I started my teaching career in high school English for two years before I transitioned to middle school, or what I always referred to as teaching-topia. I taught seventh grade for nine years, and during that time I had the opportunity to connect and collaborate with more than 1000 students.
I loved teaching middle schoolers because of their passion, their vulnerability, and the glimpses of both childhood and adulthood in each of them simultaneously. As a teacher, I was committed to getting to know all my students and their unique characteristics, so I could design curriculum with options and choices to engage all of them. Sometimes I fell short.
On the first day of school each year, I stood at the entrance of my classroom and greeted every student with a smile and a handshake. I took selfies with them and posted their pictures on a bulletin board that read, “All My Children.”
Through interest surveys, I asked them to tell me something about them that I would never forget. Every evening during the first week of school, over a bag of Goldfish crackers, I studied their photos and convinced myself I knew them. But how well did I really know them? How well did I design a curriculum that was authentic and meaningful to each of them? My team and I struggled with those questions. How could we be sure we had a connection? This question lead us to the practice of silent mentoring. That rocked our middle school world.
Two months into the school year, once everyone was settled in and we had long since memorized the names of our students, we scheduled a meeting with all seventh grade educators including academic teachers, integrated art teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators. We made copies of the seventh grade roster and gave everyone in attendance a highlighter. The task was simple. Highlight any student with whom you have a deep connection.
In order to highlight their name, you had to know something about their passions and interests and what they did when they left at 2:30pm. You had to have examples of when the students would seek you out, stay after class a minute or two longer than necessary, or chat in the hallway.
With a red highlighter in hand, I reviewed the first page of the list. Who did I really know? We passed around the lists until everyone had seen every name. Every year we were faced with the same reality. Inevitably, there were a handful of students who had slipped through the cracks. These were the names that weren’t highlighted. No one knew them well, they didn’t connect with anyone, and no one could say anything about these kids’ interests, their passions, their families or their dreams. And that's when the next step of silent mentoring came in.
We could simply not allow a single student to go through school without a meaningful connection with a caring adult. We all made a promise. We would each choose students on the list and would get to know them—really know them—by connecting with them every day, attending their after-school events if necessary, and making positive phone calls home.
One student, who I will call Ryan, was not highlighted. Because he had a locker right outside my homeroom door, I chose him from the list. Every day, I complimented him on his clothes, asked about what he did the night before, and sat with him for a couple extra minutes when collaborating with his group.
He was a runner and was incredibly talented. He didn’t have the time to join our track program because he watched his siblings. He drew intricate designs all over his arms. One teacher sent him to the office. I asked if he was interested in tattoos and he lit up. He wanted to go to college, run, and learn how to be a tattoo artist too. He started visiting me before his homeroom. I invited him to eat lunch with me and a friend so he could help me plan a lesson that would blow the minds of his classmates.
In eighth grade, a year after I taught Ryan, all students have an opportunity to write their favorite moments of middle school. Ryan, next to his yearbook photo wrote, "Mrs. Novak was the only person who ever really got me." Is there a greater compliment than that?
Getting to know middle schoolers is all about stepping back, reflecting on your relationships, and then making connections, and giving time to the students who need it the most. A big question is when do you get this time? With scripted curriculum, standardized assessments, and accountability reports some teachers feel as though their jobs are merely to teach content, but our jobs are so much more powerful than that.
The reason I knew my middle schoolers was because I took the time to get to know them, and I used what I knew about them to encourage them to follow their passions through my curriculum. Ryan wanted to be a tattoo artist. Instead of asking him to read Old Man and the Sea, I encouraged students to choose text that meant something to them. For Ryan, I brought in a copy of Inked magazine. When we read a short excerpt from The Outsiders, I empowered the students to share a character’s point of view in any way they wished. Ryan shared with the class that he always felt like he was a Greaser and he wanted to create an artistic representation about how Ponyboy felt and how those feelings impacted his point of view. Then, he proceeded to give a presentation of how the tattoo he designed represented Ponyboy's point of view and how a Soc, a member of the rich kid gang, could never understand what Ponyboy dealt with as every needle went into his skin.
Without silent mentoring, I wouldn’t have really known Ryan, and I wouldn’t have been able to provide him with feedback that was authentic, valuable, and meaningful. Because of our silent mentoring program, I could do this with every student. Every student had a champion, and when a student was struggling, I could talk to a colleague, and as a team, we could meet with that student and create a personalized learning plan. They always knew they had a warrior in the room.
Silent mentoring optimized my ability to provide all my students with options and choices. When I stopped asking students to write arguments about whether or not they had school uniforms, I could remind Paige that she was passionate about animal rights, while Dominic committed to starting a recycling program in the middle school, and others created a presentation for the school committee about starting a skate park.
When I gave students choices about how they were going to share with me what they learned, their true selves spilled onto their products and into the classroom. The more I did this, the more names I could highlight on the list of kids that I really knew. But still, there were some names at the beginning of every year that eluded us, and we made it a point to connect. We repeated the highlighting exercise mid-year. Every name was always highlighted.
As a former middle school teacher, I truly believe that the best way to know a student is to take the time to connect. We have a responsibility to get to know students so they make meaningful connections. When they have these connections, they can share more about who they are and express the deepest part of themselves through curriculum and assessment. And that is my calling now. I am no longer a middle school teacher, but I work with them every day and I see the magic of curriculum and teaching when we put relationships first and then empower our kids with options and choices.
Katie Novak, Ed.D., is an internationally recognized education consultant, the assistant superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, and the author of four books, including
UDL Now! and Let Them Thrive (CAST, 2017).
Published August 2018.