When my husband and I were dating, and we had all the time in the world, back when we strolled through bookstores, we stumbled upon a book called The Book of Questions. We bought it, placed it in the glovebox of my car, and we pulled it out every time we were stuck in traffic, on a road trip, or just in the mood to “get deep.” One of the questions we really loved, and we revisited often, was this: “Would you rather have a smooth, uncomplicated life, without any major pain or sorrow OR would you rather have a path like a rollercoaster, with amazing highs but also devastating tragedies too?” (This was two decades ago, so I’m paraphrasing) We thought this was the most telling question and felt we were very deep for understanding why the roller coaster was preferable. Now, years later, we’ve come to realize how cute and naive we were to believe that it is ever a choice.
Last month we talked about the milestones and awkwardness of middle school, and it was exciting to see thoughts posted in the comments and those shared across other platforms. Please continue to join this conversation and share your experiences about your students. Back when my husband and I were dreaming of our rollercoaster future, we didn’t realize the terrifying fact that one day we’d have our own little people, on their own roller coasters, and we would be largely helpless in the ups and downs of their lives. As parents, it is at turns heartbreaking, exhilarating, exciting, and exhausting.
As teachers, we are in the same predicament. We want our students to take risks, try new things, and grab all opportunities, yet we want to protect them too. I always have knots in my stomach when the cast list is posted for the play or cuts made to the team. Of course, students need to learn resilience and how to lose gracefully, but it is so nauseating to go along for the ride. How can we help them through the ups and downs? Is there even a way?
We can create safe spaces for honest conversations, encourage academic risk-taking by normalizing failing at tasks, allow retakes and fresh starts, and try to remember that like all of us, they have no choice in their life path. I have students who have lost a parent or sibling, others who have been homeless, and still others who are the high scorers, the leads in plays, and earn straight As. Though of course our empathy lies with those who are facing the biggest falls, we must not ignore the pressures that come with the highs as well. Being the lead in the play is scary. The expectation of ability that comes with sports, and the stress of grades and honor societies are overwhelming as well.
Though many students have supports in place to help with this crazy roller coaster, there are many who don’t. So, this month I’d like to turn our attention to an important question: How can we, as teachers, help middle schoolers navigate the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence?