Middle School Update
September 11, 2015
Six Reasons Why Middle School Rocks
The majority of my 20-plus years of teaching have been at the middle school level. When people ask what I do and I tell them “teach tweens,” their response is generally something along the lines of “better you than me, sister.” If that’s how they feel about ten to fourteen year olds, then they’re probably right. And it’s okay. Just as I cannot fathom how difficult it would be to pursue a career as a soldier or a nurse (or a kindergarten teacher!), they cannot understand why I would willingly subject myself to a room full of hormonal adolescents on a daily basis.
At times, I’ll admit, I’ve asked myself the question. I’ve even tried something else, but I’ve always ended up back in front of middle school children. I’ve had to face the fact that this is where I am meant to be, and I must be getting something out of it or else why would I return year after year?
6 reasons why middle school rocks
In truth, as much as I like to think I am making a significant impact on the lives of children (and I am confident that I am), this job completely fulfills me. There is no other job that aligns so perfectly with my personality and skill set. I get as much as I give, and I get excited every fall. (I’ll resist inserting a selfie here.)
There are many reasons why I believe teaching this age is the best job in all of education. Here’s some of why I ♥︎ middle school:
- Variety. Teaching middle school is never the same day twice. Sometimes, it’s not even the same from the beginning of class until the end depending on what drama has erupted in the interim. Middle school students have very little control over their bodies and their emotions, and they can be completely different children from day to day. I enjoy the challenge of working with whatever personality a particular child chooses to show me M-F. It keeps me on my toes. In addition to variety in the students, I am able to experiment with any fun lesson idea I come up with on very willing guinea pigs. I get bored easily (just like they do), and we enjoy having a wide range of novel experiences in class. Although they know the general structure of the class, they never quite know exactly what is coming. It keeps them excited and keeps me energized.
- Laughter. Middle school students have a ready sense of humor. They are not yet so jaded that they are too cool to crack up at something corny. They have no filter and say any old thing that pops into their heads, often with unintentionally hysterical results. My sixth graders are at the age where they still think I am funny and not embarrassing. It gives me a little ego boost when I hear them tell their friends, parents, or my colleagues that I am funny and my class is a good time. I can’t imagine having a job where I don’t get at least one, deep belly laugh every day.
- Honesty. If you aren’t sure about whether the new haircut you tried is flattering, you will find out in 0.2 seconds if you teach middle school. Some kids may come right out and tell you to your face, and others will stage whisper it to a friend, but you will always know how they feel. Most have not yet mastered the poker face, and I can truly read them like a book.They are not good at keeping secrets either, so eventually they spill the beans, even if they implicate themselves in the process. If they love a lesson, I will know immediately, and if they are bored, I hear that too. Whether their sentiments are positive or negative, I always understand where I stand. It’s a beautiful thing that they are able to open themselves up to the world and say what they are truly feeling.
- Quirks. I love how middle school students are caught in between wanting to blend in to the crowd and wanting to be their authentic, quirky selves. Middle school time is like dog years in terms of development and the students that enter in sixth grade barely resemble the eighth grade graduates. In between, it is fascinating to watch the endless permutations that everything – from their hairstyles to their handwriting – goes through.Because I was an awkward adolescent who never quite felt comfortable in my own skin, I empathize with what they are experiencing. I bond with the underdogs and outcasts, find that special something inside of them, and try to bring it to the forefront. I was also bullied by a couple of mean girls, so I know how treacherous it can be to navigate the complexities of popularity and friendship. Middle school kids, with all of their strange and wonderful idiosyncrasies, are my tribe.
- Curiosity. Middle school students often seem to be going through a second toddlerhood (including some “terrible two”). However, instead of learning how to walk and feed themselves, they are learning how the world works and trying to find their place in it.They are naturally playful and experimental and can still feel joy in a new experience. They are not yet too cool for school. They are existential dreamers still willing to take risks. Most days, I am in awe of some insight they have shared, and it reminds me that I am witnessing profound learning happen in real time. It’s quite a thrill.
- Impact. Middle school students are in the necessary developmental stage of separating from their parents and establishing their own identity, but they still need adult guidance to get there. As a result, middle school teachers function in loco parentis, but without the arguments or slamming of bedroom doors.Many of us have even had the experience of a student accidentally calling us mom or dad. They are still seeking their parents’ approval, but they also want that from their teachers. They have not yet decided that they know more than I do, and they are willing to listen to what I have to say. This puts me in a powerful position and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.I know that I have the power to harm or heal. My words and actions define me and I take being a role model very seriously. They are looking to me to see another example of what it means to be an adult, and I can think of no greater honor.
It is true that middle school is generally considered the most difficult age to teach, but I feel as if I am destined to be here and I can’t imagine my life without seeing “my kids” every day. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever loved.
Many of our students live on campus in the dorms, and we have a hard-working group of people who parent these kids while they are at school. Please make a note of which of your students live in the dorms. When you communicate with parents, include the dorm parents in your communications.
Also, please be mindful of the fact that the dorm parents work a different schedule from us. Their time off is during the school day. If you need to talk with them, please connect with them by e-mail to set up a convenient time. Dorm kids are not allowed to "go home" during the school day, and the dorms are basically "closed" during the school day, unless you've arranged an appointment. Thanks for your understanding.
Active Learning: True Confessions of a Growing Teacher
I want to tell you a painfully honest story of something that happened to me last year. I’d been reading about the importance of feedback from students to their teachers, and I was gung-ho about trying it out in my classes. At the time, teaching my media literacy class was a bit of a struggle for me because I had just a small handful of talkative students and a large section of silent, non-interactive students, so active learning didn’t feel so active with that crowd. I couldn’t figure out how to change things, so I just kept going with all of the active learning strategies I’ve always done in the class, even though my strategies weren’t working as well as usual.
When I gave my students the first opportunity to evaluate me, I received some very interesting feedback. My sense of things not working well was confirmed; most of my students identified the classroom dynamic as something that needed to improve. One student wrote in the comment section: “Have you ever heard of this thing the teachers are doing called active learning? Maybe you should try it out.” Whoah, that comment was hard for me to hear…talk about having to eat a big slice of humble pie!!
At this point, I knew I had a choice to make. I realized I could make excuses to myself about how quiet my students were, I could complain about how what I’d done in the past had always worked before and it was just this immature group that had a problem, or I could start working on figuring out how I was going to adapt to a uniquely challenging situation. I chose the latter and started to look for ways to change how I was doing things. I gave a second survey to ask my students for ideas of how I could improve, and my students gave me very helpful suggestions. I implemented their ideas, and by the end of the semester, we were at a totally different place.
As I was preparing to write my newsletter blurb for this week, I realized that before I give you ideas about how to get feedback from your students, I needed to be honest and say that sometimes it’s hard to take the feedback you get. Being able to receive feedback from students requires a growth mindset. As a teacher, I like the comfort and control of being the one who knows the information and gets to call the shots. When I opened my mind to the possibility that my students have something to teach me about teaching, it felt scary.
As I was preparing to write about ideas for gathering student feedback, I realized that I needed to take some time to talk about a growth vs. fixed mindset. Receiving and implementing student feedback requires a growth mindset. Next week I’ll discuss more about these two very different mindsets and how to foster an attitude of growth.