What are the first words that come to mind when you hear the words "middle school?" Bad haircuts. Unrequited love. A fear of multiplying fractions. Dodgeball?

Middle school teachers are the unsung heroes of adolescent education—and we may be quick to forget their influence when we think back to the days of shop class and school lunches. Remember: they chose to be with us during our toughest times. But for one teacher, middle school education was not the final frontier.

Amanda Smith teaches 6th grade in Queens by day and pursues an MS in Disability Services in Higher Education at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) by...whenever else she has the time, after finding inspiration in the experiences of her brother and sister, who both have learning disabilities. We spoke with Amanda about the intersection of these two modes of learning, her evolving role as an educator, and how she manages her time on both sides of the "teacher's desk."

Can you tell us a little bit more about what led you to middle school education? What subjects do you teach, and why did you gravitate to that age group?
At first, I didn't want to be in a middle school. But after doing my observation hours in a sixth-grade classroom, I fell in love with the kids instantly. Middle school is that awkward time where you think, feel, and act like a teenager, but have the emotions of a little kid. It's confusing and fun. In my role, I am a mom, a friend, a teacher, and most importantly, a consistent and positive presence in students' lives. Middle school teachers can make or break a student's confidence, and I like to make sure I'm on the side of "making."

I've been teaching math for over 7 years. I love the subject because I can watch my students' confidence grow. And I love that math is very black and white: 2 + 2 will always equal 4, and there is always a right and wrong answer. There's instant gratification. The students will know they got it right because the math works, and if it doesn't, they know they need to try again. As a math teacher, I live for the moment my students finally get it right.

You mentioned that you originally became more interested in higher education based on the experiences of your brother and sister, who have learning disabilities. Can you elaborate on those experiences and how they influenced you?
I worked at a previous school where I felt the staff didn't encourage the pursuit of higher education for students with disabilities. At the time, it was my first teaching job, and I didn't know enough to question it, but the experience stuck with me. Around the same time, my brother and sister had begun their college search, and I started to worry knowing that, during and after the transition, they might lose the support they benefited from during their childhood and adolescent education.

As a teacher, I constantly worry about my students. So you can only imagine the intensity of my concerns for my family. My concern for a quality education for my brother and sister led me to discover that higher education does offer support to students with learning disabilities. Knowing these types of programs exist motivated me to encourage students and their families to strive toward higher education, disability or no disability.

Can you talk about the challenges facing students with disabilities today? What are teachers and students in your program most interested in learning about and fighting for?
One of the challenges facing students with disabilities is the outdated notion that they are not smart enough or they are unable to follow the same path as general education students. Many teachers, including myself, are pushing for universal design in higher education. The goal of universal design is to accommodate as many different learning styles and needs as possible within the core education system. Imagine how great it would be to have the tools you need already in place without fighting the system or waiting for complicated paperwork to be processed beyond the classroom.

How was the transition from teaching full-time to adding a full academic course load on top of your classroom obligations?
It's been a difficult adjustment, but it's getting better. The primary reason is that I give my students 110%. If they need something, I stop everything and take care of it. This often forces me to make a decision between my students and my coursework. When I have no choice but to pick coursework, it can be disappointing in suddenly not feeling that 110%. When I choose my students, I often have long nights catching up on coursework after I deal with the needs of my classroom. I am a very organized person, and I usually have things done and prepared weeks in advance. However, this new experience has changed my thinking. I now ask myself, "what needs to be done right now." It's a mindset I never thought I could live by, but I'm making it work!

How has your work as an educator guided your course of study?
As an educator, it's much easier for me to relate to student experiences in general. It's also helpful to know the K-12 educational laws as background. It allows me to understand the different challenges the students will have during their transitional time between high school and college, which is the area that I feel the most passionate about.

And on a similar note, have your studies influenced your teaching style or your approach to education?
I have strong focus on self-advocacy and teaching my students to communicate their needs. When they reach college, they will not have a teacher around to speak for them. The will need to speak for themselves. This worries me, as I have students who struggle to communicate the smallest things like asking for a pencil, so I can't imagine how they may feel asking for larger accommodations as they get older.

What are some of the CUNY SPS courses that have resonated with you the most?
I've loved all my courses so far! I've learned something new in every class. Each course serves as a puzzle piece that, when placed together, provides clarification to the higher educational puzzle. It's difficult to pick just one!

Was there anything that surprised you? Anything you weren't expecting in your course of study?
Something that surprised me is how slow change takes place. The mindset towards individuals with disabilities often remains negative, despite how many positive changes have actually happened in education and beyond. So the amount of work that still needs to be done involving perception and the education of students with disabilities is eye-opening.

As you know, CUNY SPS mainly offers online programs. What were your initial thoughts about that? Did you have any reservations, particularly as an in-classroom educational professional yourself?
Despite having no problem speaking and often looking silly in front of 70+ students every day, I am an introverted person. For me, it's very different speaking in front of 11- and 12-year olds than to adults, so the thought of interacting online was a dream for me. I also know people who need that face-to-face interaction, and while I don't think there is a best medium, it comes down to a learning preference. Also, there was no way I could commute to class, work in two classrooms, and still be the teacher I like to be.

Clearly, you're quite busy between work and school! How do you balance your time with so much going on?
I don't know how I'm doing it! It's about setting an organized schedule and sticking to it. Admittedly, I see these students more than my own family, but I wouldn't change that for the world.

When you've got some time to breathe, what do you enjoy doing outside of school and work?

Some of my favorite things to do other than catching up on my missing sleep is reading, spending time with my husband, and going to the beach or to the park with my pug. While I'm sure he would love to go to the park more, he makes the best homework buddy.

Any advice for professionals looking to go back to school, specifically at CUNY SPS?
The biggest piece of advice I would give anyone looking to go back to school is to organize your life. Get a planner, get three planners, whatever you need to do. Plan for emergencies and unexpected situations in your schedule. Don't stress perfection. You can't give 100% to every area of your life always.

And what are your plans after graduation? What does the future hold?
While I am not ready to leave the classroom just yet, I plan to continue working to help prepare students with disabilities for their transition to higher education and all else that awaits them.

For more information about the CUNY School of Professional Studies and how to continue your own education, visit sps.cuny.edu and see what works for you.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between CUNY SPS and Gothamist staff.