Last fall, when TLN member and experienced special educator Elizabeth Stein decided to make the move from elementary to middle grades teaching, we thought it would be interesting to give her two popular books for new middle school teachers and see how helpful – and necessary – they might be, despite her nine years in the classroom. Here’s her report.
by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT
Smithtown Central Schools (NY)
Teacher Leaders Network
During my interview last spring as I pursued a transfer from elementary to middle school, one of the standard questions came early on: Why do you want to be a teacher in the middle?
I knew this question would come. Yet when the time finally arrived, I was struck with a sense of urgency to make my case. After eight years as a special education teacher at the elementary level, I knew it was time to move to the middle grades. My response included statements to support my hope to go from teaching students to learn how to read to teaching them how to read to learn. I tried to convey the excitement of teaching within the parameters and true meaning of educating the whole child. This is a developmental age where kids can laugh one minute and cry the next. Where a teacher must take into account the serious balance of social/emotional and academic needs throughout each day, within each lesson…and be ready for anything at any moment.
Before I transferred, I was in complete harmony with my elementary teaching assignment. Planning lessons and making any necessary changes on the spot was second nature. Developing a rapport with the kids was extremely simple. Working with colleagues to meet the needs of the students was clear-cut. Now that I’ve transferred, I know I have shaken up my world.
I think it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. At least that’s been one of my mantras for the first half of this school year. I knew there was going to be a transition phase, but did not realize the intensity of what I would experience by “moving up a level.” And now here I am—on another planet.
New teachers typically get a mentor their first year. This is my ninth year teaching—who needs a mentor, right? Wrong. I do. That’s where Rick Wormeli comes in.
I’ve been clutching onto his books, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers and Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher for the past few months. Reading through his accumulated wisdom (which he draws from other teachers as well as himself) has confirmed what I’ve suspected all along. Kids are kids, and the underlying premise of educating them well remains the same regardless of the grade level.
Kids need teachers to connect with their needs, care for them, and make learning meaningful. Kids want you to be fair, and they like to be active learners. They like to have their opinions valued, and they like to make decisions. They must have structure and limits set so they can exercise their need to explore a sense of self and learn within a safe learning environment. Knowledge and skills are important, but ultimately, Wormeli says, “What we teach is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we teach. What matters is what students take with them when they leave us at the end of the year; this is our greatest testimony as educators.” This is one of the many Wormeli quotes I have taped on the inside of my plan book and my brain.
Both of these books are treasures for any new middle school teacher, be they novice or level-jumping veteran. Veteran teachers who are new to the middle school world (like me) can easily build upon their teaching behaviors and past habits. The new teacher will find these books invaluable as she or he begins to formulate ideas and evolve toward the polished practices and effective actions of experienced professionals.