Raise your hand if you went to middle school. Awesome, our hands should all be up. Now keep your hand up if you hated it. I would expect most hands to remain raised.
Welcome to the United States—where the American Dream sits in harsh contrast with an education system that ranks about 20th in the world, where about thirty percent of high school students never graduate, and where almost everyone resents their middle school years. Even I, who actually liked my middle school classes and teachers, have been imbued with a strong dislike of middle school-—it’s just the way we’re conditioned by our friends and our society.
The years from 6th to 9th grade are a netherworld between other stages of life—the awkward time between childhood and young adulthood. These years, though incredibly difficult for teachers and students alike, are some of the most formative. They serve as a strong determinant of whether students graduate high school and continue to college or drop out of school altogether. I believe that these years are so often overlooked because of the inherent awkwardness of the age group.
This is a problem that seriously needs to be addressed. Since these are such formative years, we need our best teachers in middle school classrooms. But because these are such difficult years, few of our best teachers want to accept these jobs.
However, teaching in these transitional years is exactly what I want to do and is precisely what I did this summer. Though it was exhausting and at times upsetting, it was life changing. Working at Breakthrough Collaborative in San Juan Capistrano with 17 other college and high school students, I taught (and entertained, and ate with, and danced for, and lost sleep for…) underprivileged students who had just finished 6th, 7th, and 8th grade.
While I was asked everything under the sun (from whether I drink alcohol, shave my legs, or would consider being gay) by my 14-year-old students, I also got to see their faces light up as they got excited by some new concept in biology. I also saw tears in their eyes as we had a serious conversation about healthy relationships.
So why do teachers avoid middle school classrooms like the plague? Middle school is the first time students truly attempt self-exploration and self-discovery. Whether that means exploring boundaries of friendships or discovering one’s identity as a student or community member, exploration takes priority. Perhaps what you remember most about middle school, however, is not discovering yourself but experiencing extended periods of awkwardness.
Maybe all you cared about was yourself and your image. Maybe you needed to do everything you could to be “cool,” from dropping your favorite hobby to disowning some of your previous best friends. Maybe your relationships were all superficial, and every question you asked was reflexive: discussions of friendships, intimacy, drugs, and alcohol were all in an effort to form your own opinions of what was right and wrong. And of course you were inevitably going through puberty—but let’s not go into that.
It’s not an easy time and not one that most teachers want or are prepared to deal with. However, it is exactly the time that students need excellent teachers the most. More than anything else, my time teaching middle-school aged students this summer taught me that a dedicated teacher can have a dramatic impact upon the life of a student.
My 25 students have all committed to apply to elite colleges like Princeton, UCLA, and Wesleyan. One student started the summer wanting to join a gang and ended up committed to finishing college. I’m still a college student, and I got to see incredible transformations in these students. If this change is possible in just one summer, with strong and devoted teachers year-round in middle schools around the country, we can curb the high school dropout rate and ensure a stronger next generation.