Middle School or High School?

Today’s post comes from an email I received this morning from Connor, a college student (used with permission):

Hi Laura,
I’m currently a sophomore in college and I have to decide whether to teach middle school English or high school English. What made you choose high schoolers over middle schoolers? Are there any tips you can give me to help me decide?
Thank you,

Hi Connor,
Congratulations on your decision to move to this side of the teacher’s desk! As I mentioned in my most recent video, I also was torn between middle and high school when I started my student teaching program. The best tip I can give to help with this decision is to spend some time in both settings and just see what you think. Is there a summer school program where you could volunteer a few days? Is there a YMCA or community center where you could volunteer? You probably already have a gut instinct about which level you’d prefer and that’s what you should follow if you have to make a decision soon or won’t have time to spend with any tweens or teens before your paperwork is due.

The good news is that a secondary credential in most states covers grades 6 through 12, meaning you can always change your mind later. Lots of teachers I know have ping-ponged between the middle and high school as they figured out the right placement. Often, it’s more of a practical decision based on what jobs are available and then, in time, we all figure out where we want to be and make strategic moves as jobs become available.

For me, the decision was easy once I faced the day-to-day realities of the classroom. I student-taught 6th graders in the morning and 11th graders in the afternoon. The 6th graders were cute, but the 11th graders felt like home. Why? Hard to say, but I suppose it was a combination of my personality, the curriculum, and the kids themselves.

To be effective, you need to be authentic. Kids can smell a fake and I think I had too much edge for those sixth graders. I could be honest with the 11th graders in a way that was a mismatch for 6th grade. I mean, some of those middle schoolers were still losing baby teeth. Sheesh. So I had to tone myself w-a-y down for that class and sometimes felt I was acting like a teacher instead of being a teacher. I’ve never felt that way around high school kids.

The juniors at George Washington High were funny and idealistic and complicated. My work seemed to have a more immediate impact on their lives and I liked that feeling. Also, classroom management with the older kids was more mentally stimulating, a bigger puzzle to solve – and I’ve always liked a challenge.

Finally, the high school curriculum was more interesting to me. When I looked ahead to the next 30 years of my life, I knew I could re-read The Crucible each year and still have plenty to say about the text while one pass through Rikki Tikki Tavi was enough for me.

Good luck with your placement and program, Connor! You’ll be tired, for sure, but it’ll be a good tired.

Okay, everyone, it’s your turn. What led you to choose middle school or high school? How did you know where you belonged? Connor (and probably every other soon-to-be-teacher who’s made it to the end of this blog post) wants to hear your thoughts!

Summer on, everyone.


8 thoughts on “Middle School or High School?

  1. I started out as a middle school (7th and 8th grade) English teacher. I did that for 2 years and I honestly really liked it, but I credit that mostly to the team I worked with. They had fantastic classroom management (all of them had been teaching for 15+years) and the students knew to stay in line and behaved fairly well. Now, I went to high school this past year and taught Freshmen and Sophomores, and this year I will be teaching Juniors. I can honestly say that I enjoy high school more. There is a bit more flexibility and I feel that I can personally be myself a bit more as they get my sarcasm and my middle schoolers didn’t. I loved teaching freshmen as I like the material, and the students were new to high school so I could set my own standards and I felt the students and I generally connected more because they were new and looking for teachers to get along with. Now, similarly to middle schoolers, the freshmen can be a bit more squirrelly, but some good classroom management and being over-planned can help that. So, maybe you could either start with upper middle school or even freshmen and get the best of both worlds.

  2. Never had to choose as UK system trains you for all levels in secondary and expects you to teach across multiple levels per year. Have taught in both UK and US contexts and there are pros and cons to each system, just as there are for teaching middle or high. I love the freedom and relative low-pressure of middle but also enjoy the focus and ambition of high.

  3. For me, it’s primary (elementary)!

    For some reason, me and the older crowd don’t seem to finish fitting in with each other. That doesn’t mean I haven’t worked with groups that were amazing, but in general elementary is my thing!

    I love working with that tiny little species! Seeing those little faces light up when they get something or simply seeing them have fun just fully fills me. Seeing them bloom day after day is a dream come true. One of the things I enjoy most is seeing how those kids sparkle when they leave each day and their eagerness to learn when they come in the next.

    I don’t know whether I would choose middle or high school, as both have their pros and cons. The more “adult” they are, the more I would lean that way, I guess. Adults and I get along relatively well. They are a nice challenge and I love it when they strive for more.

    Don’t know if this will help in any way, but there it is. Good luck!

  4. Kendall Childs says:

    My child psychology teacher had a theory that teachers choose to teach the grade they were the happiest in when they were students. With that in mind, I began my teaching career teaching middle school English. We taught in a team/cluster concept with all of the core subjects working together with the same group of students. This works well, especially if you are a new teacher, because you have a lot of support. I later changed to high school and taught 9th grade English for many years. I truly enjoyed the students and the curriculum. My favorite curriculum is American Lit. I was very fortunate to have taught English at my district’s alternative high school for nine years. Very rewarding. Try everything and be flexible. A lot depends on the size and needs of your school district. Welcome to the hardest job you will ever love. Remember to breathe.

  5. Connor Sullivan says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your stories and pieces of advice! The lovely state of IL forces students in their education programs to choose elementary (grade levels 1st-6th), middle school (departmentalized 5th-8th), or secondary (9th-12th). I think I am leaning towards high school because, like Laura said, I don’t see myself getting tired of the content at the upper levels. I also think that I would enjoy seeing my impact on them almost instantaneously. Being a Golden Apple scholar myself, I also like the idea of nominating a potential scholar in the future!

  6. Kristi Moore says:

    I always planned to be an elementary teacher, but, after some experiences with high school students, I knew that 9-12 ELA was the place for me. They have such enormous personalities, and it’s wonderful to help them figure out who they are and what they believe about the world.

  7. I love the passion of high schoolers. While they are still figuring out their place in the world, they often have very definite ideas of what they want that world to be like. I love being part of that process.

  8. Staci Rossell says:

    I’ve taught both junior high and high school and have loved both. My advice would be to be open to both. Middle schoolers get a bad rap and when you “get” how awesome they are, you feel like you know something that most people don’t know. And that’s a pretty great feeling. Most are still young enough to want to please their teachers, but they are old enough to have ideas and opinions of their own. I loved that they were old enough to get my jokes! What you see is what you get with middle schoolers.

    High school is great, too. When I was a new teacher, junior high was a perfect fit for me. I felt I was was still too close in age to the high schoolers. When I was older and had kids of my own, high school was a good fit.

    Like Laura said, you can go back and forth! Be open to both options if you can. Good luck!

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