There’s a reason why much of the recent research on middle schools has called for the elimination of middle schools long-term, that instead, K-5 or K-6 ought to become K-8. It’s a transitional period for kids, one that even with the best of parents, most preteens face mostly unprepared. It’s based on a system that educators and policy makers designed a century ago, when the average student completed their formal education in seventh or eighth grade (only one in five students living in the early twentieth century went on to high school).
The teachers traditionally prepared by schools of education really aren’t prepared specifically for sixth, seventh or eighth grade, but for secondary education. Meaning, teachers either have higher social and emotional expectations of 10-to-14-year-olds than they have prepared for, or they have higher academic expectation of their students than the students have been prepared for, or both. These are among the reasons why middle schools can easily become a black hole for students too young to be dealing with teachers trained really for high school, and a black hole for teachers who simply aren’t as prepared for tweeners and thirteen-year-olds as they like to pretend.
Despite the advances in teacher preparation in the past couple of decades, this reality still exists at most middle schools, including my son’s Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. Common Core, PAARC assessments, a wide variety of fatty lunch options, all make students feel that education matters and yet it really doesn’t. My son has already had a couple of teachers whose first and second instinct for controlling their classrooms has been to yell early and often, to the point where I’m convinced that at least one of his teachers this year had Tourette’s (at least, until we had the school move him out of that class). At least two others could be accused of unconsciously labeling their students, as their expectations of their students have gone unmet.
Through meeting these teachers, I’ve re-recognized something that used to be wrong in my own teaching, back when I first started teaching in Duquesne University’s College of Education in the late-1990s. To have high expectations and standards of conduct isn’t enough. Teachers need to communicate it, through examples, through their lessons, through a rubric, quite frankly, and not just a laundry list of expectation. Simply put, given the age of the students, teachers need to positively and consistently encourage students to meet those expectations, and lay out why these expectations will help them, academically and practically.
I had precisely two teachers at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York in the early 1980s who did exactly that. My eighth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Mignone, and my first-year, eighth-grade Algebra teacher, Ms. Jeanne Longerano were the best two teachers I had in two years of middle school Humanities-style. Both were committed to the idea that every student in the classroom deserved their undivided attention, which meant that we as students — even us fidgety ones — had to give our maximum preteen attention to what was happening in the classroom as well. Both had high expectations of us, academically and otherwise. I don’t think I got away with much of anything in their classrooms that 1982-83 school year, not even as much as scratching my pubescent balls because the hair was coming in that year.
I learned a life lesson about internalized racism and having high standards for human decency from Mrs. Mignone at the end of eighth grade. Not to mention, the applications of math to science, and science to history, which I carry with me to this day. From Ms. Longerano, I renewed my love for math, began my technical understanding of computer science (we had a computer science club that she started that year), and had a neighbor that I talked to from time to time. Ms. Longerano had given us such a strong foundation in Algebra that it wasn’t until AP Calculus in twelfth grade when I ran into any serious math troubles again.
In all, though, I had twelve different teachers in two years of middle school. I had an art teacher who was also the Humanities coordinator for A.B. Davis in Doris Mann who graded us on the quality of our art, “not just for trying,” to use her words. I had a seventh-grade science teacher whom I’d based some of the nutty stories I told my son over the years, about him eating raw clams in class or coming in after being sprayed by a skunk that same morning. I had a music teacher in Mrs. Mallory for two years who was flat-out goofy to the point of seriously immature, only to find out years later that she had done her same song-and-dance when she taught second-graders. I had a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Mr. Court who was the teacher who probably made his class the most fun, but not necessarily the most educational.
In contrast, Ms. Simmons (seventh-grade math), Ms. Fleming (Italian), and Dr. Demon Travel (eighth-grade social studies), were teachers who cared more about discipline and/or quick-and-dirty rote memorization than anything else. Simmons actually intimidated me, until one day near the end of the school year, I stood next to her. Only to find that I’d grown two inches, to five-foot-four, and that I was now at least an inch taller than her curly mini-fro. Mrs. Sesay, my homeroom and seventh-grade English teacher, was the opposite, a teacher who had little control over her classroom. Almost every incident of taunting and humiliation I experienced in seventh grade had its origins in 7S homeroom or English first period.
Still, I survived, mostly because of a crush in seventh grade, more maturity in eighth, and two really wonderful teachers in that latter year. I don’t want my son, though, to look back at his middle school years and go “Meh.” Unfortunately, he can already do that for sixth grade. Seventh and eighth will have to be better, even if it means I have to home-school him.