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The Lost Children – Middle School Widgets

 

When people find out that I’m a teacher, this question always comes up:

“What grade do you teach?”

“6th through 8th.”

“Ugh. God bless you.”

Before I taught, I’m ashamed to say I had the same reaction. Middle schoolers are those awkward, in-between, annoying kids that most people ignore until they become “normal” again. They talk too much, they’re WAY too emotional, extremely judgmental, and (as anyone with a tween or early teen can attest) NEVER WRONG. They annoy you simply because they can, and they are more hormonal than a busload of red-hat-wearing old ladies headed to a casino. (Think about it, it’ll make sense later.)

I have to come clean here; when I found out about my position, I was overjoyed about every aspect of it EXCEPT the children. To be honest, middle schoolers scared the crap out of me. How am I supposed to relate to these kids? The few encounters I’d had were not positive. And now I was embarking on a radical career change with an age group that terrified me.

Three short years later, my opinion has completely changed. In every way.

I think these kids are the ones that need the most attention, simply because so many people would rather forget them until they hit high school. There’s several misconceptions about them. First off, they LOOK like adults, and we have preconceived ideas about how they should behave. But mentally, they’re still kids. You give them a sticker or stamp their hand & they freak out. They’re clinging onto their childhood while trying to navigate the treacherous path of becoming an adult, and they stumble often. Their reward is rarely a kind word, but more of, “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid? Stop acting like a child!”  The expectations are higher, and the disappointments run deeper.

Middle school is definitely a social time. This is where kids are starting to see the true workings of society that they’ve been protected from as children. Many come into 6th grade sheltered and innocent, and leave 8th grade with a hardness that is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize. They brave the minefields of relationships and peer pressure in a way that they’ve never encountered. Hormones RAGE. It’s a reality among 7th grade teachers; the kid they start the year with is completely different by May. Yet, at a time when they are truly starting to experiment socially, educational institutions are pulling away from allowing them additional time to socialize. Recess disappears. Some schools have strict lunchroom policies. At a time when they want nothing more than to spend time with friends, we begin to limit that.

Middle schools are struggling academically on a nationwide level. Often, poor teaching is blamed as the culprit. But as a teacher, I think it is a gross misunderstanding about our audience. Students are notoriously self-centered at this age. Granted, some of it is parenting, environment, whatever you want to blame it on, but SCIENTIFICALLY it’s simply their BRAIN at that given moment. They are struggling so hard to maneuver the social issues of their age group, that schoolwork is simply NOT a priority. And if you look at the lower-income groups, many of these children are focused on basic survival, not the sentence structure of a standardized-test passage. They simply DON’T CARE about academia at this age. They just DON’T. You can’t change that. Our challenge as teachers is to make it relevant to their lives. But that takes a lot of work, and work takes a lot of time we don’t have… and so, the circle rages on.

I think this is part of our issue, and I think it can be improved. Notice I didn’t say “fixed.” There is no “fixing” education until the greater issues of our society are addressed. I’m a realist; this simply is not going to happen, so we have to do the best we can.

I try to increase awareness of the middle school dilemma. I see teachers making a difference, but not without great difficulty. What a student needs at this level is simply impossible in today’s middle school; individualized attention. I would stake my entire career on one belief: relationships facilitate & accelerate learning. Of course, teachers aren’t going to connect with every kid in their classroom, but we’ve all witnessed students who have benefited from individual attention. I’ve observed incredible breakthroughs with so many children who others have written off as “unteachable” when a teacher spends a little extra time with them. When a kid knows you care, it really does make a difference.

It’s a mathematical problem. Through my classroom alone, I reach 300 students per year. Add my  extracurricular sponsorships, and I get about 50 more. The first six weeks is a struggle to just learn names (and my school is very diverse, so the names are HARD). Making a personal connection to each and every student is mathematically impossible.

Another misconception helps this issue: the general public thinks teachers want more money (well, that *would* be nice), but I promise you that you won’t find a teacher ANYWHERE who wouldn’t trade that extra money for a smaller class size. That’s a hot topic in education circles. Smaller class sizes mean more teachers. More teachers mean more taxpayer money.

Yes. More money.

At a time when education budgets are getting slashed, this really is not helping the very thing that the majority of the public is complaining about. You cut teacher jobs, class size goes up, it gets harder to teach, and kids fail. Spin it any way you want, that’s the simple reality. Add the middle school whirlwind to the mix, and we get the most criticism because we have the most difficult kids to teach.

There’s mountains of research that proves children learn in different ways. We spend countless hours in professional development that touts “differentiated instruction,” but policy makes it virtually impossible to implement. It’s absolutely crucial at the middle school level, not just for the academic consequences, but also for the human being itself. This is the age where feeling “stupid” can make or break a kid and put his feet on the path of graduation vs. the street.

Middle school is not a “holding pen.” It is a time of social, creative, & personal exploration. It is a time of rapid growth, both physically and mentally. Few of these benchmarks have a quantifiable measure because of the unique abilities of each child, and that’s something education reformers HATE to hear. They want to cram all the kids into one mold and crank out a functional, obedient, contributing member to society.

Until we recognize the individuality of each child at EVERY level, I don’t believe we will ever see an answer to the problems in education. But I am sure of one thing: “standardizing” them will only exacerbate the problem.

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