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What It’s Really Like to Be a Middle School Teacher

I like to believe that every parent of a young teenager has experienced the teenage equivalent of the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: due to some unidentifiable combination of circumstances, personal issues, and hormones, your 13-year-old yells at you. Refuses to listen. Ignores you. Has difficulty following the simplest of instructions. Mumbles something inscrutable, and shuts down when you ask him to clarify.

Now imagine yourself in a room with 24 13-year-olds on that day. For 90 minutes. Trying your level best to encourage them to work through a series of Algebra problems. And at the end of 90 minutes, when they leave the room, they are immediately replaced by another group of 24 13-year-olds, all equally moody and distracted as the group that just left.

This scenario is also known as A Day in the Life of a Middle School Teacher.

Middle school is a difficult juncture in kids’ lives. Their physical and biochemical development is complicated, their relationships with adults are shifting, and their social interactions with one another can be fraught. Middle school teachers experience all of the demands that teachers of younger and older students experience, but with the added burden of this matrix of developmental factors. A study in the Journal of School Psychology confirms that middle school teachers experience a significant level of stress—and that their stress can take a toll on their work.

“Teachers face multiple and interacting demands from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, and all of these demands may contribute to teacher stress,” the authors report. A staggering 94 percent of the teachers involved in the study reported feelings of “high stress.”

The stress teachers experience comes from a wide variety of factors, and it can be a somewhat different list of factors depending on the school context. Under the best of circumstances, middle school teachers have to cope with behaviors that, while age-appropriate, are challenging. Often, middle school is a time when the school day changes significantly for students, and not always in ways that respond to their needs.

A middle school teacher once told me, “Just when students need ‘rug time’ most, it disappears.” What she meant was that middle school is a time when students most need emotional support, and opportunities during the day to work through their social interactions, but that middle school schedules rarely provide that time, opportunity, or teacher training. Middle school is also a time when students have an enormous amount of physical energy, and outdoor recess time is reduced or ends entirely.

A teacher’s day can be physically exhausting. The school day starts early, and many teachers arrive even earlier to set up for the day. Teachers have to use the bathroom and eat when their schedule allows, not when their bodies demand. Commanding a classroom of more than 20 adolescents can be akin to performing on stage.

Under more difficult circumstances, middle school teachers may also be grappling with under-resourced classrooms or myriad challenges in students’ lives outside of school that affect their school attendance, attention, or performance, but schools often lack adequate support services to address them.

One of the concerns raised by the study is that teacher stress affects students. A physically and emotionally exhausted teacher is more likely to have a short fuse in the classroom, to feel ineffective, and to experience burnout.

As a parent, what can you do to help?

How Parents Can Help Middle School Teachers

1. Find ways to show appreciation.

The teacher may not need another mug as a holiday gift, but a quick email, handwritten note, or word of thanks goes a long way. Be specific about what that teacher did that helped your child.

2. Encourage your school to support its teachers

Many teachers spend their own salaries on basic, daily supplies for their classrooms. If you’re involved in your school’s PTO or fundraisers, find out where teachers feel the funds are needed most. Beyond fundraising, talk to your child’s teachers about what they might need as resources or support in the classroom, and advocate with school leadership when there’s an appropriate opportunity.

3. Show patience, and take a deep breath.

If you do find yourself needing to speak to a teacher about something that bothered you as a parent, pause to reflect before you speak or send an angry email. Consider the teacher’s context and pressures, and try to give her the benefit of the doubt before you leap to conclusions. Ask a question rather than making an assumption, and encourage your child to do the same.

Meredith Gavrin

Meredith Gavrin has been an educator for more than 25 years—first as a middle and high school teacher and then as the co-founder of a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. She is also the mother of three children.

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