What I wish to say to the teaching world as a whole is that we have lots of work to do. From being open and honest about the texts we teach to the discussion of our imperfect and troubled history – we have so much to tackle and address as teachers in 2019. Racism, bigotry, and antisemitism are significant issues we have to identify, teach, and address within our classrooms and communities. We have to work with our students to help them navigate an unsteady, out of control, and confusing journey of self discovery and identity. We’re also tasked with curriculum, standards, assessments, and observations by administration.
Why would anyone become a teacher, you might be asking. Given how the view of the world outside of what middle school and high school students are like, you’d probably be justified in positing that question. I’m asked that in varying parts and pieces when I tell folks, “I teach 6th graders at the middle school.” It’s usually formed in a , “Oh bless your heart”, or “Oh, you are a saint”, or “Better you than me!”, or “I’m impressed”, or some other platitude that hides behind the cheeky veneer of, “Good God man, why would you do that to yourself? Those kids are insane people!” I used to chuckle along with them, and smile deprecatingly while being truthful in saying, “I love working with them! They’ve got so much going on and they just need someone there trying to understand and guide them.”
That was my first year. First year teaching can, at times, feel like every single Mad Max, and Hunger Games movie rolled into one masterpiece of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s an experience that you can’t quite put into words, and failing that, you throw overloaded metaphorical imagery at folks in order that they might grasp it in some capacity.
Second year, well….uffdah. I decided after a week or so with my new 6th grade students that I was tired of hearing the “bless you” chants from the choir in the comfy seats. So I reflected with this tweet.
I want to write a blog post that tells people who tell me "bless your heart" when they find out I teach middle school that those kids need them just as much as they need me. They need all of us doing our damndest to support, encourage, accept, value, and walk with them.— Mr. DeLay (@adelayedteacher) August 25, 2019
So I spent the last few days in my head marinating on this and contemplating that – knowing full well that the valve at the control point of my words would need a gentle release. And then this tweet happened,
Hot take: Just give the kid a damn pencil. Don’t collect a shoe, sing a song, or whatever.— Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher) August 30, 2019
You think you’re “teaching them a lesson” about being prepared, but you’re not. Your embarrassing them on top of them having to ask for a pencil.
Here’s what I’ve come to conclude. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that our middle school students are developmentally in the Bermuda Triangle for the better part of three years. Their brains, and bodies are all over the place. Their social world is tiny, so when drama, issues, or anything upsets the balance of the Force – everything goes from peace and quiet to post apocalyptic in three seconds flat. We also seemed to have forgotten that they are children. My 6th graders are 11 to 12 years old – they are babies! They still love to play tag, make goofy noises, be silly on the regular, and act like the age they still are.
And yet…we’re rushing to grow them up. Get organized, get to class on time, carry everything for your next three classes and don’t forget anything and make sure you have everything, and move it or lose it, oh you forgot your Chromebook on the lockers, well you gotta come crawling back to me to get it because learn a lesson, don’t forget your books, notebooks, pens, pencils, and whatever else you need in my class. Oh, and you need to sit down, be silent, don’t talk, take notes, do homework, understand grades, figure out the social structure of your life, this building, and your future. Oh and boyfriends, girlfriends, and daily drama are also on that delightful list of a learning curve.
So our middle school students are overwhelmed beyond measurement. Teachers are proclaimed saints for their service. Saving a proclamation from The Pope on the matter, sainthood will remain a metaphor for the masses. But what if there was something else you could do besides giving us a pat on the back? What if there was a way to give back? I wish I could put some kind of crescendo-ing music at the end of that sentence.
Your middle school students need you. They need you to care. To show them that you accept them, that you value them, that you trust them, and that you believe in them. They know people look down at them, cast a nervous glance when they walk in, and generally view the three years of middle school as a time when nothing important really happens. They need to have places to go that isn’t a classroom. That’s a place where they can be themselves and not worry about adults judging them or expecting them to behave like mini adults. My friend Liv wrote a thing last year about being eleven. And if you haven’t read it, you need to. Come back when you’re done. Please?
Welcome back. So, what do you think of what Liv was saying? Did you agree with her? How? How does it help you understand being that age better?
So do something. Ask if your middle school has a mentoring program. Find out if there is a “Boys and Girls Club” local to you. Seek out the community center, the YMCA, local libraries, wherever. Find where they need people to work with these students. And show up. You don’t need a manual, a script, or really anything. You just need to listen, and be there. Tell your story from middle school. Talk about what it was like for you. Be real. Be you. Be genuine. Be transparent. Be there in their world.
Our middle students need to know they are loved and accepted for who they are – and not just from their teachers, people that they live with, or their friends. They need to know the world around them cares about them, values their existence, and their future. They need to know they mean something to someone. That they are not a problem.
How do we do any of this? It starts with four words. Kindness. Compassion. Mercy. Grace. With each of my students, I extend to them each of these things. We spent a week at the start of the year talking about it. I wrote about last years lesson here. I encourage you to give it a read. There’s even videos! What I found last year and what I’m finding this year is that when I extend the concepts within those four words to the students, they generally work out reciprocating it back. It takes time for them to trust, but when we start out our relationship with them intentionally acknowledging their humanity, their value, and them – and that there is no condition within that equation – they tend to respond in kind.
So as I step down from my bully pulpit, I hope that this inspires you. I hope it encourages you. And I hope it moves to you action to find a way to serve and walk alongside our middle school students. As teachers, we can only do so much
We, and they, need you help.