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Virginia Journal of Education


A Bold Move

A Prince William teacher talks about what he learned after making a late-career move from elementary to middle school.


by Mark Shiring

It was the opening day of school, just two years ago and, as I’d done for 27 years, I began my commute to teach fifth grade at an elementary school in Woodbridge. I had the usual mix of first-day excitement and anxiety, but suddenly those first-day jitters turned to full-blown panic. I was actually heading towards the wrong school! How could that be? All that was missing was the shrieking sound from the shower scene in “Psycho,” but it was true—I really had transferred to a middle school in Manassas.

To fully understand my driving miscalculation, it’s necessary to know just how ingrained I was in my previous school. Over those 27 years of teaching, I had also initiated and run our school newspaper, sponsored our student council, and directed a full-time after-school drama program. I had served on so many committees I couldn’t name them all, been grade level chairperson numerous times, and sat on the advisory council. I had taught entire families and even a few “second generation” kids. Indeed, I was so closely associated with my school that many parents and teachers found it difficult to believe I’d actually leave. But as I found myself turning the car around and heading towards my new middle school, it was all too real that a new adventure lay ahead.
 
Why had I chosen to make such a bold move so late in my teaching career? I was within a few years of retirement; surely it would have made perfect sense to stay the course and finish in the school where I had built my reputation and was so comfortable. Actually, that may have been the main motivation for leaving—to leave my comfort zone behind and find out if I could successfully meet the challenges of a totally new situation. I had always been intrigued by the possibilities of teaching middle school and if not now, when? Truthfully, part of me felt that I had waited too long. However, those reasons that felt so energizing when I made the decision now seemed to pale as the moment of truth was upon me.

That first day went by in a blur and was a difficult transition period. But the past two years have been everything I hoped for and more. I’ve been able to replicate much of the success I’d had in my previous school with a lot of support from my new colleagues. Working with my seventh graders has been a wonderful experience, as they bring such energy and zeal to school each day. Looking back now I definitely made the right decision and thoroughly enjoy teaching seventh grade language arts. In fact, my biggest regret is that I didn’t make this move many years earlier—not that there haven’t been some rocky moments along the way, to be sure, or that I have figured it all out now. I still learn something new every day in my new world of middle school. I can’t even imagine my teaching career now without this totally fresh last chapter of new experiences. What I’ve learned most is that it’s never too late to make a big change. Don’t be satisfied with just riding out those last few years in a comfortable situation—you’re better than that. Take a chance and teach that grade or subject that has always interested you. Don’t wait as long as I did; make the move and get started.
 
I’ve learned about a million things in the past two years, but here are 10 helpful observations if you are making the move from elementary to middle school:
                
1. Be prepared to argue. Middle school students love to challenge everything. Perhaps “debate” might be a friendlier term, but nonetheless they relish every opportunity to verbally mix it up. Whereas elementary students might defer to your authority and high school students would likely pick winnable spots, middle-schoolers will argue just for the sport of it. Just remember it’s not personal and you don’t get to win them all. The faster you learn this, the better you’ll sleep at night.

2. We all miss recess. Certainly no one needs a few minutes to release pent-up energy more than middle school students. If you’ve ever taught elementary school you know down deep that you miss it, too. Just a few pleasant minutes respite from the classroom outside on a beautiful sunny day—I definitely miss being able to throw the football around with my students. Ask any seventh grader what they miss most about elementary school and it’s a lock—recess!

3. Nothing can prepare you at first.  Especially if you have taught in elementary school for 10 years or more, you’re going to experience some culture shock those first few weeks in middle school. Just the sheer size and maturity level of the students, and the speed at which everything is happening can shake your confidence. I’ll admit to being the “deer in the headlights” those first couple of days. You will definitely be out of your comfort zone for a while but that was one of the reasons you made this change. And, you may learn to enjoy that adrenaline rush each morning as hundreds of students pile into their lockers. Only time can help you here, but this too shall pass.
 
4. Middle school students need to know you care.  Elementary students are much more open and “teacher-friendly” from the start. They don’t hide the fact that they want to like their teachers. Middle school students are more guarded and can be somewhat distant at first. Don’t be fooled by their cautious demeanor. They want your approval and support every bit as much as the younger kids do. So it’s simply imperative that you find ways to connect with them. They need to see that you genuinely care about them. This is a very stressful, confusing time for them, but they’ll follow you anywhere if you truly believe in them. This is especially important to remember on those bad days, of which there will be more than a few.

5. Keep them active.  With hormones raging and their world racing around them, middle school students find it very difficult to work for long periods at a time in their seats. Many schools have also gone to block scheduling, which means up to 90-minute periods or even longer.  You have got to include several “active learning” activities within those blocks, or classroom management problems will arise. Students like to work in pairs or small groups, which allows for some socialization, as long as they are still on task. The key is to have some structure.
      
6. Middle school teachers work hard. It’s a type of urban legend among elementary teachers that the “grass is always greener” in middle school. It’s predicated on the belief that there are more free periods, less planning necessary, fewer meetings, more freedom, etc.  This belief is reinforced by the fact that it seems not a single elementary teacher has ever made the jump to middle school and then returned. Oh, that it was actually true! No one works harder than middle school teachers. For every supposed advantage, there is an equally difficult disadvantage, such as many more students to teach, more extracurricular duties, and just as many meetings. Middle school is great, but don’t come here looking for a walk in the park.
 
7. Sponsor a club or coach a sport. Nothing will help weave you into the fabric of your new school faster than sponsoring a club or coaching a team. And there are always organizations and sports in need of help. Nothing creates a bond faster than a small group working towards a common goal and overcoming adversity or celebrating successes together. It will also give you some identity within your new school community. I immediately took over my new school’s drama program, and it gave me a huge boost. There still may be people in my building that have no idea what I teach, but do know that I’m the “drama guy.” Your administrators will also appreciate your willingness to jump in to help.

8. Enjoy the reduced role. If you’ve been an “icon” in your previous school, chances are you were on every committee from literacy to the science fair. You probably chaired many of those committees, too. You were undoubtedly the grade level chairperson, the teacher representative on the advisory council, and one of those chosen to give input on major decisions. Now you have given all of that up to be just the new language arts teacher at the end of the hall. Many of your new colleagues don’t even know your name. You see the “icons” in your new school providing those same leadership roles you used to provide. Rather than regretting relinquishing that role, learn to enjoy the relative peace and quiet. Join committees that interest you, but in many ways your newfound anonymity can be strangely refreshing. You’ll have plenty to do just trying to survive anyway.

9. It will take a long time before you feel at home. Obviously, the longer you have been at your prior school the longer this will take. With me it took a full two years to completely feel like my new school was “home.” The strangest feeling was that of not belonging anywhere, like a man without a country. In fact, it often felt during that first year as if I was in a type of temporary educational experiment and that I’d be returning to my old school in the end. It was attending a retirement party last June, in honor of three of my longtime former colleagues that proved conclusively I had a new home. As great as it was to see everyone from my former school again, I felt as if I didn’t belong there anymore, and the transformation was complete. There are some things that just take time and this is certainly one of them.

10. Appreciate the improvement.  When I read the first set of stories written by my seventh graders, I was convinced I had a classroom full of budding authors! Their writing was far beyond anything I was used to. At the first open house, I told the parents how truly impressed I’d been with their students’ writing ability, but that perhaps it was just the result of my being used to reading fifth grade essays. Fortunately, they saw the humor in it. Nonetheless, it is still quite an eye-opener to see the ability of my older students, especially in their projects, research papers and PowerPoint presentations. They’re much more independent and creative, often needing just a push in the right direction to keep them going. And their enthusiasm knows no bounds when they get into a topic of interest to them. Watching the varied talents of my older students continues to amaze me and is one of the many joys of teaching middle school.
Shiring, a member of the Prince William Education Association, teaches seventh grade language arts at Stonewall Middle School.

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