high school years and am now at a point in my life where I can take on these difficult years and feel energized by what I do. I wish you the best and please let me know what you decide.