The under-appreciated 8th grade teacher

Len Robbins Guest Columnist

January 5, 2014

No offense to eighth-graders (I was one myself – physically from 1981-82; mentally from 1981-present), but eighth-graders are the worst behaved people on the planet.

I base this indisputable statement on the following scientific evidence: During my eighth grade year, my class prompted not one, but two different teachers to have nervous breakdowns during class. Both subsequently went on some type of hiatus/vacation/sabbatical/hospitalization, and weren’t seen or heard from again until the next school term, after we safely graduated to ninth grade.

But two teachers that year didn’t seem to be affected by our eighth-grader buffoonery – our math teacher, Mrs. Harris, and our history teacher, Mr. Shirk.

On the first day of class, Mrs. Harris made us line up outside her classroom, in the hallway, in alphabetical order, against the wall. When the ball rang, we were instructed to walk into her classroom, in a single line, and sit down in our assigned seat, which was also designated alphabetically. We had to do this every day.

Educational philosophers, take note. That woman, not once, had any type of behavioral problem from any child in that class for the entire year. This is the same group that made two teachers quit. Why were we better behaved in her class? I think it’s simply because of the tone set from standing in line and walking in single file. Subconsciously, we felt that this woman was all business and misbehavior wouldn’t be tolerated.

Her teaching style was also very direct. You were expected to know how to work certain pre-algebra problems. She would call you to the blackboard to complete a problem out of the book. If you didn’t know how to do it, she would pepper you with questions, basically ridiculing you in front of the entire class.

I loved it. It was hilarious to watch my classmates squirm. Me, not so much. I got caught by Mrs. Harris unprepared once, and only once. I felt like such an idiot after she was done with me that I always came to class prepared.

I was never keen on math, but being prepared, and terrified, in Mrs. Harris’ class was integral to surviving high school algebra, calculus, and trig.

Mr. Shirk wasn’t a disciplinarian. He was a showman.

He taught his eighth-grade American history class like a college professor – he lectured and you took notes. Remember, this was a bunch of wild 13-year-olds. But he was so entertaining, and so genuinely loved the content, that I grew to love it as well. He described our country’s history like a big, winding, engrossing story – which it is. Probably one of the world’s greatest stories.

Due to Mr. Shirk’s energy and passion for history, I developed a great interest in it as well, which led to the mistake of being a history minor in college. If only Mr. Shirk had taught “Latin American Civilizations” when I was at UGA.

In just a few months, we’ll be celebrating the annual rites of high school graduation. In our newspaper, we do a special grad section, where seniors remember their educational experiences, and often note the teachers that have had an impact on them. They always mention high school teachers, but rarely mention those who taught them in the middle grades. Out of sight, out of mind.

My point is: Those teachers in the middle grades can make a big impact on our lives. On your children’s lives. Those grades – roughly sixth through eighth – are often where our personalities are shaped, our interests are set, our identities formed.

I have no idea where Mrs. Harris or Mr. Shirk are now, but I’d like to thank them, and all middle grades teachers, for answering this difficult calling. And for not quitting in the middle of the year.

That in itself is something worth lauding.

© Len Robbins 2013