Angela Bennett, an acclaimed author, once made the statement that teaching middle school is an adventure not a job. Such words would ring true for many teachers in schools who work with students form Yr. 5 – Yr. 9. Moreover, being a student in the middle school is an adventure – sometimes exhilaratingly wonderful – particularly when it comes to the social life! And sometimes not so fantastic - perhaps when the emotional hormones kick in (which could be all the time I hear you say).
To many, the middle school student lives in a world which is narcissistic, anarchic, run by social media and full of anxieties and about how they look; how popular they are or aren’t and how many ‘likes’ they have on Facebook!
And before our eyes, we watch the transformation from boy to man and girl to woman. This takes a few years but we do get through it although parents and teachers alike may have a few more grey hairs and have considered therapy!
There has been much written about the middle years of learning or as we sometimes refer to it, the middle phase. It is an area in which I loved teaching and more importantly, loved learning from my students. As a Middle School Principal, the following is a sample of what I learnt whilst on the middle school adventure and helping to ease the transition for students from their primary years through to the middle years and then beyond.
*Work hard at building positive relationships with adolescents but don't be their friend. They don't want you to be their friend because you’re probably not ‘cool ‘. But more often than not, they do want a significant other adult to speak with at times just like all of us.
*Develop pods of learning where the teacher moves from class to class rather than the students. This is happening in many schools now resulting in a more settled environment and less time wasted on traversing school corridors. At a time in their lives when young adolescents are feeling most vulnerable, many are forced to leave their self-contained primary school classrooms, where they spent most of their day with one teacher and a small group of peers, for large, often impersonal secondary schools where daily they may attend up to 5 or perhaps more different classes taught by 5 or more different teachers.
*Ensure that the teachers in the Middle School are trained in adolescent development together with their specialised subject area and that they have a high degree of emotional intelligence and compassion. They need all of these qualities and skills, as they will be coaches and mentors to the group of students in our schools who deserve considerable support to ensure they succeed.
*Create a values driven learning environment as opposed to a rule-based climate. There is a lot of negativity in this world and all students, not just the middle school students, develop richer understanding of appropriate behaviours from the reinforcement of positive behaviors including trust, loyally, honesty and manners.
*Keep a supply of deodorant and room freshener (check for allergies) – you’ll need them to keep the classroom air breathable, particularly on hot days or after sport!
*Create teaching teams where teachers specialise in subjects and develop expertise in other subjects while still ensuring personalised learning to meet the learning needs of the students. Such teams also work together to involve parents in the education of their children.
*Promote cooperative learning within and across year levels – a stage based model - where students and teachers work collaboratively and efforts are based on student need rather than chronological age. Adolescents in the middle school are usually gregarious characters who enjoy chatting with each other and when the classroom is served well in terms of pedagogy, such traits can be turned into effective learning strategies and social skill building. In some situations, students learn thinking strategies more efficiently from each other than they do from the teacher. They are responsive to each other’s ideas, and groups often solve problems more efficiently than students working alone. (Strahan & Strahan, 1988). This is true of learners – P-12!
*Teach the middle school students how to learn rather than being a receptacle for content delivered by the teacher. Give them the skills to be knowledge builders, to be creative, to think - even though they may seem sleepy most of the time. We know that our brains release the sleep hormone melatonin that allows us to fall and stay asleep but the timing is different in the adolescent brain as it is related to puberty. Reportedly, for nearly all adolescents, the secretion of melatonin doesn’t begin until about 10:45 p.m. and continues until about 8 a.m. This means that most teenagers can’t fall asleep until melatonin secretion begins and it’s hard to wake up until the melatonin secretion stops. This fixed pattern of melatonin secretion in teens changes back to an individual’s genetically preferred sleep/wake timing once puberty is over.
*Set high expectations for your middle school students and show them that you care about their success. Under all their bravado they really do want to show you that they are up to the job.
By no means am I suggesting that the above list is the panacea to ensure success of all middle school students. As we know, there are many other parts to the jigsaw that include ensuring high quality pedagogical practice, designing meaningful curriculum plans, ensuring authentic assessment is the norm, providing specific professional development for staff, strategising the targeted use of resources - the list goes on!
So on with the Middle School adventure! It’s a critical time for our children and we need to make sure we get it right.