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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

TWEENS - Education’s Middle Child

By Patti Siano — December 16, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Corinth Middle School (Corinth, NY) teacher Patti Siano.

“Caught in the hurricane of hormones between childhood and the adult world, pre-teens have been called the toughest to teach.”

After 26 years as a classroom teacher, it has been my experience that the most successful educators at all levels are those who follow their passion for engaging, motivating, connecting with and inspiring young minds.

However, I have to wonder, how many newly-certified teachers leave college and think, “I want to teach MIDDLE SCHOOL!” I surmise that not many of my middle school colleagues planned their careers to be centered in what my former principal/mentor used to call, “THE MIDDLE CHILD of education!”

My first teaching position was in a small, private school in upstate New York. Understaffed for many years (like most schools), my teaching load spanned introductory 7th grade language all the way through 12th grade level IV Spanish with college-bound, driven seniors. Switching gears each period for the variety of age groups was extremely challenging. However, there was no doubt for me that I enjoyed the energy and excitement of the middle school aged students the most.

In 1996, when I decided it was time to stretch myself and move to a new position (mostly a financial decision), several area schools were hiring staff for newly-created middle schools. Why is there a need for middle school? I resorted to research and discovered that the experts were validating with data what many of us in the trenches already knew, students in grades 6-8 have special needs that cannot be met in an elementary or high school setting!

BOOM! No kidding!

A quote in a 2008 article in the Toronto Star struck a chord with me, and probably for all middle level educators: “Caught in the hurricane of hormones between childhood and the adult world, pre-teens have been called the toughest to teach.” Never truer words were written!

Our middle school students enter as 10-11 year olds, some playing with cars, dolls and watching cartoons. Others are beginning to discover their sexuality and engage in adult-like behaviors. They are struggling with their identities, trying to decide who they are and how to become accepted by all.

As we all know, puberty is a very difficult time for kids and can result in a greater emotional response to stress. Peers also become a primary influence so it is critical that young people have at least one relationship with a caring adult in their lives. BOOM! The middle school model is built on this philosophy.

When I interviewed for my position in Corinth 18 years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the district was creating a new middle school based on the team model, a pillar of a successful middle school. The model is rooted in a team of teachers with common students who meet regularly to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their students, celebrate their successes and target interventions for their failures based on data.

I am proud to say that the team approach has always been a priority in our middle school, although its function has taken years to evolve into the dynamic, cohesive student-centered unit that we have today. Our weekly team meetings are passionate discussions about how to help each student reach his/her potential academically, behaviorally, socially and emotionally.

In addition to the team model, our middle school has adopted the PBIS model (Positive Behavior Intervention Support) to guide our work. The emphasis is the on POSITIVE in our PBIS philosophy. We use common language, explicitly train the expected behaviors and retrain/remind as often as needed. The focus is on celebrating the positive aspects of our school (students, staff, families, leadership and facilities).

Conversations and relationship-building is at the core. The transformation of our building from a reactive, punishing environment to a culture that is safe, proactive and joyous has been rewarding and makes me want to go to work everyday! The success is measured by data (student achievement, drastically reduced behavioral issues, surveys and more). Our school motto: Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible. Learn more about how PBIS can improve culture and climate in your school.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University, shared his findings in a report called, “MIDDLE SCHOOL MOMENT,” where he identified several indicators that can predict the likelihood of students to drop out of high school. His findings cite the middle school years as critical to identifying at-risk behaviors and creating an intensive support system to facilitate success. “For most students, the process of dropping out begins in middle school, when Balfanz says the habits that predict whether or not a student graduates are formed, making it a critical “make or break” period.”

Why do I love teaching middle school? It is my calling. It is my priority to connect with my students first, teach content second. My daily goal is to create a safe environment in which a student can express himself, take risks, make choices, share stories, laugh at me and at himself, think outside the box, create and thrive. My room can look a little chaotic many days, students using technology or coloring with pencils/markers, moving around, sharing our space and obtaining materials as needed. It can be loud, fun, engaging.

In our class, we do second and third chances, learning differently at different rates. We talk A LOT (in English and in foreign languages). We explore. We try. We fail. We succeed. Learning continues after the bell rings. We plan for the future but LIVE in the present. Grades 6-8 are a special time developmentally in students’ lives that NEED the middle school model to prepare them to set goals and work hard towards achieving them, knowing that caring adults in our middle school are behind them!!

I am blessed to work in Corinth Middle School in upstate New York with dedicated, driven educators and a progressive lead learner, Principal Lisa Meade, who inspires us to make a difference with EVERY student EVERY DAY!

In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But, people will never forget how you made them feel.” May ever middle school student encounter caring adults who connect with them, making them feel valued, special and accepted because their future depends on it.

Connect with Patti on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.