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What I Miss About My Middle Schoolers
Self-education

What I Miss About My Middle Schoolers 

Teaching via Zoom at my kitchen counter, laptop perched on coffee table books, is not the top way I would choose to interact with my eighth-grade U.S. history students.

However, by the time we reach the end of each period – usually a combination of full-class current events discussion and group or individual project work – I find myself reluctant to say goodbye.

Because I miss them. I really miss them. I miss them like I wouldn’t have predicted a month ago.

I’ve adored teaching middle schoolers for the past 21 years. But, to be honest, this school year – before we started teaching from home – my faculty administrative work was ramping up enough that class occasionally seemed like an interruption to getting things done.

I hate even writing that down, because I’ve loved teaching for forever. It shapes who I am. In fact, one of my worries about retirement, two-plus decades away, is that I’ll have to step down for health reasons before I’m ready to stop teaching kids.

But at times this year, there just hadn’t seemed to be enough hours in the day. While I invariably loved being in the classroom once I walked through the door, sometimes I had to psych myself up, drag myself away from necessary adult conversations, to jump into the breach with loud and dynamic middle schoolers, who were justifiably asking for every ounce of my attention.

Longing for Loud

Yet now, when my interaction with students fits on a two-dimensional screen, when their mics are on mute much of the time, I’m wishing for that loud classroom.

I’m longing to scan students’ body language. To see the girl who puts her head on her desk because she’s tired, or worn out, or something else I’ll want to ask about. To redirect the boys elbowing each other at the back of the room, fresh off drama class, who are sorry it isn’t lunch yet. To note who’s with me and who’s not. To tease kids gently. To laugh together.

I also miss what I never realized is the relentless physicality of school. Crossing paths with colleagues and students on the lunch patio, brushing shoulders in the halls, putting papers on desks. Taking a half-step back from a 13-year-old who hasn’t yet figured out the boundaries of personal space. Jabbing the A/C button after everyone has just spilled in from P.E. Leaning against my desk at the end of the day and watching students stream out, swig from a water bottle, find their people.

This Helps, a Little

Without seeing students physically every day, I look for more reasons to connect.

Sometimes I think of students I can email individually, to mention that I read a book they recommended or to commend them for leading discussion well.

While they’re doing independent work during part of a period, I keep my video chat open, hoping that someone will drop in with a question so I can spot their cat in their background, or ask how they’ve been spending their time since they can’t swim with their team.

When the eighth graders enter and leave our video session, I ask everyone to unmute so we can all say hi and bye and thank you, to marinate in a bit of our usual cacophony of settling in and departing.

We as teachers didn’t choose middle school because we want a class of easily muted kids. Part of the reason I love this age group is that it’s a messy, evolving, nonlinear process to grow from here to there – from sixth to eighth grades, from 5’1” to 5’8”, from child to young adult.

Standing in the center of my kitchen, cardigan and blouse over pajama pants and house slippers, the dishwasher burbling under my laptop, I inhabit my own kind of messy. But it’s just not the same.

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