Teaching middle schoolers is to influence our future


For The Beachcomber

I have the best job in the world.

For more than 30 years, I have been happily engaged as an independent school educator, most of that time working primarily with middle school students — early adolescents. I have always loved working with this age.

I believe middle schools represent our last best hope for influencing the choices young adolescents make and to shape their understanding of how to develop their talents.

It is imperative that all of us who are parenting or working with middle school students understand the complex, multidimensional and paradoxical nature of these wonderful young people who are so completely filled with life and bursting with potential.

Young adolescents are seeking to understand who they are and how to relate to the world around them.

Hayes Mizell, who directed the Program for Student Achievement of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, once noted:

“Because they are experiencing an intense period of physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual development, students in the middle grades exhibit unpredictable behaviors that confound many adults. While this developmental period is normal — indeed, it is not possible for children to make the transition to young adulthood without it — adults often react negatively to the behaviors and stresses associated with young adolescence. The symptoms of the developmental period we call young adolescence can be so compelling that adults find it hard to see past the behaviors to the needs, feelings, and potential of the young person in formation. This stage of development can be difficult, for both young people and adults, but it is also a time of opportunity.”

Many of these symptoms revolve around four major categories.

First, there’s a movement toward independence. Young adolescents struggle with their sense of identity, feel awkward or strange about themselves and their bodies and focus on themselves, alternating between high expectations and poor self-esteem. Their interests and clothing style are hugely influenced by their peer group; they’re moody; they can express themselves better and at the same time realize their parents are not perfect. They show less overt affection towards their parents, are occasionally rude and might return to childish behavior, particularly when stressed.

Second, there are cognitive changes: They’re mostly interested in the present, with limited thoughts of the future. At the same time, their intellectual interests expand and gain in importance, and they develop a greater ability to do work.

Sexually, they’re making changes. Some display shyness and modesty, even while they’re increasingly interested in sex. They have greater concerns about their physical and sexual attractiveness to others; their relationships change frequently, and they worry about being normal.

And finally, they’re defining their morals, values and self-direction, testing rules and limits even as they’re displaying more consistent evidence of conscience.

Middle school educators have the responsibility to respond to and provide for these unique developmental needs and characteristics. How do we do it? Here are some of the things we think about and strive for.

First, we work to provide specific programs aimed at creating a bias-free environment, safe and inclusive for all, which focuses on eliminating cliques and establishes a climate where bullying is unacceptable.

We actively engage parents as partners in recognizing the implications of the significant changes affecting middle school children. At this stage in a child’s life, parent and teacher interaction is especially important. Therefore, educators should actively seek ways for parents and teachers to interact.

We work to ensure a smooth transition experience for students and parents entering and leaving the middle school years.

We teach to the growing intellectual and social abilities of our students while employing a wide range of pedagogical techniques and assessment strategies to ensure all students are successfully challenged.

We help students learn to make responsible choices and understand the consequences of their actions, including the use of technology on campus.

And we create opportunities that are especially appropriate for middle school students so that they can develop a sense of belonging to and responsibility for their own communities. This approach promotes issues of sustainability and a better understanding of students’ roles in an interconnected and global society.

There is great joy to be had in working with middle school students. We’re not teaching a subject; we’re mentoring a person. We’re helping them develop the ability to express themselves clearly, work cooperatively with others, advocate for themselves and make good choices.

Indeed, we’re influencing the future. What better way to live one’s days?

— Stephen Edele heads The Harbor School, an independent school for grades four to eight.

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