As teachers, we relive the ebbs and flows of the adolescent experience. When an 8th grader struggles with the fallout of switching friend groups, I’m seeing not only his experience but the collective experience of that annual tradition. In that context, I’m able to recall my own misreading of my experiences as I attempt to help guide students through those journeys themselves.
I trained for many years to master my content. As an experienced teacher, I am well prepared to respond to any academic need that might come my way. But no formal experience alone has prepared me for the delight and devastation that comes with watching the emotional maturation (and temporary decline) of middle schoolers. Of course, I wish I could simply alleviate the anxiety of a student by saying to her, “Hey, I know what that feels like! That will pass.” Very little in learning or life works that way.
Instead, I attempt to bring to students the openness, reflection, and humor that I think best would have supported me at that point in my life. I’m not naive. The middle school years are difficult and emotional for nearly everyone. I cannot hope to change that fact. My desire is to help students stay balanced and connected as they grow. At worst, this approach still aids their learning of content. At best, it has the potential to ward off any self-imposed cocooning.
I spent most of my middle school years holed up in my room. At my wedding (many years later), my father likened those years to a caterpillar entering its cocoon. When I emerged sometime in my mid-teens, I was different. Looking back, I likely would have benefited by reaching out instead of inward. As a teacher, I see part of my duty as helping students remain constantly open to connections and to consistently make them grapple with issues beyond themselves that might force greater perspective. Students will, no doubt, look back on these years with some degree of chagrin. I hope, too, they see how hard they pushed themselves academically and emotionally and come to recall their time as, in the aggregate, positive.