Saturday, November 12, 2011

Middle School: The Perfect Storm

When we middle school teachers alert other teachers that we are middle school teachers, we inevitably receive one of the following comments:  You must be crazy. Or God bless you.  Or You are a special person.   Other teachers know what happens after the students leave their cozy pods of elementary classrooms and what happens before they enter the liberation of high school.  And it is a bit crazy.  It is a time of intense change both socially and developmentally.  In fact, consider a newborn baby.  And then examine a three year old who can speak, control her bowels, feed herself, walk, etc.  Between the ages of 10-14, children experience the same kind of intense growth and change as they do between 0-3
These changes impact family structures greatly. The child who used to come home and tell parents everything is much more selective about what he or she shares.  He or she might even be surly.  Removed.  Irritable.  Erratic. Looking in his or her backpack creates arguments—because it feels like an invasion to the child’s desperately desired autonomy.  A focus on social issues overcomes the household so that the bathroom is never empty, the phone is never available, the computer is always taken.  Parents often complain that their children never come out of their bedrooms; that they don’t tell them if homework is done; that they don’t tell them about things that are happening at school. 

At the same time that all of this is happening, students change educational structures.  In our school they move from class sizes of 9-15 with one teacher to a team of 5 teachers who see 85-100 students a day for 40 minute periods.  In many schools in larger districts, students move from classrooms of 15-20 to large middle schools where teachers see 100-125 students a day.  It is impossible for a teacher to contact 85-125 parents every week. Parents who were once accustomed to getting frequent communication, positive and negative, from their elementary teachers, find that communication drops off as teacher load increases, during a time when their children are also communicating less.  To top it all off, parents were once accustomed to having one teacher to communicate with and now have up to 5 content area teachers, so aren’t always sure where to begin themselves when they have concerns.
It is no wonder so many teachers opt not to teach this level.  And it is no wonder that so many parents are unhappy with middle schools across the nation. It is a perfect storm of physical, hormonal, mental, and educational change.  And the children that parents once sent off to school are not the same ones that come home. 

During this time, students start experimenting at school.  What happens when they don’t do their homework?  What happens when they talk back to a teacher?  They try on different personas, looking for their identity, hanging out with different groups of kids.  They make mistakes.  But they are most often surrounded by teachers who both love and understand this age group and are willing to provide them with a clean slate the following day.  And so we know it’s okay for them to make mistakes.  It’s okay for them to try something new and abandon it the next week.  This is the time to learn from these errors.  And we’re there to catch them.  We also know that it is their responsibility  not to make excuses for themselves.  That it is their job to relay communication accurately to their parents.  That it is their job to take responsibility for their actions.  And so discipline, communication, classroom management, homework policies…none of those things are the same as they were in the younger grades.  Because we are dealing with a different kind of kid.
I frame this blog post in this context: The other day we sat as a faculty and read over comments that were made on our recent school survey completed by parents, students, and faculty as part of our self-evaluation process.   One major theme stuck out:  dissatisfaction with the middle school.  At first it stung.  But if we looked at numbers—out of the 61 parents who took the survey, only 4 of them were consistently negative—the parents were overwhelmingly happy with us.  More importantly, when we read the students comments, my heart felt like it would burst.  Over and over again, the majority of our students wrote that the greatest thing about their school was the teachers—that they felt challenged, understood, and cared for.  And that is our audience:  those 10-14 year olds who show up every day during some of the hardest years of their lives, trusting us, including us, and taking risks for us.  They are magnificent creatures, these middle schoolers—and maybe that makes us crazy.  Maybe that exposes us to criticism.  But I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.     


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