Are Middle School and High School Students Really That Different? Observations and Advice From MS/HS Teachers

I’m excited to be making a big move this school year, from being a middle school teacher to a middle school AND high school teacher.  Yep, I’ve taken a new position as the 8th and 9th grade English teacher at a small K-12 school in my neighborhood.  And while 9th grade is not far from 8th, I know that one year makes a big difference in the life of an adolescent. I also know the context of high school will influence my students’ expectations and experience in a way that will be new for me.  In order to learn more, I called on my colleagues–new and old, virtual and face-to-face–who have experience teaching at both levels to share their observations.  The result is a fascinating collection of insights that paints a valuable portrait of two faces of adolescence and what it’s like to teach them.  I’m so pleased to be able to share these thoughts with you.

Note: Just about everyone who responded mentioned that they knew they were making huge generalizations. Rather than repeating that point in each comment I’m just putting it up front as a general (ha, ha) statement.

 

At core, middle school and high school kids are much the same.

“I think there’s less difference than you might expect–especially if you targeted your instruction in middle school toward the idea that 7th and 8th graders were young adults, capable of (even relishing) intellectual challenges. I see MS and HS as two ends of a spectrum of kids pushing at boundaries, wanting very much to be considered unique, independent human beings.”  ~ Nancy Flanagan, MI

“In my experience, middle school and high school students share a deep need to be known and loved for who they are and to be taken seriously. They both want to be and to be seen as contributing members of their communities, to have self-determination to the greatest extent possible, to know they have the support of limits, to know they are expected to be not perfect and not someone else’s vision of who they should be but rather their own best selves.”  ~ Bill Ivey, MA

“Overall I feel as though teaching at the different levels is mainly the same with the exception of more freedom in a few areas, or having the students be responsible for more things, such as due dates, etc. But kids are kids and need the same special attention at all levels.” ~ Diandra Samaroo, NY

 

There are some key differences between middle and high school students, though. 

“The biggest difference to me is energy level. Middle schoolers can’t stop moving, but I felt like I had to tap dance to wake high schoolers up. I blogged about the difference in these two groups in this VERY old blog post.” ~ Cindi Rigsbee, NC

“I miss the spontaneity and eagerness of middle-schoolers, but I like that my high schoolers generally stay in their seats. And don’t throw things as much… :)” ~ Marie McKeighan, MN

“I learned quickly that without routines and classroom management tricks galore, productive days teaching the 7th and 8th graders would be few and far between. HS is a lot easier on this end, even with at-risk students.  Building positive relationships is obviously crucial for any teacher and age group, but once you get middle schoolers on your side, many would try and run through a brick wall for you.  High school students?  Not so much, as they show appreciation in a much more subdued manner than their younger counterparts.” ~ Paul Barnwell, KY

“The main difference in teaching middle school vs. high school, overall, is how much I needed to teach each step. The further we get in HS, the more I trust most students know how to do certain procedures, steps, preparations, etc., and I can respond to the content of their work, push their thinking more. With MS, more time was spent teaching tools and processes for writing processes, research, note taking, etc.” ~ David Cohen, CA

“I just heard a beautiful quote yesterday from a new colleague: it’s better to try to increase responsibility and freedom in middle school than to decrease the same for a high schooler. I think it’s so true. High schoolers are much more willing and able to be responsible for themselves in a way I found eighth graders struggled to do.” ~ Eric Benzel, NY

“Middle school kids tend to be more anchored in or connected to their childhoods and to the sense that there’s time to sort things out before adulthood; high school kids see their childhoods (and even to a certain extent their young adolescent years) as more distant and their adulthoods as more imminent, which can at times be scary. Middle school kids are developmentally all over the place, whereas by senior year high school kids find things tend to have more or less leveled back out again. Middle school kids tend to live more in the moment and wear their hearts more on their sleeves, but high school kids have the maturity to respond more fully and deeply to people who take the time to see through to who they are.” ~ Bill Ivey, MA

“I think high schoolers are more likely to demonstrate disengagement through apathy, whereas middle schoolers demonstrate it in other, more in-your-face ways… Therefore the middle school teachers I’ve seen tended to focus more on the students in front of them, instead of just the content area. Often times high schoolers have very similar needs to middle schoolers, but they are less likely to vocalize their needs (or even act out); they’ll just sort of disappear right in front of you.” ~ Rebecca Ostro Nagata, NY

At times, I’ve also felt like it’s possible to steer MS students on the right path more easily than HS students.  This may be a bit fatalistic, but high school students who are way off course, either socio-emotionally or academically, have much less time with caring (hopefully) educators to help give them a shot at being a productive citizen post high school.  I enjoyed the hope–as hard as it is to see sometimes–of teaching younger students because I remember what a tumultuous and weird time that age is, and there’s so much change that will take place between 13-15/16 years old.” ~ Paul Barnwell

Teaching high school students comes with different challenges than middle school does, but middle school teaching experience turns out to be especially valuable in meeting the needs of high school students.

“I believe that when you are teaching middle school students you understand that they are “children” and need a lot more hand holding and teachers are more on top of them so none are “left behind.”  The mistake I think that high school teachers end up making is assuming that the students are all grown up and responsible and don’t need that attention, which is completely wrong… I love teaching high school now, mainly due to curriculum, but most–if not all–of my strategies and techniques stem from my experience teaching middle school. I honestly appreciate teaching middle school and then HS….” ~ Diandra Samaroo, NY

“When it comes to high school students, and 9th graders especially, they benefit from lots of the structure and nurture that a 7th grader needs. With struggling students, by HS they’ve sometimes given up and need to be coaxed back.” ~Nancy Gannon, NY

“My middle school colleagues had much longer fuses, more of a nurturing (or at least tolerant) mindset. The HS teachers I worked with were far less likely to tolerate mistakes, confusion, excuses (even good excuses), immature behavior–to chalk them up to working with teenagers, part of a growth process. So instruction became more didactic and less exploratory, rather than an opportunity to apply knowledge in creative ways. Unfortunately, there was much more pressure to perform and more binary judgment in a HS.” ~Nancy Flanagan, MI

“High schoolers can be harder to encourage to take risks and go along with “out of the box” teaching. So that means you need to help them feel both that the work is sophisticated and challenging, and feel safe enough to be silly and put themselves out there. You know how middle schoolers will get super into a skit, or a debate, or a kinetic activity? High schoolers can, too — but it takes more work to bring it out and reframe the experience. They’ll love it and get so much learning out of it — but they’ll need to be drawn out rather than reined in!” ~ Elizabeth White de Vidarte, NY

“I taught high school for the first time last year and I found that though the basic content of us history and certain political themes were the same the layers of the conversation were more in depth. That is not discounting the many honest and meaningful conversations that took place in the middle school classroom. I found that the middle schoolers were more willing and quicker to get to the level of academic trust required for such conversations, while once the high schoolers developed that trust (though at a much slower rate), their connections were more multifaceted. There is a weight or pressure that comes with the Regents exams (required for graduation in NY) that affects the high school mindset. It can at times inhibit their willingness to explore when they do not feel that it fits into the multiple-choice, DBQ, essay structure of the Regents. What helped me to be successful balancing both was being honest about my plan and ultimate goal and how they were connected. Most of the eleventh grade found that refreshing and were more willing to take risks and not label the activities as being ‘too middle school’.” ~ Renata Robinson-Glenn, NY

“In a well-functioning classroom, I enjoy the high school content possibilities more than MS, but that’s not to say the MS curriculum is boring or lacking intellectual challenge. I’m glad I taught six years of MS before moving up to the high school level, as it undoubtedly made me a stronger teacher.” ~ Paul Barnwell, KY

“The best high school teachers I ever saw taught middle school first…” ~ Rebecca Ostro Nagata, NY

 

Well, I’m honored to be joining such great company as a new MS-HS teacher! Thank you to everyone who shared their experiences. Please add your own below if you can!

 

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