When I interviewed for my current position as a middle school principal, there was one fact about myself that I did not make a point of mentioning. The panel could see on my résumé that I had taught high school for nine years and spent four years as an elementary and high school assistant principal. What they could not see – and never found out – was that I had never been to middle school. Any middle school. I had never had a reason to. I was home-schooled through 9th grade and had just never gotten around to checking “see what middle schools are like” off my bucket list.
As a career high school educator, I knew all about middle schools though. Middle school is the holding pen where we store hormones until their brains catch up. Middle school is the place where nobody can think and everybody cuts up. Middle school is the place where students mysteriously fail to learn the most basic fundamentals of my content area. Middle school is the place where only very brave (and slightly crazy) teachers work. Middle school is a place where gum and paper towels in toilets and puberty and puppy-love-turned-earth-shattering-break-up rule the day. In a word, middle school sucks. Somehow, in spite of my deep-rooted biases, I got the job.
The longer I work in a middle school and interact with my students and collaborate with these amazing teachers, the more convinced I become that the stereotypes about middle school are worse than misleading. They create an inappropriately imbalanced focus. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but it seems to me that the focus in middle school too often is on minimizing the damage (individually and collectively) until students can be delivered to high school where the road to successful adulthood begins with the installation of a brain. More plainly, we are content merely to “survive” middle school. The problem with this approach is that for a great many students, their lack of preparation for high school becomes an obstacle that takes them multiple semesters to overcome. For far too many, their high school career ends early because they simply can not make the recovery quickly enough.
I say we need to re-imagine – or perhaps just acknowledge – the importance of middle school. We have placed a huge burden – and most of the focus – on high school in regards to student success. Graduation rates – high school problem. Dropouts – high school problem. Graduates unprepared for college and the work force – high school problem. Almost without exception, students are required by law to attend school throughout their middle school years. High schools are often guaranteed only one year with students who start off behind. Having been a high school teacher my entire career, that time frame is simply not long enough.
I have a new perspective to propose. High schools make graduates; middle schools make dropouts.
I am not suggesting that we start blaming middle schools and looking for new ways to put pressure on them – like we have been doing to high schools for years. What we should do is begin thinking of middle school as critically important to each child’s future. The emotional and physical and social stress of the middle school years is well documented. What if we saw middle school as the time to stay engaged as a learner, to define a strong identity and to make meaningful contributions to society?
So many have been middle level educators much longer than I have and are already champions of this argument. To their voices I add these few specific suggestions in no particular order.
1. Electives are critical. One unfortunate and very damaging impact of the “accountability era” has been the frequent decision to add remediation and intervention courses to school schedules by removing electives. This decision is made in spite of the fact that many elective classes might already do what the classes that replace them are supposed to do. For example, research suggests a link to increased test scores for students who participate in Fine Arts classes. Incidentally, that same body of research suggests that the benefits of taking these courses extend far beyond raised tests scores. While some may question the validity of this research and insist that additional time in Language Arts and Math yields better results in those subjects, it is impossible to argue that the benefits of taking highly engaging elective classes are lost by not taking them. More plainly, students who are enrolled in strong elective classes are more engaged in all parts of the school experience. The Fine Arts are exceptionally valuable to students who take them, but so are other high-interest courses. Of particular appeal to students are courses that provide opportunities to combine complicated thinking with real-world applications – such as Robotics and a host of other similar courses. Although elective classes are critical in high school as well, they might easily be the key to keeping middle school students engaged in their learning at an age when all students struggle to find value in school. If we are to prepare students for the future that awaits them just around the corner, we must recognize the fact that more time on a couple of subjects and more pressure applied will not result in more learning; it might result in less.
2. Hands-on learning should be the default approach. Another victim of the era of high-stakes testing has been an emphasis on hands-on learning. A great value has been placed on accumulating knowledge in school – and on proving that accumulation via test scores, both at a classroom level and via standardized tests. What we have valued far less is providing students rich learning experiences aimed at doing. We are content with reading and writing about decomposition instead of pulling apart a rotting log to see it for ourselves. Students experience so few hands-on learning opportunities that the ones that they do have become the defining moments of the course – the (single) dissection of a frog in Science; the (only) letter written to the mayor or governor or author in Language Arts; the (possibly somewhat frowned upon) detailed budget created for an imaginary trip in Math; or the (brazenly controversial) class debate about a high interest current event in Social Studies. Why must we be defensive when we create learning experiences for students? What makes us think that sitting quietly in neat rows will result in more learning than putting our learning into practice? I contend that a major purpose of learning is to put that learning into practice in some way. Further (or perhaps because of that fact) we learn best when our learning is experiential. If the education we are offering students is to be useful to them, we must stop behaving as if the application of their learning need not happen until they have left us for the “real” world.
3. Student voice must be nurtured. Helping students find and use their voice is important at all grade levels. To students struggling with the physical and emotional maelstrom that is middle school, it is vital. I have contended elsewhere that school administrators must not only permit but nurture teachers’ voice. In the same way, for students to reach their maximum potential, they must be co-creators of their own learning experiences. Students should be permitted to make decisions about their own learning. Students should be one of the most important “stakeholder” groups, invited individually and collectively to wield real influence on the decision-making process. Students should be invited to sit on interview committees (as they frequently do at our school). Students should be given opportunities to express their ideas to real audiences of more than one – they should write and create for more than just their teacher. Middle school students should treated as if they are capable of complex thinking and their opinions matter. What better way to prepare students to contribute meaningful to a democratic society than giving them opportunities to make such contributions now?
This post is intended especially for three special groups of people and to each I address these following appeals.
Pre-service teachers: don’t believe the hype. Middle school is not objectively more challenging than any other teaching. For every problem unique to middle school, there is a benefit also unique to this age group. While we have our issues, there is a long list of obstacles that elementary and high school teachers face (unique to each level) that is irrelevant to middle school. You may personally not be a good fit more middle school. Don’t go into the decision assuming you are not, however.
Educational decision-makers (board members, superintendents, Central Office personnel): don’t allow our passion for increasing graduation rates lead to decisions that short-change middle school students. High schools need lots of support and attention. Elementary schools need to provide students with a great foundation. Middle schools are incredibly complex organizations serving even more complex human beings. Do not let simplistic stereotypes drive the decisions you make about us.
Middle school educators: don’t listen to people who don’t know what they are talking about. You are not crazy for teaching at this level. You fill an absolutely essential role. You have the opportunity to keep inspire students to stay invested in their own learning. For students surrounded by endless hints and clues and outright attacks to the effect that neither they nor their opinions matter, your faith and acceptance makes it possible to believe a different narrative; in spite of all the stereotype and hype and self-doubt to the contrary, middle school does not suck.