Bryn Mawr School Spanish teacher and sixth grade advisor Rebeccah Wish often tells people that teaching middle school students is the best. Many will respond by saying “Really?”
She understands the misperception. After all, middle school is a time of great change for students—academically, emotionally, physically and socially. Heading into her 17th year of teaching, Wish, who has only taught middle school grades, says “I love this age group. There is so much excitement and energy every day about so many different things. The students—they are unique. They are bright. They are curious. They are creative. They are passionate. They are talented. They are excited about everything, but they are also trying to figure out who they are and helping them discover their strengths is so wonderful.”
After getting comfortable over the years in elementary school with a single teacher guiding their every move, the transition to middle school can be a bit jarring. Middle schoolers have to use a locker, remember and execute the combination correctly and make sure they still have enough time to get to the next class. Instead of one teacher, they have six or seven. Plus, they need to remember and change into gym clothes in order to participate in physical education. This can be a lot for 11 year olds to take in.
“I always think this is one of the biggest transitions that kids go through,” says Amanda Macomber, Bryn Mawr’s middle school director. “Probably the only other bigger one is from high school to college.” Kids have to learn to manage more on their own and parents have to move from being less of a manager and more of a coach. “Your goal as a parent really changes in that critical transition, because the kids want you to change your role and you have to change your role in order for them to become independent and self-reliant.”
Many middle schools in the area offer a number of ways to ease the transition. Many have rising students come to their school before summer break to get a feel for what lies ahead. They also have open houses just before the start of school so parents and students may meet staff, see their classrooms and go over their schedule.
Bryn Mawr also does a summer buddy program, pairing up families with new students to do fun group events over the summer. On the first two days of school, they host an orientation and retreat for students where they partake in team-building exercises like having groups balance on a teeter totter-like board and doing a scavenger hunt to figure out who their advisor for the next three years will be. They also teach them how to use their planner effectively.
“We like to believe they can be the CEOs of their own learning, so we teach them on those first few days how to start taking ownership and getting themselves from class to class and figuring out their homework and how to talk to teachers and how to get things done in an organized way so that all starts in those first few days,” Macomber says. “We teach them the skills that they need so they feel that they can handle it on their own, because they really can. It’s all about believing in yourself and building up your organization skills and your social, emotional skills.”
Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s humanities and government teacher and fifth grade advisor John Stevens says he hosts a weekly advisory period for students. “It’s like a class except they don’t get grades in it,” he says. “We try to teach them organizational skills” including having a planner to recognize when tests and homework are due for different teachers.
The Baltimore private school also hosts a bowling party several days before classes start as an opportunity for families, students and staff to meet. Middle school starts at the fifth grade here and staff keep the two younger classes on one floor and the older ones on another. “We try very hard to keep them in their own little area until they get used to things,” he says.
At West Middle School in Westminster, they have flex time built into their schedule at the end of the day. Some use the time for homework, while others meet with teachers to discuss concerns, homework or questions. Terri Wilson, a West Middle English language arts teacher, says teachers are welcoming, patient and understanding during those first few days and weeks of transition. Counselors and administrators come to talk to each class at the beginning of the year. “So kids know whatever problem you have, there is face,” she says. “You can get your questions answered.”
Educators also remember when they were middle schoolers themselves. Macomber tells her students today about a rough time she had in seventh grade. “I was trying to get in with a group of girls that I thought I wanted to be friends with, but they really didn’t want me to be friends with them and they did all those things that girls can do sometimes to make you feel bad,” she recalls.
One day, a girl pulled her socks down because she felt it wasn’t cool to have socks pulled up. “I still remember that day,” she says. Macomber says she later figured out the kinds of people she wanted to be friends with and is still friends with them today, years later. When speaking to her current students, she tells them “all those little moments that happen during a day, those little tiny interactions that you have with people can make such a difference in either making people feel welcome and included or making them feel really bad about themselves or excluded,” she says.
Wish recalls always loving the beginning of the year, but then being nervous and overwhelmed as well. She remembers her teachers being kind and supportive. “As a teacher (now), that is something I carry with me,” she says.
Stevens says his middle school experience was very different from that of current students. “You were just sort of thrown in and you sank or swam on your own,” he says. “We didn’t have advisors. The teachers were wonderful but there was not a lot of guidance.”
Wilson had a great middle school experience and remembers being in awe of the independence. “You walk through the halls on your own and you sat where ever you wanted in the cafeteria and it could be different each day if you wanted,” she says. “I just found all of that really exciting.”
During this time of immense change, what can parents and guardians expect? “I always say parents need to take a step back, not a step out, because kids still very much need you to be present and need you to be coaching them. But you need to take that step back, so you are not sitting next to the them doing all their homework with them like you may have done in elementary school,” Macomber says. “They really need to start trying to do things on their own, and then you are the ones on the sidelines giving them advice along the way.”
Middle school can be a different experience for every child. Some kids get through pretty easily while others have a rough road. Wilson encourages parents to keep in mind that their children “are growing in independence and that is a good thing.” They may push you away, may not keep you informed of what is going on at school but, on the other hand, they may really need you for a hug and support.
Their social life becomes much more important where friends may trump family or homework and that can be hard on a family used to doing activities together. Wilson says kids may also start comparing themselves to others in different ways, but parents should encourage and validate their child’s feelings.
With multiple teachers, parents may wonder when or if they should call the school if there is an issue. “I always recommend at the first sign you think maybe you should, you should,” she says. “No sense in just dwelling on something or wondering about something. Just call. Start with the teacher.”