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How to Become a Middle School Teacher

Middle School Education: How to Become a Middle School Teacher

Middle school is a time of change for young people, and they need dedicated and enthusiastic educators to guide them. If you’re patient, empathetic, and tough-skinned, middle school education may be right for you.

Middle School Teacher Job Description

Many of us remember middle school as one of the hardest times of our childhoods. It’s a hazy period between childhood and the more adult-like teenage years, when the safety of having just one teacher and set of classmates explodes into a wider world of changing classes and having dozens of names to remember on a given day. On top of that, middle schoolers have a host of new, more significant problems. They’re dealing with higher academic pressure, drama, possible access to drugs and alcohol, and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, hormones affecting their feelings and bodies in new ways.

This is where you come in. At this age, students need teachers who won’t just provide academic instruction, but who will also understand that the challenges and problems of middle school students are just as real to them as our “adult” issues are to us. Middle school educators serve not only as teachers but also as unofficial therapists, stand-in parents when students don’t want to listen to their own, and, when necessary, disciplinarians. If you lead with empathy, though, you may not have to take on that last role as frequently.

Unlike elementary school classroom teachers, middle school teachers often focus on one or two subjects. These can include:

  • Core classes: These are the “general ed” classes that frequently appear on state tests. They can include English/language arts, social studies, math, and science.
  • Required non-core classes: Though frequently referred to as electives, these are courses that middle schoolers are required to take. Examples include foreign languages and physical/health education courses.
  • Elective classes: Elective courses, which are chosen by students, can build on common elementary subjects like art and music—the latter of which is often divided into choir, band, and orchestra. Middle school also often offers electives in new areas, such as family and consumer sciences (FACS), higher-level computer classes like coding, career and technical education (CTE) classes like woodshop, and even theatre and dance.
  • Special populations While all these teachers exist at the elementary level, they’re just as needed in middle school. Special education (SPED), gifted and talented, and English language learner (ELL/ESL) instructors help specific types of students excel academically and socially.

An especially exciting thing about teaching at this level is that there are more opportunities for after-school activities. Not only can these earn you a few extra dollars, but they also allow you to share your interests and expertise with students in ways that may not have been possible in elementary school. For example, you could run a Science Olympiad or Academic Pentathlon team, direct plays, or get students involved in MATHCOUNTS competitions.

Pros and Cons of Teaching Middle School

Being a middle school teacher isn’t right for everyone; as with all teaching careers, there are pros and cons.

Pros

  • You get to focus on a subject you love and share that love with your students.
  • Middle schoolers still have teacher-pleasing habits, but they can be given more independence and trusted to make wiser decisions than younger students. Basically, you get the best of both worlds.
  • You’ll laugh—a lot. While kids at this age are well-known for their potty humor, they also understand sarcasm and higher-level humor better than elementary schoolers do.
  • You get to help your students figure out the answers—or lack thereof—to big questions. They understand things that are going on in the news, humanitarian topics such as inequality, and existential ideas more than younger students, and they frequently want to talk about these issues.
  • Every day is different. Where elementary school teachers see the same students all day, middle school teachers encounter different students—and their triumphs and tribulations—every hour or so.
  • Teaching just one subject can mean less lesson planning, as you can often use the same plan for each class period.

Cons

  • Middle schoolers tell it like it is—and even though you’re the adult, it can be hard to not take some of the things they say personally, whether about you or the subject you teach.
  • Discipline can be tricky. These students are learning boundaries of appropriate behaviors (and clothing), so you must be able to balance strict school rules with your knowledge of the individual student—and occasionally answer for your choices to parents or administrators.
  • The emotional highs and lows can sometimes be exhausting. Even if you try to not get involved in your students’ personal lives, sometimes students will want to talk to you. And you’ll definitely overhear things that may need to be reported to parents, counselors, or administrators.
  • You’ll have a lot of students. As of 2018, the average traditional (that is, not special education or otherwise self-contained) middle school class size was 24.9 students. If you teach five classes per day, that’s approximately 125 names to remember, individual needs to consider, and assignments to grade on a given day.

What is the Difference Between Middle School and Junior High?

You may hear middle school and junior high used interchangeably, but they’re two different entities. The primary difference is that middle school typically consists of grades six through eight, while junior high usually encompasses grades seven through nine. Middle schools might operate on block schedules, with longer classes that don’t meet daily, while junior highs are more likely to have students attend the same classes each day. However, this isn’t universal. The goal of both types is to prepare students academically and socially for high school.

Middle School Teacher Salary and Job Growth

Teachers of different grade levels generally earn different salaries. Typically, elementary teachers make the least, while high school teachers make the most—however, this varies by state. Below, you can learn about how much middle school teachers make on average, the highest paying states, and anticipated job growth.

How Much Do Middle School Teachers Make?

As of May 2019, the average yearly salary for middle school teachers, excepting SPED and CTE instructors, was $59,660. Bear in mind, however, that any average salaries include teachers with different degree levels, years of teaching under their belts, and locations—those in states with higher costs of living often earn more money than those in less expensive states. If you can move, consider researching where teachers make the most money with the cost of living factored in.

2019 Highest Paying States
New York $87,050
Alaska $80,730
Massachusetts $80,520
California $80,160
Connecticut $79,510

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

Middle School Education Job Growth

Nationwide, middle school teaching jobs are growing at a rate on par with the average of all other jobs: 4% between 2018 and 2028. This growth doesn’t account for teacher retirement or attrition, so the actual number of jobs available isn’t fully reflected in that statistic. Job change also varies widely by state, with Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine expecting the number of middle school teaching jobs to decline between 2016 and 2026. Below are the locations anticipating the highest growth.

2018 States with Highest Job Growth
Utah 26%
Texas 21%
Colorado 20%
Washington 18%
District of Columbia 17%

Source: CareerOneStop (2020)

How to Become a Middle School Teacher

When deciding to teach middle school, the first thing you should do is determine what subject you want to teach and research the relevant licensing requirements. Be aware of your state’s licensure laws—some certify teachers for grades K–6, others for grades 6–12, and yet others for a combination of the two based on specific endorsements.

While Education Corner reports that teachers licensed in more than one subject may have more opportunities for employment than those licensed in only one, having more than one subject license comes with a potential challenge to consider. As teachers are typically employed at the district level, the district could move you to any grade level or subject you’re certified in based on their needs—with little to no input from you. If you know you’d be comfortable teaching middle and high school but not elementary, see if you can get endorsed only in subjects at the secondary level. Additionally, only get endorsed in specific topics you’d want to teach—if you’re licensed in English and speech, for instance, you could be expected to teach both.

Once you have determined what licensure best fits your goals, it’s time to look for a program that will help you meet them. There are three primary ways to earn a middle school teaching license: the traditional pathway, the alternative certification option, and the career and technical education certification route.

Traditional Path to Becoming a Middle School Teacher

If you don’t have a four-year college degree, this is the most straightforward path to becoming a middle school teacher. In this path, you attend a four-year institution and earn a bachelor’s degree in education. Some schools have general degrees in education, while others allow you to focus on specific grade levels or subjects. Research your state’s licensure requirements and multiple schools to ensure you can meet your career goals.

Alternative Middle School Teaching Licensure

If you already have a bachelor’s degree or higher and want to become a teacher, the alternative licensure option is generally the cheapest and quickest way to do so. Though you could return to school for an additional bachelor’s or a master’s in the field, alternative licensure allows you to finish your coursework in a matter of months at a low cost.

Career and Technical Education Certification

If you have expertise and experience in a particular area, you may be able to become certified as a career and technical teacher in that area. Many states require only a high school diploma or GED, plus a minimum number of years spent in the career field to be taught. Career and technical education (CTE), previously called vocational or trade education, teaches students skills relevant to specific jobs. While subjects like auto and woodshop are still on the list, the field has expanded to include things like business and engineering.

Beyond a Bachelor’s in Middle School Teaching

While a bachelor’s or other certification is a great way to begin a career, getting higher degrees could raise your pay, expand your level of expertise in your subject area(s), and open the door to career advancement. Though you could attend additional professional development courses, workshops, and conventions to achieve some of these goals, it may take longer to see a bump in pay this way.

Earn a Master’s Degree

You can earn a general education master’s degree, which will help you with pedagogy and other across-the-board topics, or a degree in a specific area of education. Master’s degree programs take an average of two years of full-time education to complete and are more frequently available online than bachelor’s programs. However, if you’re hoping for something with a lot of hands-on work, like a master’s in music education, you may have a harder time finding a mostly online program.

Earn a Doctoral Degree

Doctoral programs are best suited for those who want to teach at the college level—though some two-year institutions only require a master’s—or who want to work in high-level administration or policy. The pay difference between this and a master’s degree at the K–12 level is usually minimal, so weigh the cost versus benefit when considering this.

Become an Educational Specialist

Educational specialist degrees fall between a master’s and a doctorate. They allow you to focus on one specific area, such as special education, leadership, or a particular subject. Degree programs take less time to complete than most other degrees and are frequently less expensive.

Resources for Middle School Teachers

  • MiddleWeb: This website focuses entirely on teaching grades four through eight. Updated almost daily, the site has pieces for teachers of all subjects, information about trends in middle school education, and reviews of books about teaching middle schoolers.
  • Musings from the Middle School: This blog, written by a middle school teacher, focuses on teaching English language arts and math. She also writes about other topics, like technology, that can be used across disciplines.
  • Scholastic: Scholastic provides a wealth of lesson plans and ideas for teachers of all grades, including a section exclusively for 6th through 8th grade teachers. You can find lessons on a variety of subjects, saving you planning time.
  • Teaching Tolerance: Socioemotional learning is a major part of middle school. They’re starting to ask the big questions and beginning to understand inequities and differences between groups. This website has classroom resources, professional development opportunities, and a variety of publications you can subscribe to. These are created to help you tackle tough conversations about these issues and encourage students to become empathetic and accepting of those different from them.
  • We Are Teachers: This site, written by teachers for teachers, includes advice across a variety of topics and grade levels. An excellent place to start is their article 7 Creative Ways to Reach Middle School Students.