At last year's AMLE Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable preservice and inservice teachers, veteran and new administrators, and early career and retired professors. We were enlightened with lively discussions that captured our hearts and minds with stories and data, and we were challenged to think and rethink how we reach out to one another and to our students.
For one of my presentations, I shared a professional activity I had engaged in for a year. I serve a university as a professor in the education department, and I left the university to return to the classroom to teach eighth grade math in a rural county in western North Carolina. The school I joined was in their second year as a middle school and their first year as a one-to-one school.
We were not a high performing school, and our population of children received free lunch and breakfast for all children. In addition, we were considered a full-service school; the support our children received ranged from food to medical assistance to social and emotional advocacy.
I worked on a five-person team of teachers and with faculty, staff, and administrators committed to collaborating to meet the needs of our students. As a school new to the middle school concept, our teachers engaged in teaming, collaborative team projects, advisory, and clubs. The students participated in Battle of the Books thanks to our librarian and Science Olympiad thanks to the science department and other teachers.
Students wrote essays, honored veterans, and participated in talent contests in our community. Two groups of teachers were given the autonomy to set up school-wide support groups. One group of teachers designed and implemented a club for young men and another group implemented a peer tutoring club. My team's students made banners to support Red Ribbon Week and Earth Day.
We were grouped by teams and were set up for professional learning communities by content areas. Our school improvement team created school-wide goals and worked with our PTA to support and celebrate our community.
At the end of the year, our school met growth, and 98% of our Algebra I students passed the end-of-course exam. I worked with dedicated teachers, a dedicated parent teacher association, and supportive administrators who embraced the challenges and opportunities associated with advocating for young adolescents.
My goals were to (1) embrace the experience to glean what is needed in teacher preparation; and (2) serve a school as an educator, walking next to those closest to the field. The following are my takeaways.
My first takeaway involved the power of reflection. I wrote 97 blog posts over the course of the year as part of my professional development plan. For each reflection I listed at least three pieces of advice. I used the 16 characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) to label each blog. I wonder how many teachers reflect on their year and use the experiences to begin to plan for future years? I'm thinking—and hoping—that many do! Had I not purposely reflected through the year, many experiences, insights, and aha moments would have been lost. I highly recommend teachers reflect intentionally on their experiences.
Sharing and Learning with Colleagues
It's helpful to find someone to reflect with. Over the course of the year, I reflected with two colleagues intentionally. I drove to work with a colleague at least three days a week. The time we spent driving to and from work became a think tank, a reflection pool of our day, of our students and colleagues, and of our personal insights and dreams.
I also participated in a virtual reflection activity with a friend who teaches science in another state. We focused on "engaged learning" as part of her professional development plan. We celebrated successes, and sometimes just listened; well, actually we all were participant-listeners. I truly believe these two experiences made us more reflective, and gave us uninterrupted time to process our days and our ideas. We all agreed that we are better teachers because we had the chance to debrief, sometimes vent, and to celebrate and advocate for one another.
Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are so many facets to teaching, and so many expectations including, but not limited to, college and career readiness, critical thinking, literacy integration, technology, ethics, standards, objectives, civic engagement, social and emotional development, leadership, exploration, lesson planning, differentiation, assessment, parent involvement, homework, projects, communication, grading, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary units, clubs, safety and wellness, teaming, and mindfulness.
Focusing on academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and creating environments that are challenging, empowering, and equitable can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately, there are tools to guide you. I recommend that you use This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) as an overview to give you a framework, a common language, and to remind you of the big picture.
Remember that teaching is a journey to embrace and grow. One thing we often forget is that along with teaching content, our job is to advocate for all of our students, our students' guardians, our colleagues, and ourselves. Find ways to celebrate and appreciate all who advocate for middle school students.
Finally, I hear from administrators, professors, and district personnel who say, "I wish I could go back into a classroom." I would encourage professors, administrators, and district personnel to find a way to become part of a team for a week, a semester, or a year. When I was teaching in Gainesville, Florida, my chair, Paul George, would spend two weeks teaching a social studies unit to eighth graders. He inspired me to seek ways to stay in touch with middle school students.
There is magic in classrooms. The true spirit of middle level education lives in the halls and classrooms and with teams of teachers across this country. Living this experience every day was powerful, inspirational, enlightening, and necessary to me as a professor of education. If not for an entire year, I recommend a semester, or one class for a semester, or work with a team to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit, to revive your own knowledge and to live the power and spirit of middle level education.
Nancy Ruppert is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and serves as a trustee and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees. She has taught middle school math and science in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, coordinated middle grades programs at Shorter College and Charleston Southern University, and served as president of the National Professors of Middle Level Education (NaPOMLE).
Published July 2018.