When I tell people that I teach literature to junior high students, the response is nearly universal: an expression of profound sympathy. Teaching junior high is regarded as a martyr's job, to be taken on only by those with such a selfless commitment to children and education that they are willing to endure the daily torture of a classroom full of obnoxious, disrespectful, hormone-driven, teenagers who have nothing but contempt for learning.

One can see the basis for this view by looking at the state of most junior high schools today. A recent New York Times article about the problem of "chaotic middle schools"describes a scene from a typical New York City classroom:

...paper balls fly and pens are flicked from desk to desk. A girl is caught with a note and quickly tears it up, blushing, as her classmates chant, "Read it!"The teacher, Laura Lowrie, tries to demonstrate simple machines by pulling from a box a hammer, a pencil sharpener and then, to her instant remorse, a nutcracker—the sight of which sends a cluster of boys into a fit of giggles and anatomical jokes.

Is this sort of behavior an inevitable stage of development, the curse of the teenage years? Does puberty cause children to abandon the pursuit of knowledge in favor of spitballs, love notes, and dirty jokes? Must all junior high teachers be candidates for sainthood?

Not in my experience. Here is a scene from the last week in a junior high classroom at VanDamme Academy. . . .

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