Making It in the Middle (School)

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October 17, 2023

This is the second in a series of guest blogs by the 2023-24 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Brandi Clark is a mathematics teacher at Kalkaska Middle School in Kalkaska Public Schools.
When people think back on their time in college and high school, they tend to think about all the fun things they did with their friends, such as dances, football games, extracurriculars and Homecoming parades. When people think back to elementary school, they think about field trips and holiday parties.
Not many people like to think back on their time in middle school. It’s awkward and sometimes resembles a soap opera. When I first started teaching, I was 100% closed off to the idea of ever teaching middle school.
I spent the first seven years of my teaching career in a high school classroom, and I loved every second of it. Then I had the opportunity to work at Kalkaska and teach both high school and middle school.
For two years, I taught sixth-grade math in the morning and algebra at the high school in the afternoon. It was during this time that I realized middle school is where I belong.
The reason middle school was so scary to me in the beginning of my career was because I just didn’t have the tools and wasn’t focused on the right things. My first two years, I worked in a private school, so my students were very studious, and my focus was solely on teaching math. It wasn’t until my third year of teaching when I changed jobs and started working at an alternative school that I realized there was a lot more to teaching. It took a very blunt conversation with my principal for me to realize that relationships are everything.
For the first two years of my career, I worked at a boarding school. I built relationships because I lived in the dorms with the kids nine months out of the year. I didn’t realize how much that helped me with classroom management until I didn’t have that piece. Now that I’ve shifted my goal to make sure I have those relationships, classroom management and engaging students has gotten so much easier.
Changing my focus has also allowed me to reflect on my days in middle school in a new light. One of the reasons my middle school experience wasn’t “that bad” is because I had such amazing teachers that took a legitimate interest in me.
When I look at my own team, I see teachers who couldn’t have more different personalities and views about how to teach. The reason we make such a good team is because those differences help us reach different kids. Students that I may struggle with in my class flourish with the science or art teacher. Because of that, we work very hard to ensure we’re all on the same page, and it’s not uncommon to see me helping someone with a book report, or the English teacher teaching someone how to add fractions.
Now that I am much further in my career, I realize most kids don’t want to fail. Most kids that are unsuccessful just don’t have the resources they need.
We as humans all need positive relationships and support to thrive. Giving that to our students is the most important thing we as teachers can do, especially at the middle school level. Like the saying from “Field of Dreams,” if you build it (relationships), they will come (to school, ready to learn), and teaching middle school won’t be as intimidating.