Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Middle School is Where the Cool Kids Are

When people hear that I am a middle school teacher, they usually give me that face as if I just stepped in something. I always laugh and smile and say, "Oh, I love middle school!" Then they shake their head and chuckle and think to themselves that I must be a little nuts. Which is true. But the real truth is, they just don't get it.

I have so much respect for elementary and high school teachers, but middle school is definitely the place where I was meant to be. Elementary school is where you learn the basic skills that you will need to succeed in life; what an amazing thrill is must be for those teachers to take students from non-readers to readers! So much growth happens in this younger grades that you can almost feel it in your hands. That is completely amazing. In high school you connect kids with their future careers and help them to become what they've always dreamed of becoming. That is amazing too! But in middle school, ooohhhhh middle school, we deal with failure, and breakups, and friendships, and interact with students that don't know how to love themselves. Middle school is where the emotional work of growing up happens. Those that had a difficult middle school experience most likely had grown up emotional issues to deal with, but were ill equipped to deal with them. Even a simple fight between best friends can seem life-ending at this stage if you aren't equipped with the tools to move through it.

Middle school is all about stocking your emotional toolbelt.

So many people have a bad middle school experience because teachers are focused solely on the content, and not on the unique emotional needs that a middle school student brings with them to school. We could spend time pointing fingers and playing the blame game, but the simple truth is that middle school includes certain developmental issues that go far above and beyond content standards. These needs must be addressed in schools alongside the content. These preteen kids are trying so hard to be grown up - many with grown up responsibilities already thrust upon them, but without the emotional stability to carry these burdens safely. How can they focus on content when their heads are too full of emotions; many emotions that they are ill-equipped to deal with.

In the unique middle school climate we have the ability, as teachers, to help give kids the tools to deal with many of life's problems. Sounds grand, I know, but it's true! I see so many high school kids (and adults) that aren't equipped to deal with the stress that life brings. If we can teach them, in this early age of 11,12,or 13, how to deal with small things, then the big problems that come along later are easier to deal with. We need to teach these kids perseverance, and tolerance, and allow them to feel the satisfaction of a job well done. The content of our classrooms is the PATHWAY to this feeling! It's only after more than a decade of teaching that I understand - my content is not the focus of my teaching - it's the mechanism for emotional development.

I have failed many kids in my teaching career. I failed them because I didn't give them the attention they deserved to develop the skills necessary for success.  I could make excuses for it. I've heard lots of excuses for it over the years. I've even been guilty of using them myself.  "I can't give kids individualized attention when I see 100+ kids in a day." "The state test scores had to come first." "I have to get through my content." "It's the parents job." "The kid needs to take responsibility for themselves." But excuses don't help solve the problem. Kids come to school with a lethargy and sense of entitlement - a deadly combination. It's our duty, not just our job, to FIND ways to deal with that.

Last year, when I learned about whole brain teaching, a light clicked on inside of myself. I realized that I was failing these students because I was the problem, not the students. I wasn't giving them the tools to be successful. I wasn't giving them the opportunity to feel the pure joy that comes from success! Video games give it to them - there's nothing like the feeling of playing a level over and over and  then FINALLY beating it. Many kids know what this feels like, just not in school. No wonder they don't put in effort.

The whole brain teaching strategies that I am now using give me the opportunity to help more kids feel this excitement at school. It allows me to differentiate activities and conversations to make a kid feel like they are the only one I am teaching. That feeling of one-on-one is what these middle school kids need, more than any other age group. They need their hand held, but don't want anyone to see you holding their hand. WBT can do this! The Super Improvers Team, teach-OK, and the scoreboard are three very specific strategies that can be implemented quickly and easily into ANY classroom, and each of these strategies helps a teacher be able to see them as individuals.It brings fun back into the classroom. These strategies teach tolerance and perseverance by giving the kids something to work for, and a reason to help motivate their peers. It gives them a chance to celebrate improvement - not strive for unattainable perfection.

I am forever changed by the philosophy of WBT. It has truly been a life changing transformation. To come to school in April feeling as energized as I did in August is quite an amazing achievement, and one that I haven't always felt at year's end. School is fun again: for me and for the students. To have students walk past me in the hall with friends and hear them tell each other, "She's my favorite teacher!" confirms for me that they feel validated and successful in my class. Their emotional needs are being met. When their emotional needs are met, they can LEARN! It's not that I'm nice or easy. I push them SO hard. So hard in, fact, that my unit test scores have gone up tremendously from previous years! They are doing MORE, going DEEPER, and doing more CRITICAL THINKING then ever before. And they are doing it with laughter.

Meeting standards AND having fun at the same time? The only word for that is "Teacher-Heaven".


  1. It is really encouraging to see someone so passionate about teaching middle school. This is my first full year teaching middle school and sometimes I feel completely beaten down with all the behavior issues I have to deal with. I definitely want to give WBT a try next year.

    Jamie Michael
    Sixth Grade Tales

  2. Sarah,

    What an awesome post from an awesome teacher! What a privilege to call you friend and WBT colleague! Oh, yeah!!

  3. Love your enthusiasm, and passion. I couldn't agree with you more about helping kids with their emotional issues so they can sore to success. I just started teaching 7th and 8th grade science and am trying to implement WBT. Thanks for your help and would love your continued insight.

  4. Hi Sarah, (me again :)) Please tell me how many stars you suggest I give before moving a class - I only see them 1x a week) to a new level on the SIW????