by Conlee Ricketts
photo by Rachel Phillips
These days my “students” are college students. What is special about them is that they want to be middle school teachers like I was for 23 years. It is part of my job to help these college students figure out what it really means to “Be a Middle School Teacher.” It’s a difficult job. I see my students through three very emotional and rigorous semesters that increase in intensity from 1 day a week to five days a week of “being a middle school teacher.”
Things I tell my students that I wish they would trust:
1. There is no one right answer
I know this drives you crazy, but when you ask me, “What do you do when as student won’t…” I can ask you back, “What time of day is it?” “Was it at the start of class, middle of class, end of class?” “What just happened in the hall?” “Was it before lunch?” “Was it after lunch?” “What do you know about this student?” “What is the daily expectation?” “When did you make that known?” “How did you make it known?” “Is this the first time it has happened or the twentieth?” This list of clarifying questions I can pose to you is endless. The reason why an adolescent does what he or she does is not consistent. You may feel at times there is no rhyme or reason to their actions, and you would be correct—you have to be okay with that. If I could import my 23 years of experience teaching math, managing students, and creating lessons, into your brain it might still be useless in your classroom. My personality and way of working with students won’t work for you. You need to develop your own way. I will continue to pose these questions and offer example after example of ways you can try to solve your problems, but it’s really all up to you to find your voice and make it work. AND what worked yesterday may NOT work today. Welcome to working with humans during puberty.
2. Worry less about making mistakes and worry more about building relationships
You stare at me like I am full of B.S. every time I say this. You are nervous the students won’t respect you, listen to you, follow your directions, etc. I have news for you—they won’t (in fact some of you don’t with me either). You need to earn the right to be in their world and the only way to do that is to ask them, listen to their answers, learn about them—their lives, likes, dislikes, be consistent, trustworthy, and care. Each and every one of us makes mistakes. That is the built in device to help you learn, assuming you choose to learn from the mistakes. My advice: use mistakes as a moment to be a role model of vulnerability for your students of how to handle screwing up or how to handle disappointment in a productive and healthy way. Be thankful you can do that for your students. Please, focus on knowing something special about each and every one of your students and talk to them about it, especially when you see on their face that need some extra attention and care.
3. You think you're working hard now? You have no idea
You are the guest in your mentor teacher’s classroom, and while you are wanting to spread your wings and fly, remember that while they may not do things the way you would do it in the future, they are still protecting you from so many layers of the job you can’t even fathom. Say thank you. There is always an invisible layer of “work” that goes on that you will never see or understand until you are alone in your very own classroom. It is difficult to describe these intangibles but being alone in a classroom with 35 students requires much more energy, concentration, decision making, and observation than when the two of you are in a room with 35 students together. Your mentor teacher is probably fielding hundreds of student, parent, and administration interactions that you aren’t even aware of, and they do it so seamlessly you can’t even see it happen or realize that you are reaping the benefits of their intervention. Say thank you.
4. Your students will treat you the way you tell them to…and it isn’t through your words
Actions speak louder than words—cliché? Yes. True? Yes. Adolescents have the strongest Sincerity Sensor you will ever experience. They know when you are being sincere, when you are nervous, when you are pretending to be in charge, when you know you are in charge, when you waffle before deciding, when you mean it, when you don’t, when you are being honest, when you are coming from a place of caring, or not…the list is amazing really. Because your middle schoolers are hyper aware of how the world might be perceiving them, they are keenly perceptive of you, and they will tell you. "You smell like coffee," "I don't like your new hair cut," "You have no sense of style," "You're confusing," "You aren't fair," on and on. Do you want to avoid being under this microscope? You can’t. But you can minimize the chances of negative moments: See #2.
5. When you complain about me, other instructors, or professors, I wonder if you fully understand what you signed up for
You may not know it, but a teacher is always listening. In the halls, before class begins, as students leave, it should never stop if you want to know what your students are experiencing in order to help them succeed. Just because you are in college doesn’t mean I stopped being a teacher. I see you roll your eyes, use your phones, read your timelines, and I know you just missed my instructions to that assignment. I hear you complain about your instructors, professors, and me. I wonder: if you are complaining near me, are you complaining near your mentor teacher, or near your students? Is that the example you want to be? If you are struggling you need to learn to talk about it with the person you are in conflict with. Part of my job is to help you learn this skill. Come see me and we can work together to deal with disappointment and frustration. Ultimately I know that what will happen to you is this: the way you are treating me or others, the heavy sighs and eye rolls I see and receive, is the exact same way your students are going to treat you some day—and it might hurt your feelings.
6. There is never a time when you are a finished product, nor should there be
Good teachers are always learning. I want you to be a good teacher—a great teacher even—not a mediocre teacher. I can’t package up this career in an easy “how to” manual and send you on your way. It doesn’t work that way. Every year is different, every group of students have different needs, each class has its own personality, and each child is an individual. You have to learn to live with change, ambiguity, and take comfort in the unknown. You need to find your own answers, and you do this by reading research, looking at what others have done successfully and tweaking it for this year’s students, observing others, attending workshops, and never giving up the desire to “be even better next year.” At least that’s what I keep doing.
7. I don’t judge you when you cry
When you are in my office, face flushed, voice trembling, trying to hold back tears and appear strong, I will likely ask you to just cry if you need to. I say this because I understand what it means to “be strong” for my students for an extended period of time. Being strong for so long can wear away at our stamina, which leads to exhaustion, poor concentration, and weaker decision making skills. Sometimes a good old fashioned “cry” relieves the precise amount of stress needed in order to be able to pull on our teacher pants and go into the job another day tough as nails—strong, supportive, and caring for our students. Teaching is hard. I say it a thousand times, but learning to handle the personalities of our students, other teachers, the tragedies of losing a student to violence or suicide, and knowing what to “do” in any of these situations does not come without experience, pain, and sorrow. I can be as strong as I need to be for a twelve year old in the face of losing a parent because I can go somewhere private and cry.
8. You will survive if you want to
Teaching middle school isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. You enter my class with an “ideal image” of the way “teaching” is supposed to be in your minds. For some of you it resembles your own fondest memory of a teacher or a school year. For others of you it resembles the opposite of your own experience or worst teacher, because you are certain you can do better. Beware of these expectations; they are dangerous; I can say that falling short of your expectations is inevitable when you are just starting out. Teaching is hard; anyone who walks in saying “I want to make a difference in my students’ lives” quickly finds out that what they expected teaching to be and what it actually is are two very different things. In order to be the person who “makes a difference” you need to work hard—very hard—and that work occurs outside of the classroom time frame you are spending with students. Middle schoolers are a lot of fun, but they take a special kind of teacher who can be ready for what they serve up. They are emotional, hilarious, insecure, blunt, unpredictable and above all fragile. They need your guidance and patience to learn. In order to be ready for all that and make your 50-80 daily minutes with them successful and safe, takes about triple that time preparing, planning, and creating. If you aren’t ready for your time in class with them, they are. And they will know exactly how to use that time for their own self-interests. If you find yourself driving into your placement all white-knuckled and nauseous then perhaps you need to re-think this career, or start working harder to be ready for those class periods; your students deserve the best.
9. You may never know how much you meant to a single child or classroom of students, and that’s okay—just know that you did
You’ve chosen middle school. The quintessential years of flux, poor decision making skills, puberty, egocentric behavior, and you want a thank you? What are you thinking? Your students are in the middle of stress=emotional decision making=what’s in it for me=silliness or outburst, or who knows what. Your consistency, stability, sense of humor, and calm is the anchor that they hold on to in the midst of their storm of predictable unpredictability. Whether or not they can understand that you do this on purpose for them, and that saying how much it means to them that you are always there, is something that you just can’t worry about. You just need to keep showing up. There are rare moments when lightning strikes during the hormone driven tornado and someone says thank you, or a student returns years later to let you know you mattered, but you can’t pin your self-worth on those moments. You do matter, so wake up, grab the coffee, and get going!
Why is this list only 9 and not 10? That’s the point; teaching is messy. It is either 9 or infinity—there are far too many things to learn about working with middle schoolers to fit into the 42 weeks I spend with you. You have to roll up your sleeves and learn some things the hard way it like I did. I share what I share because if you could learn from my experiences or my mistakes, it would ultimately save you time and heartbreak.
Author’s note: What I share here is solely my own opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of any other individual or institution. I share through the lens of my own experience with students and student teachers, and considering it to be 100% accurate and true for everyone would be foolish. If you happen to agree with my thoughts—wonderful! Please share. If you don’t agree with my thoughts—feel free to enter into a respectful discourse with me. -Conlee