Getting Back Into the Middle Grades Mindset

Middle Grades Mindset

Before we start another school year, I have to address something dangerous. Thankfully, it has nothing to do with a pandemic, masks, or bottles of hand-sanitizer. This school-based danger comes in the form of the word “mindset.” Allow me to explain the dangers. First, I have no problem with one part of the word, “mind”–because it is through the mind that we learn, discover, create, communicate, and grow. And in terms of middle school, there is nothing more enjoyable than seeing the mind of a young adolescent light up in the classroom when a new connection is made. The middle school mind simply can’t hide excitement and engagement. You know it when it happens. When that epiphany occurs, it’s like the young adolescent mind is right there in front of you–when their eyes get big, their eyebrows and postures raise up, and their voices start chittering with excitement. That moment switches on like electricity because the young adolescent mind is going through the most rapid change in its brainy life; it’s like a pulsing, neon race car with questionable steering, very very soft brakes, and unlimited power. And for all of its potential challenges, it’s amazing that we get to be around that unique young adolescent cognitive vehicle! And for all of its possible hiccups, it’s awesome that we get to develop lesson plans to engage and rev up that marvelous middle school mental engine! Thus, I have no issue with “mind” as it pertains to the word “mindset.” My problem–fellow educators–is with the word, “set.” So get set.

To be clear, there are times when “set” is perfectly suited to the situation. For example, when I was in 7th grade and I played the Sousaphone (i.e. tuba) during the annual Virginia Beach Winter parade, my band director reminded me to get “set” and warm up my mouthpiece before we started to play. Because I was 12, I wasn’t fully listening and forgot to follow his directions to get “set.” As a result, my lips froze to my mouthpiece and remained stuck there for the entirety of the parade. All 8 miles of it. In that case, the word “set” was critical–and I should have listened. Similarly, we need to be “set” for the beginning of the school year. We need to be physically, emotionally, and pedagogically “set” for the young adolescents and families we serve. We need to be “set” as we take stock of our vision, mission and goals. We need to be “set” as we commit to data collection, analysis, and collaborative goal-setting for the year ahead. And we need to be “set” to acknowledge and support our students (and our staff), who will have unique social-emotional needs due to lingering pandemic factors. In fact, many would say that it’s dangerous for us not to be “set” as we prepare to do our vital work in the critical middle grades next school year.

On the other hand, being “set” in the context of the word “mindset” can also be dangerous. How exactly? Think about cement. When I was a kid, I got excited whenever a new sidewalk appeared across the street because it was wet with fresh potential. Before it got too dry and “set,” I couldn’t wait to run over to the wet cement and write or draw in it. I was eager to make an impression on that new canvas before it “set.” How does this analogy work with middle school? First, whenever I have the chance to interview teacher candidates, I always ask them, “Why do you want to work with middle school students?” Without fail, the majority of them say that young adolescents are still impressionable, and that they, as their teachers, hope to make a positive impression on them. Reminds me of that cement in my old neighborhood. Hence, as we prepare for the start of a new school year, we need to remember that we have an amazing opportunity to make a positive impression on the lives of young adolescents–before they “set”. A middle schooler’s mind, heart and spirit are ready, and they are impressionable. And they can’t wait another year for us to figure out how we’re going to do it. While programs and processes are important, nothing is more important to making an impression on a middle school kid than daily, positive contact. A smile. A wave. A caring question. A listening ear. A genuine support. And we have to commit to making that impression now. Second, as we prepare for the bright road ahead, we have to remain impressionable ourselves–whatever our roles are in the school house. While it’s important to have clear goals and firm guideposts along the way, we can’t be rigid and “set” like dry cement. Not only will we potentially crack, but we will potentially fail–to be the flexible, mindful, reflective and reflexive people our young adolescents need us to be. We need to be open to new ideas. We need to truly listen as we collaborate. We need to take each other seriously and value every voice in the process of change.  Thus, as we get ourselves “set” in preparation for next school year, let’s remember not to let our own minds and hearts become “set.” The young adolescents and families we serve shouldn’t have to settle for that.

Need more to ideas and motivation to get ready for back to school? Check out Dru’s new book The Middle Grades Mindset: A Lesson Plan from A-Z.