I don’t know anyone who enjoyed middle school. Adults tell stories of bullying and confusion and a desperate need to both fit in and stand out. That’s why strangers gasp when I state my intention to teach middle school. “You’re a saint!” they cry. “I could never do that.” They can’t imagine submersing themselves again in the miserable stew of the early teen years. But their memories are incomplete. They leave out the true magic of middle school: it is a fantastic time of transformation and exploration. Middle school is when adolescents begin the process of forging unique identities, determining their values, finding their passions, and establishing agency over their own lives.
The most obvious and difficult aspect of the middle school years is how children try on personalities like coats – changing with the weather and the fashion. In their search for a tribe they can demean, ridicule, bully, and hurt those who seem different. This is the memory so often is carried into adulthood. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a story of unsupervised adolescent boys lost on an uninhabited island who quickly devolve into savage, murderous clans) resonates more than 70 years after it was written because even today the schoolyard sometimes feels like that island.
Yet, even in the midst of this social turmoil, middle school students are optimistic and enthusiastic. With just a little acknowledgement and encouragement they can be sparked to become life-long learners and compassionate members of their community. All it takes is one good teacher to help them channel their energy toward a path of curiosity and passion. I’m not saying the teacher’s job is easy. In middle school the personal relationships a teacher makes are as important as the academic curriculum of the classroom, because only after building trust can the student’s interest be hooked and held fast. That is when a student’s passion to learn is ignited. It’s a delicate balancing act – pushing a student to think deeply, solve problems, and create their own understanding of a topic while supporting them academically and emotionally so they can do their very best.
The same adults who, when asked for stories of their middle school years, tell horror stories that invariably end with, “but there was one teacher . . .” That teacher may have created a safe lunch space for students who considered the blacktop a battleground. Perhaps the teacher pulled a struggling child aside and told her that she had great talent and potential. In my case Mrs. Roupp facilitated my participation in the Great Decisions program, which expanded my horizon from the borders of Colorado to the nation’s capital, where I earned a degree in history – and raised my voice in support of my political beliefs. All it takes is one good teacher to help a child transform into a courageous, curious, intelligent citizen.