Challenge: Loving Sixth Graders

I have always wanted to be a teacher. In first grade, I had the most fantastic teacher a child could hope for. I remember sitting on the carpet around her rocking chair and absorbing stories. I remember learning how to read and loving literacy. I remember learning about long, short, and silent vowels with “Mrs. Long,” “Mr. Short,” and “Miss Silent.” I remember the tall, thin body of Mrs. Long – that little magnetic person that would travel across the board as we analyzed words. I think Miss Silent even held a finger over her lips and had a short-brimmed hat. I loved school, and I wanted other kids to love school just as much as me. So in first grade I set my heart on becoming a teacher, and I decided I was going to teach kids how to read.

I loved every year after that and practically every teacher. And then I went to college which – surprisingly – I hated. I started to question my desire to become a teacher, but then I became a camp counselor. I loved working with the little ones and even with the high schoolers, but I was dead set against working with the 5th and 6th graders. My second year as a counselor though got me stuck for one week with them, and I was not happy about it. That is, I wasn’t happy until I actually met them. They surprised me in ways I didn’t think was possible. They had the best attitude, the best questions, the most thoughtful and empathetic responses, and the most variety. That’s when I fell in love with 6th grade. When I got my student teaching placement in sixth grade, I knew it would make it or break it for me. Would I love them in the classroom or did I just love them in the woods on hikes and in creeks and on zip lines? But I did. I loved them. And here’s why:

  1. They embrace new challenges. They like trying new things. They don’t cast off something as immediately uncool and try to avoid it like their future middle school selves. They are still willing to listen to an adult who says, “Try.”
  2. They are silly. Ridiculously silly. They are trying to form a sense of humor that is all their own, so they pick up on a million different things that are sometimes funny and sometimes not. They have to push those boundaries to figure out who they are.
  3. They are thoughtful. They can have real, deep empathy for others. They think deeply about conflicts and characters in stories. They recognize when someone’s feelings are hurt and will help them. When they see that I’m not feeling well, they will wholeheartedly try to help – even if it is shouting to everyone to be quiet because I have a headache. They really do care.
  4. They can delve deep into curriculum. As I said, I always wanted to teach kids how to read. It wasn’t until I got into teaching that I realized I really wanted to teach kids how to love¬†to read, and I realized that I could do that perhaps even better with older kids who are prone to start disliking books. Sixth graders can start doing really sophisticated writing such as essays and websites and ballads. They can start analyzing scientific concepts. They balance equations. They can dig deep.
  5. They are still kids. I love teaching sixth grade in an elementary school. It means I still get to see my students thrilled when we watch Paddington, The Bee Movie, and¬†Atlantis during lunch. I still get to see them play Cops and Robbers and Infection, start a game of kickball, and swing on the swings. They get to be “little” a little while longer.
  6. They are starting to see the bigger picture. They care about the world. They are interested in global ideas and can start to see outside of themselves. They want the best for other people and get excited about the changes they can make to make the world a better place. They are not yet jaded or pessimistic.
  7. They keep me on my toes. I love the challenge of sixth grade (most days). Sometimes, they exhaust me, but overall, I love that every day is different and new. Everyday, I get to see a person coming into their own. I get to see them change and alter into a new stage of personhood, and I get to have an effect on who that person is and will be. That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s a great privilege.

Often, the response to “I teach sixth grade,” is “Bless you!” People often roll their eyes and lean back as though they want to get as far away from my students as possible. It’s the beginning of when people start to say, “Well, you know how that age is.” It’s the time when adults are just waiting until a kid becomes more tolerable, but these kids aren’t just tolerable, they’re lovable – crazy, yes – but lovable. And I honestly don’t think I’m that unique for seeing them in all their crazy glory. I think anyone can see it; you just need the right light.

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