Middle School and adolescence is an amazing period of time! Yet, as adults who have experienced adolescence, we all understand that this period can be one of the trickiest times of youth. The middle school child balances precariously wanting to please parents and teachers, do well and be recognized for it. Yet, the adolescent has become someone who: wants to be independent of consistent parent oversight, is less willing to listen, and is acutely socially aware. In turn, these years becomes challenging for the parents and teachers, who are playing the guides.
I believe that the Middle School organizational structure presents opportunities to facilitate positive growth during this challenging time. Twenty-five years as a middle school teacher and administrator has solidified my belief that everything comes back to the question “Is this best for students and learning?” Our role, as parents and school faculty, is to help students unfold and discover who they are and where they fit in the world. As a school, we can support the adolescent learner by valuing the uniqueness of the child, building a growth mindset culture, providing diverse opportunities, staffing with the right people, and creating a supportive climate for student, faculty and parents.
We can best support the adolescent learner by valuing the uniqueness of the child as they navigate the murky waters of middle school. Middle school students are on their own voyage of discovery in an unfamiliar landscape of new feelings, body development and changing interests. The middle school student is an awkward and evolving human who is transitioning through an incredible amount of physical, social, emotional and brain development. And, it is exciting! Everything is exciting and sometimes it is overwhelming for them. As parents and teachers, raising and working with a middle school student requires us remembering that this time of life is a unique experience for them and that they are seeing the world through their own inexperienced view. And, that is good. As long as we support and appreciate their unique qualities, we will help them.
“Even as kids reach adolescence, they need more than ever for us to watch over them. Adolescence is not about letting go. It’s about hanging on during a very bumpy ride.” Dr. Ron Taffel
We can best support the adolescent learner by building a growth mindset culture. Having a growth mindset is foundational in the belief that all children can learn, that mistakes are part of the learning process and that the timeline for learning is different for each person. As educators, we now know more then ever before about the brain, adolescent brain development, and methods and strategies for encouraging, accessing and evaluating student thinking. We know learning happens on a continuum, that understanding the deep concepts is key and more important then discrete skills, that all people learn in different ways and we need to provide a variety of ways to think about and show the learning. We further understand that learning is a process and that if we help students to understand and view themselves on a path in the quest for understanding, then they will continue to grow and develop. They won’t: stop short of understanding, view themselves as unable to do it, and view themselves as less able than others. Exploring and implementing the ideas around growth mindset, like Visible Thinking, Inquiry Learning, and Standards Based Grading and Reporting are important to a healthy learning school atmosphere.
We can best support the adolescent learner by providing diverse opportunities: in a developmentally appropriate curriculum and in extra-curricular ways to explore and learn about themselves. The first place we need to provide diverse opportunities is through our curriculum work. A rich curriculum that is grounded in best practices, follows researched work and differentiates to offer a variety of experiences is key to helping our learners on their quest for understanding. Helping faculty to use data to think about work and student progress and then in turn inform next steps is all part of meeting student needs in the academic classroom. Outside of the traditional academic areas, and a key need to this stage of development, is the opportunity to explore new interests: electives, after school activities, clubs, off-campus trips, inclusive student leadership opportunities, and to learn about the values of mankind: the environment, peace, and service to others. Middle school needs to be a safe and nurturing place to help students step out of their comfort zones, try new things both guided and independently and work toward becoming responsible decision makers.
As a school, we can best support the adolescent learner by staffing with the “right” people. The right person is a student-centered teacher. This includes someone who is nurturing, flexible, content-competent, an effective communicator, and collaborative. A middle school person needs to embrace the idea of team and service to our school, have a sense of humor and most importantly, enjoy kids this age. The teacher is the critical component in creating a supportive environment that challenges and stimulates the learner.
Finally, as the school leader, I can best support the adolescent learner by creating a supportive climate for students, faculty and parents. Through the lens of what is good for students, I believe this should include an advisory program, off-campus experiences like week without walls, an inclusive leadership model, and programs that include opportunities for students to develop their passions and provide service to others. Through the lens of how to support faculty and teachers, it has been important to help facilitate opportunities for staff to grow professionally, cultivate a collegial atmosphere that values trust, teamwork and celebrates accomplishments, and to be visible and present in their world. And finally, in working with parents, I can support the learner by encouraging the parent – teacher relationship for the benefit of the student. My role is to maintain communication that is open between home and school that shares the vision of the school and our work toward developing the best learning experience possible.
By having a bird’s eye view of program, people and vision, the principal is in a position of support to students, parents and teachers. Adolescents are at a very impressionable time of development. Yet as challenging as this can be, the reward of watching students grow and learn is incredibly gratifying and simply enjoyable.