With Halloween happening today, I am thinking about my fears. What scares me? In terms of education, being mediocre frightens me. Accepting mediocrity scares me. Middle schools and young adolescents don't need mediocrity. They need outstanding. They don't need tepid. They need vibrant. They need learning that lights them up with combustible joy and excitement. As Yeats once put it, “Education is not the filling of a bucket; it's the lighting of a fire.” So how do we get and keep young adolescents on fire? It's a challenging question for a number of reasons but we need to keep scratching at the answers.
First, in many ways, teaching means we row on pedagogical waters along with testing, which by its very nature is individualistic, numerically-based, and even competitive. Therefore, it's a delicate journey to bring outstanding teaching and learning based on collaboration, inquiry, creativity, communication and critical thinking all the time in the middle grades—because we don't want to sell our students short.
While we pump them up about being in our classes and lighting them up for learning, we also need to provide them the proper intellectual currency they need for future mandatory assessments. While we progressively implement performance-based assessments to demonstrate mastery and use unique seating arrangements to facilitate cooperative-learning, we also need to prepare our students for the row-based, silenced, and, frankly, isolating environment that is standardized testing. For as much as we want to rage against that machine (credit to Zach de la Rocha), we are bound to its mechanisms.
Bringing outstanding can also be a challenge because we are bound to each other, and this is especially true in the middle level where interdisciplinary teams are a key ingredient. Teams, PLCs, and collaborative grade level work should be liberating, uplifting, and informative adult-learning structures; the discourse in these structures should be respectful as it pushes, rekindling as it is fiery, rejuvenating as it creates conflict—as long as the talk, the words and the work drive us forward to help kids. We need to bring outstanding to that work, as well.
Unfortunately, what provides the challenge is that some team members are satisfied with just showing up. Their pedagogical embers are barely smoldering, and in fact, they don't care to have them stoked, prodded, or relit—and it's difficult to tell if they were ever on fire! How do we get those folks to bring outstanding to team meetings so conversations about teaching and learning can grow? Part of the answer is building team and grade level meeting constitutions together early in the school year and revisiting the norms of those constitutions often, so everyone is on the same sheet of music singing the same song. Can there be discord and disparate voices in the chorus that challenge the tune? Of course. But it has to be passionate, reasonable, respectful and driven by the needs of the audience we serve–our students and families.
The second part of the answer is knowing how to have critical conversations with the folks who disregard the constitution and who are satisfied with tepid—and then being brave enough to have those conversations. This also means that administrators driven by outstanding must support your team's work, the team's constitution, and the team's efforts to bring everyone on board—or to get certain people off the bus. That's how outstanding happens sometimes.
In addition, being outstanding every day in the classroom can be difficult because of the nature of who we serve. Sometimes, students can be enthusiastic and open to learning, and at other times, they can behave like fickle carpenters who build and tear down walls around themselves, blocking, silencing, and refusing our every effort to infuse enthusiasm into learning. But maybe the answer to bringing outstanding in the classroom begins with questions: What pushes students to grow jaded about school? What chipped away at that natural enthusiasm they had as children? What will happen if we let that continue? Will they become so embittered about learning that they drop out mentally or physically? Will they become dependent on a system to continue their education instead of being excited, independent learners who remain curious beyond grades and test scores? If so, is it okay not to bring outstanding to our students in the middle grades? I don't think so.
Ultimately, I think outstanding is the best tool we have to crack the veneer of disenchantment that some of our students (and teachers and administrators) carry. In other words, bringing outstanding may be challenging for all of the aforementioned reasons, but our young adolescents desperately need us to try. The alternative of tepid mediocrity is too frightening to accept.