The Unique Nature of Middle School

The Unique Nature of Middle School

Thursday, 26 July 2018  | Jacqui - Director of Teacher and Learning

I love teaching and working alongside middle schoolers! It’s a passion I can confidently claim is shared by the MECS Middle School teaching team. However, when someone finds out that I enjoy teaching this age group, they usually respond with, “I couldn’t think of anything worse,” or “there is not enough money in the world that could pay me to do that job.” Parents who have their oldest child move into middle schools are often surprised by the significant changes between Primary and Middle school. So what is it about this age group that makes them so unique, and why do our Middle School teachers love being around them?

One of my favourite educational authors is Rick Wormeli, a Middle School teacher from America. He has spent his teaching career advocating for 10-15 year olds. For a long time, these were the forgotten years. Schools did not know how to manage this age group. They were the ‘ham in the sandwich’ – between the ‘childness’ of the primary years and the ‘adultness’ of the senior years. Some researchers even went so far as to claim that the brain did not even grow in the Middle School years. But thanks to educators like Wormeli, we are more aware of the peculiarities of this transition. He writes, “young adolescents are moving through one of the most dynamic stages of development of their lives. As teachers, we might have to bushwhack through the hormonal tendrils on a daily basis, but it’s worth the effort to find the gold inside each child” (2001, 7). 

There is so much gold in Middle School students! Reflecting on my years as a Middle School teacher, I remember the students who go out of their way to come and say hello and tell me what they got up to on the weekend. I remember the students who go above and beyond in their classwork, such as creating a bicycle powered blender, or producing artwork worthy of any gallery. I remember the students who boldly pray or lead devotions. I remember the students who bring joy and laughter to the classroom and who are on the look out to cheer others up. And I remember the students who have taught me lessons, like how to play soccer according to the rules, or how to build a trebuchet, or how to use a fidget spinner, or even personal qualities like empathy, patience and unconditional love.

Middle schoolers are highly unpredictable, sometimes in quite humorous ways. As a class, we can be having a serious conversation about the injustices of the world or brainstorming ways that an English text conveys empathy. And then the moment is ruined when a student breaks wind and everyone laughs hysterically. Or a student will say or do something that just leaves you genuinely speechless. Once, during the briefest of pauses in a class debate, one of my quietest and most reserved students suddenly stood up and announced loudly, “Don’t panic! Nobody panic! I’ve got the situation under control.” Everyone, including me, was stunned and watched on as this student got up and walked towards one of the girls. He reached down, gently cupping his hands on her shoulder and capturing a creepy crawly. He deposited the critter outside and on returning to his seat, he looked at the girl, tipped his imaginary hat, and said, “No thanks necessary, Ma’am.”

As Wormeli notes, there are a lot of changes in a middle schooler’s life, and they are not just hormonal. Middle schoolers are starting to become more aware of their unique characteristics and the areas of learning in which they excel. They become less and less interested in learning subjects that they do not deem important. ‘Where am I going to use this in life?’ is a common question in the middle years, and our teachers have the ongoing challenge of making learning engaging and relevant.

Middle schoolers are learning about ‘grey’ areas in life, while carrying a strong sense of ‘black and white.’ However, they haven’t yet mastered when to apply each way of thinking. They have an increased sense of justice, particularly for the ill-treated or downtrodden. However, they can also get caught up in judging and bullying others. They are often on the look out for inconsistencies in others, particularly those in authority, but don’t always acknowledge the faults in themselves. They are developing their own set of moral values rather than relying on their parents’ point of view. As a matter of importance, Middle School teachers are role models and have to check what messages their own behaviour sends to their charges that they influence.

At MECS, we aim to provide our Middle School students with a well-rounded education while taking into account that God has created them with individual personalities and quirks. As research has found, teenagers crave “positive social interaction with adults and peers; structure and clear limits; physical activity; creative expression; competence and achievement; meaningful participation in families, school, and communities; and opportunities for self definition” (Wormeli, 2003, 10). Our teachers strive to create opportunities and an environment where these cravings can be met. Sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not, but we continue to approach this task with a loving attitude toward the precious young adolescents in our care.

Rick Wormeli, Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher, (Stenhouse Publishers, Maine, 2001).

Rick Wormeli, Day One and Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers, (Stenhouse Publishers, Maine, 2003).


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