Don’t Give Up the Ghost

We owe it to our middle school students to be caring, to be present, and to be their advocates

I like to read. Fiction and nonfiction. Mystery. Crime. Middle grades. Biography. Memoir. Political. Children’s. Academic articles. Newspapers. Satire. All over the board. I read a lot because inspiration comes from everything. One of my current favorites is a middle grades graphic novel called Sheets by Brenna Thummler. I don’t want to give any of it away. It is a must read. Especially for anyone who works with young adolescents who have experienced loss. The title, Sheets, has multiple meanings. The protagonist operates a laundromat and handles a significant amount of her town’s laundry. Ghosts are also present. They wear sheets.

The world that Thummler shares with readers is overflowing with wit. One of my favorites is early in the tale where readers see a support group of ghosts sitting in a circle. “Don’t give up the ghost” is displayed on a poster in the background. I love it. I want that poster. It is a poster that I didn’t know I needed in my life before I saw it hanging on a fictional wall in a fictional ghost support group meeting. I think this poster needs to hang in every teacher’s lounge around the world.

The saying apparently has its roots in the 1600s. It means, bluntly, to die. When a person gives up the ghost, they allow their spirit to depart their body. Whatever feeble grip remains is loosed. No big fanfare, surprise, or dramatic ending. It really is a loss of strength; like life is a balloon on a string held intently by a toddler. When the grip slips, the balloon floats away.

Why on earth should this be on a poster in every single teacher’s lounge around the world?

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. He is steadfast in his love for the state we were both born in: Maine. I have a picture somewhere of me standing outside his wrought iron fence (complete with spider webs and gargoyles) wearing the type of goofy grin that the Maine woods, the Kennebec River, and long winters carve. One of King’s books, Desperation, pulled on my advocacy for and alliance with young adolescents and middle schools. David Carver, one of Desperation’s protagonists, is an 11-year old who experiences immeasurable trauma. While dialoguing with another character, David asks something to the effect of “When did you die?”

The character to whom David is talking is very clearly present during the events of Desperation, so he must not have died, right?

David continues and says, “When a person stops changing, stops feeling, they die.”

That is exactly why teachers need the “Don’t give up the ghost” poster. When you stop changing, stop learning, stop adapting, you die. When you stop feeling, stop caring, stop investing in your students’ lives, you die.

When teachers stop caring, they give up the ghost. They haunt their classrooms and department meetings. They might as well walk through the halls banging on the lockers.

So how can we as advocates for middle school students take active steps towards not giving up the ghost? Let’s pull inspiration from This We Believe and apply a nuanced lens. This We Believe asserts that our middle schools must be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. Not giving up the ghost could mean that

  • Developmentally responsive middle schools refrain from solely subscribing to developmentalism and focus more broadly on the multifaceted nature of young adolescents and the myriad life experiences that have influenced their identities (Brinegar, Harrison, & Hurd, 2019).
  • In order to be challenging and set high expectations we work with our students to develop meaningful and purposeful personalized learning programs that provide opportunities traditional instruction could not (Bishop, Downes, & Farber, 2019).
  • Schools empower their students by dismantling barriers that impede student voice. Include young adolescents in conversations about school structure, curriculum development, and policy (Woodson, 2016).
  • Stakeholders adopt an equity literate (Gorski & Swalwell, 2015) stance and actively seek ways to recognize, respond to, and redress inequitable practices in their schools and then cultivate and sustain practices that will challenge inequities in the long term.

Giving up the ghost degrades a school culture and impacts more than just the students who interact with the ghoul. Research shows us that middle school is a time in young adolescents’ lives when they begin to make lasting decisions about their futures. The nasty spirits that replace teachers who give up the ghost can negatively influence a student’s desire to learn or engage with classmates and school. Fear is powerful and its influence is pervasive.

We owe too much to our students, our schools, and ourselves to give up the ghost.


Bishop, P. A., Downes, J. M., & Farber, K. (2019). Personalized learning in the middle grades: A guide for classroom teachers and school leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Brinegar, K., Harrison, L., & Hurd, E. (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gorski, P. C., & Swalwell, K. (2015). Equity literacy for all. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 34-40.

Woodson, N. (2016, April). Leading with the student voice. AMLE Magazine, 3(8), 39-40.