The Magic of Middle School

It’s 7:55 a.m.  I walk into the Middle School workroom and find it difficult to maneuver through the animated crowd. From my tall, adult vantage point I see a large room full of students bunched in haphazard groups of ten or more. All seem to be excitedly talking at once. Then, as 8 a.m. approaches, each one heaves a large backpack onto their shoulders and disappears into a classroom.
I’m in my office an hour later when I hear what sounds like a herd of elephants stamping their feet or bellowing at periodic intervals. Out of an equal mix of responsibility and curiosity I go next door to investigate. I find students in Spanish class enthusiastically racing their partners to complete a movement or yell a Spanish phrase in response to Señora Brady’s lively prompts. I stay for a few minutes to watch, charged by their energy.
Later in the day, I stop by a seventh-grade English class. The class is business as usual until a student blurts out, “what if cats were bigger than us and could read minds?”  All heads turn, some with serious consideration and others with none. Mr. Liebowitz decides to deflect the comment this time and the class goes on.
Middle school is almost always an interesting place; I never tire of working with seventh and eighth graders. Most pictures taken of middle school students are blurred because they are often moving. Their lives are an energetic balance between childhood and young adulthood. Serious conversations can take place on topics varying from the absurd to the profound. While trying to assert their individuality, they are simultaneously concerned about fitting in with their peers.
There is a lot written about this interesting time in our students’ lives. To summarize the “biggies,” middle school students are famous for wide-ranging emotions, shifting identities, strong peer relationships, boundary testing and self-centered behavior.
Adolescents’ moods can swing quickly between happiness and distress or self-confidence and insecurity. Academic successes and pressures, and seemingly complicated social interactions such as peer conflicts and romantic interest can stir their pliable emotional state. Often, the best we can do as adults is to listen with attention and without judgment.
What is it like to work with middle school students year after year? Despite how it feels from their point of view, this phase passes relatively quickly. In two or three years students go from elementary school to high school. But, for middle school teachers, our students never grow out of these times. In two years we watch the awkward grow into the graceful and then seemingly revert back to their original state when we get a new group of students. Having seen year after year of this, we easily take the long view. We are a patient lot, more comfortable with change than other teachers.
At Pacific Ridge we do our best to take advantage of these interesting times. We find students of this age more willing to take risks and learn from their mistakes – we want them to do this and actively encourage it. You can see this, for example, in a language class as students struggle to verbalize even simple thoughts. By never erring they would never move forward! This is also a time when students go from being outwardly to inwardly motivated.  Many of our incoming middle school students are motivated by outside factors such as parental expectations. At some point in every successful student’s life that locus of control becomes internal.  Quite often, we see that change happen during the middle school years. Another major milestone in a middle schooler’s life is the ability to effectively self-organize. The organization required to be a successful student is sometimes very challenging to entering seventh graders. As such, we actively teach these skills and habits of mind as a cross-curricular endeavor.
Given the attributes typical to adolescents, one may wonder how we get anything done in the Middle School. In reality, middle school is a time of intense learning – both in and out of the classroom. Like any good parent, we teachers play our positions well. We stay on our toes. We roll with the swells and learn to surf the waves instead of letting them knock us down. We remind our students and ourselves that change is, fortunately, constant. While we occasionally do have to step in to help our students through difficult times, we do our best work simply by supporting them to be their best through patient, steady and realistic expectations.
Middle schoolers are intelligent, funny, challenging and appealing people. We consider ourselves lucky to teach them.

Andy Wright
Middle School Head