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The Biggest Differences Between Teaching Elementary & Middle School

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If we think about our elementary and middle school experiences as students, we know there are huge differences. But what are the biggest differences for teachers?

Elementary or Middle School? That is the Question

I remember back in my college days trying to make the choice of what age group and subjects I wanted to focus on, and in the end, I chose blindly, basing the decision on my own experiences in school rather any concrete knowledge of what it would be like. While there are aspects of both that are as different as night and day, they both strive to educate our youth to the best of their ability.

Day-to-Day Life in Elementary vs. Middle School

So your day-to-day life will be quite a bit different depending on whether you teach middle or elementary school. While they share some characteristics, because middle school after all is intended to be a bridge between elementary and high school, there are some significant differences that impact the day-to-day life of the teachers there.

Life as an Elementary Teacher

Elementary teachers can teach a wide age range of students. Some may teach early childhood and face kindergartners everyday, while others might teach preteens in the fifth grade. The wide age range gives elementary teachers some flexibility in the degree of independence their students are capable of functioning within. Younger children will require more structure and teacher attention, while students in the fifth grade will be capable of working on independent tasks for longer periods of time.

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Another difference is that in general, elementary school classes are self-contained. That means that those teachers are responsible for teaching all the core subjects within their classroom and have to structure several hours at a time with the same group of students. There are variations on this that are similar to the departmentalization of middle school. In some elementary schools, teachers who teach grades 2-5 may work in teams where each teacher is responsible for two subjects each day.

Teaching in Middle School

For a middle school teacher, day-to-day life is highly departmentalized. Typically, each teacher is responsible for one subject at one or two grade levels. While this structure decreases the volume of planning they have to do for their classes, it will increase the amount of grading they do. A typical elementary teacher may have a caseload of 30-60 students while a middle school teacher can easily teach over a hundred students a day.

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Middle school is a bridge between high school and elementary school. To help students be successful crossing that bridge, middle schools still follow the team approach. In elementary school, one or two core teachers typically oversee a child's education. Middle schools often choose to mimic this by assigning groups of students to a team so that they have the same four core teachers. This approach enables teachers to work together as a team to manage student workloads, plan testing schedules, and even organize cross-curricular projects.

Developmental Differences

There is a reality that all middle school teachers have to contend with whether they teach sixth, seventh, or eighth grade: puberty. The hormones start pumping and bodies start changing, sometimes rapidly over the course of the year. This leads to a number of development differences between middle school and elementary school students. According to the CDC, for example, puberty can cause teenagers to be moodier. For a teacher, that means on any given day you don't know if your request to put the cell phone away will be greeted with a 'Yes ma'am' or an eye roll and a refusal to obey. Peer groups are particularly important during puberty as well because those groups can strongly influence behavior in both positive and negative ways.

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Elementary school children, on the other hand, may not even yet be aware of hormones in their system. A middle school girl may become obsessed with certain aspects of her body, such as clothing and hair, while an elementary school girl may tend to be more free-spirited. Over the years they will also grow from being more teacher dependent to more independent. For example, a child in kindergarten may prefer a teacher-led activity, while by the fourth or fifth grade, the same child may enjoy developing their independence with a creative personal project.

Approaches to Differentiation

Finally, the educational approach to differentiation that runs through middle school and elementary schools is very different. Middle schools tend to emphasize relative ability far more than elementary schools. While teachers still differentiate within their classroom in both types of schools, middles schools take differentiation to the level of segregation of sorts. Part of it is just the nature of middle school, but students get segregated by their relative ability. For example, students get split into three levels of math with students being grouped as on-level, advanced, or even into courses like algebra or geometry that most of us didn't take until high school. Outside of math, other courses may just split students into two levels. The result is that students and even parents can be highly competitive striving to reach the upper tier courses.

Elementary schools, on the other hand, emphasize task mastery. Even though in reality the students within the class operate on different levels, the teacher can just differentiate within the classroom without emphasizing the differences in ability as much as middle school course design tends to do. Take reading groups for example. In an elementary class, a teacher often organizes students into reading groups within her class. She can vary the text based on the ability and interest of each group without drawing attention to the differences in relative ability the way class labels do on a middle school schedule.

Variations on a Theme

A day in the life of a middle school teacher and an elementary school teacher shares striking similarities and distinct differences. However, in many ways they are just two variations on the same theme. For example, both emphasize that someone needs to be in charge to help control student workloads. Elementary schools hand this over to the teacher in the self-contained classroom while middle schools often create teacher teams to achieve the same goal.

There are tradeoffs, with elementary school teachers taking on lower caseloads and more planning; the opposite is generally true in middle schools. However, the approaches to differentiation are unique. A middle school sorts students by relative ability which creates an atmosphere of competition. Elementary schools, on the other hand, emphasize task mastery, maintaining a single classroom with multiple abilities. In spite of the differences, they both share the same goal: to educate students.

By Rachel Tustin
January 2018
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