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High school teacher handles a class of sixth-graders, finds out they’re not so bad

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There’s one thing about education that seems odd to me. Why don’t teachers get together more across grade levels? Even in college preparatory programs, each chunk of educational programs diverge from the others. Elementary majors head one way, middle school to another and secondary to yet another. Perhaps education majors meet occasionally in a seminar, but for the most part, once future teachers declare a grade level they want to teach, they disembark the ship of inclusion and step foot on one of three islands of isolation.

So strange is the island-like structure of the education profession that on the rare occasion we all do get together in one place, we quickly acknowledge the vast differences in our respective choices. “There is no way I could endure eight hours of little kids grabbing my pant legs and repeating my name over and over again.” “You teach middle school? You are weird. I’m just joking. You, my friend, are a saint.” “I could never teach high school. Those kids are way too big.” On and on it goes, and we laugh and share stories.

Our specialties are affirmed. Our specialties. Even the word itself promotes a sort of isolation that perhaps needs a bit of nudging back into the bottle of good intentions. Now, I am certainly no expert in the matters of logic. I still put my creamer in my mug before the coffee. But I am a story-teller, and whenever I experience a something that points me in the direction of a lesson to learn, I want to share.

The week before Thanksgiving break, I was asked to teach two sixth-grade English classes. Instantly, my gut shook in fear. They’re little and smelly and odd and scary. Here on my island, I am secure. I know how to deal with big kids with big issues, but asking me to step foot into uncharted territory was asking a lot. So, I agreed. I’m always up for a challenge.

Admittedly, though, as the day drew nearer, I got cold feet and tried to cancel. But a little voice inside – that voice of reason that only appears every so often in this creamer-before-the-coffee kind of brain – overpowered my fear, and I showed up to Richards Middle School ready to teach.

Turns out, sixth graders are fun.

It’s like the connection between their body and their brains is constantly buffering. Whenever I asked a question, almost every hand in the room went up, even if they didn’t know the answer. Sometimes even before I finished the question. And they’re so cute when you call on them, and they don’t know the answer. They hem-haw around, taking dramatic pauses in clear ignorance of the answer, but unwilling to admit that impulsive hand-raise. And their delight in offering their opinion of your shirt, smack dab in the middle of the lesson can throw off your flow, but you can’t help appreciate that particular kind of interruption. And their enthusiastic, inquisitive minds, especially regarding a camera and a tripod, would make any teacher bubble on the inside.

I have no idea if the kids learned anything, but maybe I wasn’t there just for those sixth-graders. Maybe I was there to learn that middle school kids aren’t scary at all, and there are great lessons to be learned when I get off my island. Seeing sixth grade enthusiasm and bravery was refreshing to this teacher who doesn’t get to see those traits very often on my island. (Makes me wonder, though: when do kids lose that enthusiasm and bravery?)

Anyway, knowledge is power, and that time in a sixth-grade English class will certainly make me a better educator moving forward. Perhaps all of us, teachers and non-teachers alike, can figure a way to get off our islands and spend a little more time together.

Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at