When you tell people that you are a middle school teacher, do they give you an apologetic smile, or say “God bless you,” or “Better you than me?” I’ve found that many people miss the beauty of the middle school world because they don’t know the most defining characteristic of this age: students are reaching milestones almost weekly! It is actually hard to believe that the little guy who timidly walks in the door as a sixth grader will, in a matter of years, grow physically and emotionally in ways that are profound, and ostensibly leave a confident and capable teenager.
Physically, we know that even a year can make those first days of school pictures unrecognizable from the end of year slideshows. The inevitable voice cracks, awkward style choices, and the braces everywhere can take its toll on the kiddos and parents. I’m the mom of an eighth grader, and the crisis over the fact that she can’t find the “right” black leggings, as opposed to the other five pair of identical black leggings, is exhausting for all of us. I haven’t experienced the boy-in-the-middle yet, but I will next year when my son Oliver comes up to the middle. As educators, we can protect these students from each other, and even more importantly, from themselves. We have the power to model positive self-image, strong senses of self, and encourage them along the way.
Emotionally, these kiddos are struggling, but they are also so genuine, and real, raw, and courageous, that I am in awe of them. I love the conversations that we have while dissecting social class in The Outsiders or while they are stressing about taking their first mid-term. When you gain the trust of a middle schooler, there is no comparison to the loyalty they will give you. Recently, when my mother-in-law passed away, my middle school students were more at ease sharing their own grief with me as a means to commiserate and be empathetic to me. I’m so proud of all they go through and still they show up! Not to mention, statistics tell us that 1 in 5 kiddos have mental health issues. Guess who is often the first to do the sideline diagnosis that can lead to getting treatment? We are.
So, as I was trying to come up with a title and theme, I realized that “milestone” captures this age very well. This is going to be a column that explores those milestones, celebrating all that is magical about the middle, as well as tackling some of the issues that come along with the territory. Though I’ve taught middle school for more than 15 years, I’m going to need some help along the way, so I’m going to take to social media to hear from all of you! Be on the lookout for questions on Twitter from @MsAmberChandler, using the hashtag #AMLE. I’ll be reaching out to some of the middle school thought leaders to help balance out our conversation. Please feel free to email me at AmberRainChandler@gmail.com, send me a message on Twitter, or leave a comment here for topic ideas, your thoughts on questions, and above all your expertise.
The first question I’d like to pose is this: In your grade level, what is a milestone that you have the privilege to observe and share in?