© copyright 2007 Betsy L. Angert
Recently, I read an article in The New York Times, The Critical Years, For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills. I taught in many Middle Schools and did so for years. I worked as a mentor, a "guest teacher," a substitute, and in those early years as an aide. Students "At Risk" graced my classrooms. Pupils with Special Needs gathered around my desk. Advanced Placement scholars, seeking erudition, sat in a room with me. The socioeconomic Middle class, the upper crust, the impoverished, all shared a learning experience with me, their teacher.
I was and am a Middle School teacher by choice. While I may have stumbled onto a Junior High School playground, I can honestly say, some of my best memories are of time teaching in Middle School. Apparently, I am not alone.
[M]any middle school teachers land there by happenstance. “More people end up in middle schools because that’s where the openings are,” said Carmen Fariña, a former deputy chancellor of the New York City school system who is now helping 35 middle school principals reshape their schools. “It’s not necessarily a choice.”
JoAnn Rintel Abreu, 40, an English and social studies teacher at Seth Low, graduated with a masters’ degree in English literature, the “bare minimum” teaching requirements and glorious visions of turning high school students on to Shakespeare and Chaucer. She was offered a middle school job first.
Now, after 16 years at Seth Low, Mrs. Abreu takes great satisfaction in trying to figure out how to reach adolescents. The rewards come with breakthrough moments, like when a sullen eighth grader who rarely does his homework handed in a bitterly descriptive, beautifully written memoir about his father’s new girlfriend, “the witch.”
I too recall student musings many in writing, some spoken. When teaching Language Arts, I asked students to journal each day in class. Often a profoundly philosophical quote was presented on the board, possibly a question was posed. I would give the pupils time to compose their prose or poetry. Then, minutes later, we would discuss their perspectives.
These entries supplemented other writing assignments. Some of these exercises were purposely not research based. Reporting grades was not the only reason for inscription.
Throughout the term, I would collect papers and the logs. I read the imaginative, insightful, and interesting student interpretations. Students taught me of themselves. I acknowledge that to truly teach another we must meet them where they live. If an instructor presents rote information in a routine manner, the teacher rarely connects to the individual.
In Middle School, scholars are still open to sharing who they are. Actually, I believe they yearn to be known. Through student writings, educators realize a window to the personal lives and realities of their pupils.
What happens at home affects adolescents deeply. When the curriculum negates the soul, when instructors do not see the sores, they cannot truly teach. I suspect the sullen eighth grader may have been surly for the "witch" wreaked havoc in his or her life. I think for an educator to be effective there must be an exchange that involves more than facts or figures.
While reading a student essay, I learned that a young and bright girl was a descendant of Davy Crockett. I discovered that an elder and brilliant sister left one scholar feeling as though they might never achieve enough.
I also recognized that as good as these compositions were, as much as they revealed, for me, they were less inspiring than classroom conversations. Young academics in my Middle School classroom trusted that there were no right or wrong answers. There were only opinions and beliefs. I reassured them of this often. For me, a teachable moment is constant in Middle School. Often one student will tell another they are wrong, an idiot, or another hurtful descriptor. When I, as an instructor, stopped to share the fallacy of such a statement, much is learned.
Nevertheless, as we chatted about a profoundly philosophical prompt or a parable, pupils and I learned there are many ways to look at life. We, as humans, may be similar; however, we are never the same. These friendly heart-to-hearts, expanded minds, theirs, mine, and ours.
To teach is to learn twice.
~ Joseph Joubert [French Critic]
Middle school students yearn to understand the world beyond them selves. They long to discover who they are and what is most important to them. They are developing a sense of style, their own unique mannerism They are watching the world around them. They are asking questions, and challenging perceptions.
You might remember as do I, seventh grade boys practice a strut as they walk across the playground. Girls also perform. They rehearse a swish, a wiggle in their walk. Lads watch other young men and the lasses look at their "competition." The baggy pants fall, the abdominals flail. The first blush of make-up is applied. Scientific investigations are abundant. [Self] discovery surrounds each pupil.
I learned to love Middle School, or might I more accurately state, the students.
Another instructor interviewed for this New York Times article stated, “Middle school is like Scotch. At first, you try to get it down. Then you get used to it. Then it’s all you order.” While I have never had a drink of Scotch or any other alcoholic beverage, I do understand the correlation. I had always imagined teaching in a University. I did educate college scholars.. I enjoyed that experience infinitely; yet, facilitating growth at an institution of higher learning involves more than erudition. I trust every school and each department differs. Nevertheless, at the time of my teaching, the focus seemed to be on power and I want none. For me, feeding the minds of students satiated my soul.
Knowing that Elementary Education was never my preference, the children felt too needy and enthralled with supposed authority, and High School positions were not easily found, I returned to what was familiar. Having taught in Middle Schools while working on my degrees, I trusted I would be prepared and welcome. It seems districts are always looking for teachers willing to "test their will."
Frequently, career professionals choose Middle School placements belatedly. Circumstances are often the guide.
Among her colleagues, Mrs. Kaufman, . . . started off as a third-grade teacher but moved on to middle school after a year spent blowing too many noses and zipping up too many jackets. Ben Bass, 59, started teaching middle school math only after losing his elementary school position during the teacher layoffs of the 1970s.
Mrs. Kaufman apparently, felt as I did. Perhaps, she too craved a challenge. She may have realized, as I did she could learn while teaching Middle School students. Learning is my love. Junior High students are excellent educators! They see and feel so much. Society has not yet, numbed their spirits.
However, sadly, for the most part, trained educators think Middle School is a last resort, a temporary respite. Qualified mentors are frequently sought out for Middle School positions; yet, few apply readily.
Near Claremont Park in the Bronx, Mr. Levy, the principal of I.S. 339, has worked hard to cobble together a staff capable of helping him revive a school mired in years of failure.
“Just go to a job fair,” he said. “The lines for elementary school and high school are around the corner. We can’t get people to teach in middle schools.”
One of his solutions has been to rely heavily on Teach for America. Twenty-one of his teachers, nearly a third, are part of the program, which recruits recent college graduates. While such teachers are often well educated and energetic, many leave after their two-year commitments.
Numerous instructors, after only a few years, flee the Middle School scene. I recall three superior educators were hired on at an excellent Middle School shortly after completing their Professional Teaching Credentialing coursework. Each had attended this same school while in puberty. Perhaps, these three had good memories and thought of Middle School first; perchance not. I know one had done her student teaching at this school. The others may have simply stumbled into open positions. I am uncertain.
Nonetheless, these proficient professors worked well with the students. Their curriculums were exemplary. This particular school has a pupil population that for the most part yearns for knowledge. Circumstances seemed idea on the surface. Yet, ultimately, each of these qualified individuals left.
Two initially entered other professions. One realized her love and desire for a career was related to what she had learned and loved in her own childhood home, gourmet cooking. Another concluded the classroom was not her preference. This person stayed in Education; however, creating curriculums, or working with media became the preferred path. The third elected to take a position in a High School. Teaching may have been in the blood. Family members were always employed within a school district.
These educators were escaping from an exemplary school, one in which the majority of students love learning. The parents of these pupils encourage education. Violence was not the flavor in this Middle School. Test scores were exceedingly high. These students were superior and scholarly. Thus, we might ask; was the decision to leave Middle School determined by the conditions in the classroom, or were circumstances the determinant.
Might these persons have realized their passion lied elsewhere. Perhaps, they preferred a more prestigious position. Frequently money is a motivator. Possibly, they concluded a quieter environment might soothe the soul. After all, Middle School can be maddening.
Students scurry about. There is much on their minds and not all of it is academic. I have strolled through the halls only to be pushed aside by a pupil focused on his or her friends. Perchance, for some teaching in a Junior High requires survival skills. As this article mentions Middle School teachers must know
How to snuff out brewing fistfights before the first punch is thrown, how to coax adolescents crippled by low self-esteem into raising their hands, how to turn every curveball, even the biting insult, into a teachable moment.
These are requirements when teaching in a Junior High School. Perhaps, not all educators have these capabilities. Nor do they want these to be part of their daily repertoire.
"Middle School," the phrase alone conjures up so many memories separate from my experience as an educator. As a student, the tales I could tell. Might I share the story of how and why my Mom decided that during the Middle School year's peers are paramount?
My Mom and Dad considered academics for an adolescent might be arbitrary. They believed core curriculums were vital. Yet, with hormones raging and pupils seeking a sense of them selves, genuine study is supplanted. Perhaps, this is why teachers consider a Middle School assignment a challenge. Placing yourself in a situation where every thought, word, and deed is questioned can be threatening. For some, myself included, it can be stimulating.
My parents believed that an urban school might be more rousing than a suburban sanctuary. They believed that I would benefit from an exposure to sex, drugs, and violence during my Middle School years . Mommy and Daddy did not think it wise to enroll me in a school that left me jaded.
They concluded, after an active social experience, my curiosity would be quelled. Upon entering High School, I would know myself, and what I valued. Searching for an identity and latent desires would be out of my system. They thought, when scholarship counted, I would be prepared if I experienced the world before grade nine.
My parents surmised that pre-puberty and those early teenage years could be trying for every one. As young persons acquire a sense of self, they explore. They are excitable. Their energy level is high and they can be defiant. If I were to express my wild ways before it mattered, that might be better.
In my own life, reflecting on my chosen life style while very young was good. Before I adopted any solid habits rooted in rebellion, I pondered the consequences. Ultimately, I made many wise decisions. For me, my parents' theory was correct. However, I still wish I had a bookish foundation. I thought of this often while teaching in a highly esteemed Middle School. When instructing in a world of academics, I often thought, if only I could do it all over again.
Yet, I acknowledge there was many times I thought of quitting. Many Middle School educators do. Increasingly, this is a concern. Communities are expressing their concern as they observe Middle School teachers fleeing in large numbers.
Faced with increasingly well-documented slumps in learning at a critical age, educators in New York and across the nation are struggling to rethink middle school, particularly in cities, where the challenges of adolescent volatility, spiking violence and lagging academic performance are more acute.
As they do so, they are running up against a key problem: a teaching corps marked by high turnover, and often lacking expertise in both subject matter and the topography of the adolescent mind.
The demands of teaching middle school show up in teacher retention rates. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system, middle school teachers account for 22 percent of the 41,291 teachers who have left the school system since 1999 even though they make up only 17 percent of the overall teaching force, according to the United Federation of Teachers.
In Philadelphia, researchers found that 34.2 percent of new middle school teachers in one representative year quit after their first year, compared with 21.1 percent of elementary school teachers and 26.3 percent of high school teachers.
There may be reasons for such a flight. Some schools are not as serene as the one I mentioned earlier. Conditions are not a constant. Honestly, even in the most tranquil of settings, at times, it feels as though the Middle School students have a no interest in education.
As the demands of national standardized testing increase and "teaching to the test" becomes the norm, there is little reason to feel inspired when teaching those that rather "play" with their peers. Watching or engaging in a less than productive performance can be draining. Pupils posturing can wear down the already, over worked and weary. Classrooms full of such antics leave little time for learning. An educator can feel as though the concept of "teaching" students at this age is a myth.
“There was a lot more anger and outbursts,” Christian Clarke, 29, a Bronx high school teacher, recalled of the students he encountered during his four years teaching middle school. “Twice as much time was spent on putting out fires; twice as much time was spent getting the class quiet. Twice as much time was spent on defusing anger in the kids.”
'Tis true. Having taught at every level, I do experience that Middle School students are slower to settle. Years ago, when I was first teaching, I realized that I had prepared a speech. In truth, I never had. Yet, as many of us know, when we are the elders, speaking to the young, our parents' words often pour from our mouths. As I stood before my first Middle School class, I realized I was pleased as punch that I like my parents and the way in which they taught me. For as I began speaking, seconds after the first bell, I heard myself sharing the standards I learned in my own home.
I let the students know that habits are not our nature. We do have choices. For me, as a facilitator of knowledge, every second is a teachable moment. When I present my preferences and discuss classroom demeanor I am speaking of far more than rote rules. My own predilection is to tell a tale. For me, the "Mountain Dew" story says it all.
Pupils are surprising mesmerized as I offer my personal narrative. They ask numerous questions. They relate. Then, after ample discussion, give and take, students are satisfied that they have choices. They study quietly, ask for assistance without hesitation; they choose to learn.
I believe telling personal stories develops relationships. My sharing tells them I am as they are real . I was, am, and will be learning with them and from them. My hope and experience is my pupils can feel safe being real with each other and me. I certainly will to be authentic with them. They understand I too have had and perhaps have unhealthy habits. I am willing and wanting to work through these. I am only asking that we share our awareness and ourselves. I teach using our similar life experiences. For me, that is the purpose of school, particularly Middle school.
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
~ William Butler Yeats [Poet, 1865-1939]</font>
Life, I believe offers the best lessons.
A good middle school teacher needs to know how to channel such anger into class work, and whether inappropriate questions like “Are you gay?” (as a Seth Low student recently asked her math teacher) merit serious discussion or feigned deafness.
“You have to have a huge sense of humor and a small ego,” said Jason Levy, the principal of Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx. “There are some people who are born to do it and some who learn to do it, and there are some people who really shouldn’t do it.”
However, we never know with certainty, whether we are Middle School teachers by nature, if the skills can be taught, or if for us, a career in Middle School is not our calling.
For now, solutions to Middle School teacher flight are being offered. Schools, states, and Universities are focusing on the educator, teacher preparation, pay scales, and adolescent psychology. The theory is . . .
[P]reparation for these jobs is often inadequate.
The Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, has asserted that a “scandalously high” number of middle school classes are taught by teachers lacking even a college minor in their assigned subjects.
Around the country, middle school teachers are often trained as elementary school generalists or as high school subject specialists, with little understanding of young adolescent psychology.
“We’re really in a malpractice kind of environment, where we’re preparing teachers for elementary classrooms and high school classrooms but not middle-grades classrooms,” said Peggy Gaskill, research chairwoman of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, an alliance of educators, researchers, and others seeking to improve middle school education.
Dr. Gaskill has found that while 46 states offer some sort of credential specifically for middle school teachers, only 24 require it.
States and school districts looking to strengthen their teachers are trying a variety of approaches, among them offering special certifications for middle school teachers, paying them extra to work in tough schools, or having them cover two subjects instead of one to let them develop closer relationships with students.
Three years ago, New York State began offering a special middle school certification for fifth through ninth grade, for teachers whose training emphasizes young adolescent pedagogy and development.
There is even help for Middle School teachers online.
Training may not be the answer. Perchance Districts might look for instructors that have an appreciation for people that challenge their minds and mannerism. Young teens do that.
I often mused that if I were to gain a few pounds, my students would tell me. We would discuss my theories as to why I was putting on weight. Pupils would often share their own stories, struggles, body image concerns, and health conditions that led to one change or another. The lessons were never ending. I believe, for schools to be truly effective the curriculum must meet students where they live. Life is more than facts, formulas, and fictional representations of history.
When a student at Seth Low Intermediate School loudly pronounced Corinne Kaufman a “fat lady” during a fire drill one recent day, Mrs. Kaufman, a 45-year-old math teacher, calmly turned around.
“Voluptuous,” she retorted, then proceeded to define the unfamiliar term, cutting off the laughter and offering a memorable vocabulary lesson in the process.
Perhaps a Middle School teacher is best equipped when they are as my parents thought Middle School students were. If Middle School educators were allowed to be more devoted to the relationships they have with their students, if they were not so rigidly required to be committed to rote curriculums, all would be better served.
We might surmise a persons' age or school standing does not define them. Life history may determine habits. Teachers coming to Middle School are often led by circumstances. Educators go through stages in their development, just as students do. We, as a society may teach future Middle School instructors to cope, manage, understand, survive, or thrive. We might also accept that some Middle School teachers evolve as their students do.
Middle School educators have an energy and interest at one point in their lives. Then, after learning in this accelerated environment they discover who they truly are or were meant to be, or what they may be ready to do. They may appear to move on; yet, the memories linger. Middle School instructors that leave the profession may have no regrets or ill will towards their young students or the schools.
Statistically, the number of professionals exiting the Junior High scene is not that much greater than those escaping other prospects. Might it be that for the Middle School teacher, just as for the adolescent student, learning is hastened. So much is raw and vulnerable when mingling with the Junior High School learner. Middle School educators may be more able to learn who they are from and with their agile pupils. Just as an adolescent evolves, so too do their teachers, or so I believe.
Please share your perceptions, observations, and opinions. As a professional educator, a parent, a pupil, or a person [once] committed to their career, what do you think. Was, or is, Middle School your sanctuary? Perhaps, you barely survived the experience. I welcome you evaluation. Please trust me, your statements will not be graded.
Sources and schooling . . .
Betsy L. Angert