Where Should I Teach? Comparing Elementary, Middle and High Schools
“Why should I be a teacher?”
A lot of young people and older, second-career adults ask that question when the time comes to make life and career decisions. For those who who wisely choose to teach, the answer usually comes down to being able to influence the life of a child, contribute to the common good and live a life of purpose.
Yet there’s much more to it than simply choosing to be a teacher. You have to choose what kind of teacher you’ll become, deciding among subject areas, grade levels and school environments. The most basic choice is the grade level — elementary, middle or high school. Let’s take a look at each of these grade levels:
What it’s like to teach at an elementary school
Traditional elementary schools go from kindergarten to fifth grade, when children transform from “nonacademic” and highly needy (both emotionally and academically) into readers and writers with burgeoning independence skills.
Elementary school is where an “academic roadmap” becomes clear for most students. For organizational structure, most schools districts traditionally group children of these grade levels together in a single building for all the grades.
What an effective elementary classroom looks like
I’ve visited hundreds of elementary classrooms and watched over a thousand hours of instruction, and I’ve found a couple of key traits in the very best classrooms. The first is that the classroom has an air of appropriate “busy-ness.” Please note that I didn’t say “busywork,” I just mean that the children are doing the majority of the work in the classroom. Rather than the teacher being the hardest-working person in the classroom, the children are carrying the majority of the intellectual load. This idea applies to all elementary grade levels and ages. The best teachers are focused on helping the children do the lion’s share of the work.
The second trait is that excellent elementary teachers have their fingers on the pulse of the classroom. The teacher seems to know just the right amount about the students, their needs and abilities, and how to optimize this information to create an optimal learning setting for the children.
Developmental needs of elementary students
Elementary school launches what will hopefully be a decades-long academic marathon for your students. As a result, it is essential that elementary teachers create healthy academic behaviors in children as early as possible. Be prepared to spend your time reinforcing these behaviors on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. They should be repeated in your classroom to the point in which they become a mantra to your students. Consistent exposure will help your children internalize these habits.
Another important concept to keep in mind is “the gradual release of responsibility.” The idea here is that regardless of age, there will be certain academic tasks that your children should be able to do without your help by the end of the school year. For a first-grader, this might entail picking an ability-appropriate book from the library; for a fifth-grader, it may include being able to conduct basic research from a variety of sources. Regardless of the age, fostering independence is essential in the effective elementary classroom.
Getting to know the elementary age group
Summer camps and volunteer tutoring are two ways that an aspiring teacher can explore working with this age group. Being an effective teacher, at any level, first and foremost means you have to enjoy working with children who will need consistent reinforcement, patience and a guiding hand as they grow older.
Spending time with children in a softer, lower-impact environment will enable you to see if this is a career that is worth pursuing. If you feel that your time is well-spent and enjoyable — and it makes you feel like a better person — then pursuing it as a career should definitely be your first priority.
What it’s like to teach middle school
Middle school is the middle child of our educational system.
Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders don’t quite fit into the world of elementary school students with their bulletin boards, class parties and “little kid” stuff; nor do they fit into the loud, crowded and bustling halls of the high school. The middle years are emotionally complex and academically challenging for children beginning to make the leap to adulthood. Many teachers shy away from these grade levels, but as a former middle school language arts teacher, I can vouch for the joy, depth and sheer energy of students in the middle school years.
Be warned, however, if you want to effectively teach at this level: The challenges go far beyond understanding the content and teaching classes on a daily basis. Middle school students are funny, fiercely loyal, insightful and wonderful to be around (usually), but they’ll give you plenty to think about. Keep these things in mind as you consider whether you’d prefer to teach middle school students:
You must be able to motivate
Elementary students usually work hard in school because they want the approval of the adults in their lives. High school students often work hard in school because they realize their grades from ninth through 12th grade play a role in their academic transcripts and eventual college options.
Middle school students, meanwhile, lack both of these motivators. Teachers at this level don’t have that “big thing” outside pushing in on their classroom, so they need to rely on the interest of their subject, their personal enthusiasm and their ability to craft high-quality, captivating lessons to win the engagement of their students. And, please, please, please never refer to middle school as “not counting” toward their education. I heard a high school principal say this one time to a group of middle-schoolers and almost fell out of my seat.
Be prepared to discuss feelings
As middle-schoolers make the jump into the teenage years, many will begin to experience waves of physical and emotional changes that, from time to time, simply overwhelm them. Your classroom work will have to include managing these emotions as they pop up, and also being proactive in helping children navigate them as they arise.
A key thing to remember about the developing adolescent brain is that emotions are more powerful than ever and the child lacks the ability to know that the feeling — whether it’s positive or negative — will eventually fade. Patience is the watchword of working at these grade levels.
There is no faking it
Middle school students are incredibly insightful and occasionally incisive in their observations. As they approach adolescence, middle school children can be cynical and unforgiving of hypocrisy in adults.
Be prepared for your students to expect you to be honest, forthright and open in your work with them. Nothing is more demotivating to middle-schoolers than having a teacher who fails to honor their feelings or recognize their hard work, or treats them as if they’re younger than they really are. Suffice to say that worksheets and lectures won’t cut it with the middle years.
Don’t believe everything you’ve heard
It’s not uncommon for non-middle school teachers to roll their eyes when middle-school-age students come up. The common misconception is that middle-schoolers are far too difficult and challenging for many teachers and that they are to be avoided.
Nothing can be further from the truth. In my experience, middle school students hunger for teachers who respect them and their entry into the teenage years, honor them with quality lessons, and show the necessary patience as they navigate the sometimes rocky waters of the middle school years.
What it’s like to teach high school
As a former middle school and high school teacher, I can see the appeal of both of these levels. It’s a gift to witness a middle school child’s transition to young adulthood, but there’s also a lot to be said for guiding students through the years that come next. These are some of the distinct benefits of teaching high school:
Compared with high school, elementary and middle schools provide less of an opportunity to become highly specialized in your favorite subject areas. By the time children enter high school, they should have the learning skills required to focus on subject matter with greater depth, so they need teachers with more thorough knowledge of specific disciplines like math, science and language arts.
If you’re highly interested in a specialized subject such as chemistry or English literature, then high school offers a chance to hone your skills in those academic areas. High school also offers a chance to teach rigorous advance placement courses, where the ability to specialize with depth and breadth truly becomes apparent.
The permanency of a grade on a transcript lends a heightened sense of urgency to high school classes. This importance is a strong student motivator, and some teachers like to have their students driven by factors outside the classroom that give them personal reasons to focus on the subject matter.
Another benefit of the higher stakes of high school is that students who otherwise may not have taken their subjects seriously will now assign more importance and apply more effort to the classwork. Keep in mind, though, that the higher stakes can make some students less interested in doing well. This factor is all about finding the right balance.
By the time children enter high school, they should have a fair amount of academic independence skills. Understanding this enables the teacher to set high expectations on student engagement, depth of work and overall effort.
Many students outgrow the more rigid structure of the elementary and middle school years, and look forward to the independence and more rigorous challenges of high school. This allows teachers to raise their expectations for the entire class. In other words, the students relish being treated as adults.
Independence and interdependence
High school, due to its proximity to college and adulthood, is a perfect place to develop the work habits and social skills necessary to work in our more technology-centered and team-based world. This offers a great opportunity for teachers to focus on the “how” and “why” of a course as well as the “what.”
Rather than simply dole out information about a specific subject, the motivated teacher can use the classroom as a place to demonstrate how to function in both college and the working world.
The most important takeaway is that high school teachers have to maintain a delicate balance between recognizing the needs of students today and addressing the demands of the future. The best teachers focus on important content and subject matter, but they also remember that students have to be prepared for life after high school. These factors all come together to create a school setting where the highly specialized and motivated teacher can stay intellectually engaged and enjoy a fulfilling career.