Every time I tell someone I’m a middle school teacher, I usually get the same exact response…It’s either “Oh my goodness! God bless you!” or “You’re crazy!” or “I could NEVER do that!” I’m pretty accustomed to all the little phrases or facial expressions I’m going to receive when I tell them what I do. And to be completely honest, before I gave middle school a try, I would’ve had the same response! I mean, name one person who says middle school was the best time of their life…my point exactly.
Middle school is so awkward. Like SO AWKWARD. It’s when your makeup foundation is 3.5 shades too dark, you don’t know what a hair straightener is, your eyebrows are in major need of a wax, your teeth have way too many gaps to count, Proactiv makes you break out even worse, and your eyeliner is thicker than your textbooks…Okay, maybe that was just me….*shrugs*…If my kids want to know what real cringe is…it’s my middle school yearbook pictures. #thecringeisreal
I say all that to say, middle school is tough. It just is. There’s no getting around it. My students are trying to figure out who they are as a person, while they’re being bombarded by other voices who are telling them who they “should” be. It’s tough. And I understand.
When I became a middle school teacher, I never wanted to neglect the struggle. Even though these kids are young, their experiences are mature. These kids are enduring hardships and unbelievable situations. You can never be sure you know what they are truly facing. I know, because I experienced a life-changing tragedy myself. Here’s my story…
When I was in 8th grade, my family and I moved from Ohio to Florida. My dad was a pastor, and he was joining the staff of a church in Sarasota. I was born and raised in Ohio, so the mere fact of me leaving my friends was devastating. I told my parents I was going to stay and live with my best friend. I know…dramatic…and that didn’t work out so well for me. We ended up moving to Florida. So there we were…my dad, mom, two brothers, and me. We didn’t have any family in Florida, and we really only knew some people from the church. We were acclimating to the new area pretty well. I was open to change, and I was actually liking it. Then about three months after we moved, I woke up to my worst nightmare. My dad had unexpectedly passed away in his sleep. Even 11 years later, that sentence still holds shock. My dad wasn’t sick. He didn’t have a heart attack. It wasn’t a stroke. He was the healthiest person I knew. Even after an autopsy, the doctors couldn’t find a cause of death. They wrote “heart arrhythmia” which means the heart stopped. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the trying journey that was ahead of me. A journey that honestly never ends. My life drastically changed from having two loving and healthy parents to awkwardly telling someone I didn’t have a dad when any conversation about fathers occurred. And you know what? I was still in middle school…
I remember my teachers being compassionate and sympathetic, but I don’t remember feeling like I could find comfort in them. Looking back, I NEEDED that. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions I was experiencing, and it took me a long time (a lot longer than it should have) to express them. So, I strive to be that safe place for my students.
During the first week of school, I shared my story with my kids. I then gave all of them a notecard and had them write “I wish my teacher knew” and told them to finish the sentence. They dropped it in the “Exit Slips” boxes I have in my room, and I spent some time reading through them.
Being a middle school teacher, most of them were “I wish my teacher knew I play soccer” or “I wish my teacher knew I dance” or “I wish my teacher knew my favorite color is pink.” But I did have some that shared their struggle with not having a father or mother, or the hurt from a divorce, or the emptiness from the absence of a parent. The crazy thing is I barely knew them at this point, and they were still willing to share their struggles with me! There have been countless times when I’ve been able to use my story of pain to provide hope to my students. As much as my story hurts, it’s healing to give it purpose. One of my greatest pieces of advice would be to be real, be genuine, be open, and be completely you. Our kids are yearning for someone who cares. They are desperate for it, and they need it. As teachers, I believe we are called to be that for them. And as long as I’m a teacher, I WILL be that for them because I so desperately needed that when I was their age.
“Since we are surrounded by so many examples of faith, we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up. We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy AHEAD of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him.”
We won’t always see joy IN the situation, but we can always find joy AHEAD.