“You teach middle school? Why?! All those hormones and growth spurts and changes. How do you do it?”
These words are not uncommon for middle grades teachers to hear. The general public, other educators, and even parents of young adolescents are often shocked to hear that anyone would want to teach this age group. And who can blame them for being skeptical? Children ages 10 to 15 are experiencing a great deal of change. In no other time, besides the first years of life, are humans experiencing such rapid cognitive growth.
Early adolescents are extremely social and care deeply about what their peers think of them. This might explain why groups of 8th graders wear feathers in their hair one month and multi-colored contacts the next (even if they have 20/20 vision). This is a period of dramatic physical change. Girls get taller, boys don’t…yet. Voices deepen after they rise in pitch. During the middle grades years the only constant is change. Middle level educators know that these changes dramatically impact the way that middle level education must look and how we as teachers must structure our instruction to ensure career and college readiness for our future leaders.
In addition to all of these changes, adolescence brings excitement to learning, a curiosity about the world, and a longing for guidance. Who wouldn’t want to teach this group of impressionable and unpredictable youth? One middle level educator said it best when he stated, “These are the pivotal years, where we make or break a student, where we turn them on or off.”
As Teaching Ambassador Fellows we’ve had the opportunity to travel across the country and talk with many middle level educators. In all of our conversations similar themes have emerged.
1.) Middle grades’ students need a variety of choices in their classes, their programming, and their activities. Students are trying to figure out who they are and offering them an array of choices will allow them to try new things in a safe space.
2.) The middle grades experience needs to be one that focuses on the whole child. It cannot simply be about academics but has to be focused on the social and emotional development of each child. Life skills, study skills, and social skills need to be taught during these years because these foundational skills are crucial to future success.
3.) Middle grades schools need time in the day and access to caring adults for teachers and students to build relationships, for teacher collaboration, and for planning interdisciplinary curriculum. Without sufficient time, students’ needs cannot fully be met.
4.) Middle grades schools need to have clear intervention programs for struggling students. Once students have been identified as “struggling” there need to be school or district-wide programs in place to help support these students, their families, and their teachers. These intervention programs must be meaningful and consistent.
5.) Middle level education must recruit and retain highly effective middle level educators. They must be experts in their content area, possess excellent instructional strategies that are specific to middle level education, and strive to develop positive relationships with their students.
6.) Middle grades schools need to have a strategic partnership between students, teachers, and families. School-wide structures need to be in place to engage, welcome, and communicate with all families. When students see that their families are valued, welcomed, and engaged they are more likely to feel valued and welcomed in their school community.
Research shows show that many students at the greatest risk of dropping out of high school can be identified in middle school by their grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. Countless studies have shown that if middle level schools are to meet the diverse needs of young adolescents, schools must be developmentally responsive, socially equitable, and academically rigorous. They have to be places where kids are turned on, instead of off; where that 6th grader gets a friendly reminder to take his homework out of his backpack; where despite all of the physical changes they are experiencing every student is accepted and has a safe space to build relationships with those around them, who are going through the same kinds of changes.
The middle grades can be a time of turmoil or a time of triumph. We know that with all hands on deck our young adolescents can thrive. Middle level education must be a distinct and valued focus at the local, state, and national level. As we aim to welcome graduates with 21st century skills into the world as productive and collaborative citizens, middle level education clearly matters.
Secretary Duncan recently spoke at the Association for Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) annual conference. Click here to read the speech.
Geneviève DeBose and Kareen Borders are Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the Department of Education