Changing positions

Next year there will be an opening in the middle school science department. Although I love teaching high school chemistry (my current assignment), I’m tempted by the opportunity to try something different. What should I consider to help me decide?
Mark, Phoenix, AZ

Sometimes our teaching assignments are changed for us, but taking on new subjects or grade levels can be rejuvenating professionally. Your high school colleagues many think you’re crazy for considering middle school, but I think a little insanity is just what middle-schoolers need in a teacher–someone who can do things a little differently, has a sense of humor, is flexible, and understands there are many ways of learning and doing things.
You’ll notice some differences in the students. Even though they try so hard to act like adults, most middle schoolers are still basically kids, with high levels of energy and enthusiasm. Middle schoolers love to participate in activities, and they readily engage in discussions—they love to talk. They are also physically active and prone to fidget. The challenge is to focus their energy and enthusiasm with routines and procedures, and since most of them like science this isn’t hard to do. They are emotionally needy. You’ll need a lot of patience and a thick skin–they’ll hate you one day and love you the next.
With middle schoolers, you may have to stop and teach skills you took for granted in high school, such as organizing, notetaking, graphing, and technical writing. If you’re used to teaching an “academic” level high school course, you may have to broaden your repertoire to include instructional strategies for a wider variety of student learning styles and backgrounds.
There are also some practical considerations as you make your decision. Be sure you have the appropriate credentials for the science taught at the middle school. Many states require a separate middle school certificate or endorsement.
Look over the content of the middle school science curriculum. A physical science course will include topics in physics as well as chemistry. Some middle schools have switched to integrated or general science that may also include topics in biology, ecology, earth science, and health.
Ideally, you should visit the middle school to check out the resources, including the laboratories, the technology, and the library. Being a new person on the faculty, ask if you would be expected to float or teach in a non-laboratory classroom. These situations raise a number of red flags in terms of logistics and safety for hands-on activities and for classroom management. Many middle schools use a “team” approach in which subject area teachers collaborate in team meetings and on interdisciplinary projects.
I had the opposite situation from yours, switching to a high school position after many years at a middle school. I think my middle school experience gave me an off-beat sense of humor and helped me deal with the high schoolers who needed different instructional approaches. Engaging high schoolers in spirited discussions and in high-level laboratory investigations was intellectually exhilarating, although I admit I still have a soft spot for middle schoolers. But I don’t regret taking on a rewarding challenge that enabled me to grow professionally.
And if you decide to make the switch, you’ll have the chance to clean out your file drawers!

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