Middle Grades Educator: The Most Important and Worthwhile Job in the World
An interview with AMLE President Nancy Poliseno, teacher, Olentangy Orange Middle School, Lewis Center, Ohio. Nancy will be moving into the past president role when the board of trustees holds its October 2012 meeting.
AMLE: Tell us about your experience as a middle grades educator.
Poliseno: I have been a middle grades educator for more than 25 years now (and retirement does not appear to be anytime soon)! My experience in the classroom includes sixth grade social studies, science and language arts; seventh grade reading, and eighth grade language arts. Throughout my career, I have held various leadership roles such as team leader, outdoor education coordinator, community-school liaison, mentor teacher, school programs coordinator, professional development presenter, and I have served on numerous curriculum and special projects committees. My most memorable experiences will always be those in which I have worked on special projects with students. My most valuable experiences are those in which I have had the opportunity to serve as a mentor and watch the growth of pre-service teachers as they become the facilitators of their own successful classrooms.
AMLE: Why the middle grades?
Poliseno: Why not the middle grades? I cannot imagine working with any other age group. It is certainly never boring and the students keep me young, as I have to stay current with technology, fashion trends, and music. I love the way they question and challenge everything about life as they try to determine who they are and what they value. The discussions I can focus on within the classroom and curriculum are in-depth and interesting. It is a constant challenge to keep them engaged, but when they, are it is truly exciting to watch the learning that can be accomplished. The middle grades is where the greatest opportunities lie to truly make an impact on students—it is here that I can be a make the most difference in a life as a positive role model. It is that difference that keeps me in the middle grades classroom.
AMLE: What do you plan to focus on in your classroom this year?
Poliseno: The central focus of my classroom every year is my students – identifying where they are academically, socially, emotionally, and developmentally. This is probably one of the most exciting parts of my career; sincerely getting to know who my students are so that I can get the most out of them. Another focus this year is on my academic student growth as well as mastering the new common core standards for my subject area. I also plan to focus on the character traits of responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, and acceptance because these are important traits to have as human beings and are easily taught with quality literary texts that middle grades students are interested in reading.
AMLE: How do you use technology in your classroom? Your school?
Poliseno: I am learning to use technology more efficiently this year as I am incorporating the use of Schoology and Remind101 to communicate with my students and parents. I am also learning several new data management systems that will help chart academic growth. I am hopeful these systems will allow me to more effectively determine appropriate intervention and enrichment opportunities. I use UnitedStreaming to show video clips for background information as well as to entice some of my more hesitant readers before we read a novel or short story. My research unit this year is inquiry-based and will culminate in the creation of an online brochure accompanied by an informational presentation using Prezi or PowerPoint to showcase each student as an "expert" on their chosen topic. I am excited about this project! I am fortunate to work in a district that encourages and supports the use of technology in student learning.
AMLE: What do you do to engage family and community members?
Poliseno: I have been and always will be a strong advocate for student-led conferencing in the middle grades. I believe it is the BEST way to engage families with the school and students' learning. I strongly encourage all middle grades teachers and administrators to get professional development in this area. It is a powerful tool for improving academic achievement that is often overlooked. I also am an advocate for developing service projects within the school community—there are so many hidden opportunities that can engage students and community members together for a worthwhile cause and allow everyone to be an important part of something helpful and meaningful. Service learning is inclusive, and I have witnessed many students achieving greater academic success as a result of participating in well-planned and meaningful community service. I have had students partner with reading buddies at the elementary schools and also with the local senior center and assisted living facility where they have conducted multi-generational projects with great success.
AMLE: How does your school handle bullying?
Poliseno: We simply do not tolerate bullying in any form. As a school we have a No Bullying policy which includes all forms of harassment. This year we are bringing in Rachel's Challenge, which is a wonderful program to help build and create a caring and safe school community. We have a very diverse student population and I believe creating an awareness of differences is extremely important in the middle grades as this is the age we learn to build respect for one another. I also believe that as teachers and adults we need to role model respect for one another as well as our students. Language arts teachers can do a lot with literature that addresses intolerance in our society through engaging students in quality in-depth class discussions. Unfortunately, many schools are removing their advisory programs, which, if conducted effectively, are an excellent way to address many of these types of issues.
AMLE: How have you juggled leading a major education association while being fully engaged as classroom teacher?
Poliseno: I have had wonderful support from my administration at the building and district level. In addition, I work with a great group of colleagues who have supported me in my leadership role. It has been interesting to observe the ways in which my students have responded to my absences from the classroom—they are always excited and interested in what I am doing for their age group and have cooperated (behaved) so appropriately during my absences. I like to think that has been their way of supporting me. Many have even shared how proud they are to have a teacher who is so involved in advocating for them! At times, it has been a bit overwhelming, but the experience has made me not only a better person, but a better teacher, colleague, and mentor. Of course, finding time to do my paperwork has been a challenge and there has not been much personal time, but the personal and professional growth I have experienced as a result has been so valuable and worthwhile! Advocating for and leading an association focused on an age group that I am so passionate about truly has been something I never imagined myself doing earlier in my career!
AMLE: What parting words of wisdom would you like to share with middle grades educators?
Poliseno: Stay the course! Take the time to appreciate who your students are and learn what they need to be successful. Read and share with your colleagues and parents the essential document This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents and its accompanying research piece so everyone in your school understands who your students are academically, socially, emotionally, and developmentally. Hold parent and community focus groups to share ideas on how to communicate with and support this unique and challenging age group. Create academic service learning opportunities that engage students and the community. Advocate for educational funding and programs that will help them reach their full potential. Be your students' voice when education policies seem to be focused on everything except their well-being. Middle grades students are at a fragile age, and as an educator, your voice can be their support. Encourage them, love them, and realize you are making a difference in their lives at a time when no one else understands their needs. Most importantly, realize that as a middle grades educator, no matter how difficult times may be, you have the most important and worthwhile job in the world!
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education