What Gifted 9th Graders Said about Middle School

By Jim Delisle

For many years, I was a tenured university professor of education. Sure, I enjoyed my ever-optimistic undergraduates, but something was missing.

When I entered the education profession as a K-6 special education teacher, I never realized that the more graduate degrees I received, the fewer kids I would get to teach. How weird is that: as an educator, the “smarter” you get, the more removed you become from the very kids who brought you down this career path initially.

With a Ph.D. and tenure in hand, it would have been easy to stay in my university position until retirement. But I came to realize that the longer I stayed in the ivory tower, the less relevant I would likely be to my undergraduates.

Although many education professors are well-informed and current in their thinking, others haven’t been in a classroom in years, making their bromides about how to teach or discipline pretty much removed from the realities of lunch duty, parent conferences and kids who enjoyed figuring out how best to get their teachers off topic.



I didn’t want to become one of “those professors.” So, during my last 17 years as a full-time professor, I became a one-day-a-week teacher of 7th and 8th graders. Honestly, I wasn’t sure that middle school was right for me – would the kids be smarter than I was? Would they eat me alive with their shenanigans? I soon came to realize that there is nothing more enjoyable than lovable, frustrating, sarcastic young adolescents whose brains and bodies are moving, simultaneously, at warp speed. I became a middle school junkie…and I still am.

What helped or hindered?

And then six years ago, I “graduated” to 9th grade. Retired, I decided to offer my teaching services to a local high school filled with wicked smart kids. How smart? From 8th grade, they enter our small, public high school (190 enrollment) and begin to take AP courses and college classes in 9th grade. Four years later, upon high school graduation, most have earned 70+ college credits, all paid for through the relationship between our county schools and the university on whose campus our high school is located. Wicked smart, indeed.

Given the size and scope of the brain power in front of me in each 9th grade class, I ask my students annually to reflect on their middle school experiences with people like us: teachers. My prompt to them is simple…

Each of you has had teachers who have either helped you learn or have hindered that process. It’s your turn to tell teachers, in 100 words (or close to it) what they…

   * have done well
   * have done badly
   * should do more of
   * should do less of
   * did to ‘invite’ you to learn
   * did that turned you off to school  

Recognizing that my students had 8+ years’ experience with teachers, I figured they could give us some insight into their worlds of learning and schooling. Guess what: I wasn’t wrong. Here are some representative student responses.

First, the good things we do:

  • In 7th and 8th grades, I was in chorus. The teacher I had was my favorite one ever. When we hit the notes in a specific song we were learning, a huge amount of joy and energy burst out of him. This energy transferred to his students. Now understand, I cannot sing well, but this teacher made me feel as if I could do just about anything with the right amount of work, effort and support.
  • My 8th grade teacher integrated hands-on activities, lectures, humor, music and my favorite: walks. We would take time off and walk the campus talking, skipping or racing. We’d even toss balls or play football. Those small 15-minute breaks made my days and gave me the boost I needed to get through the rest of the school day.
  • It is very helpful when teachers congratulate you when you succeed rather than scold you when you don’t. A few of my middle school teachers did this, and I thank them.
  • I like to not just learn something but to understand how I will use this knowledge. What good is learning physics if you don’t understand how it affects you personally?
  • My math tutor in 6th grade always got me excited to learn, not by necessarily teaching part of the curriculum, but by teaching little side topics that I might find interesting. When teachers go beyond what they “have to” teach us, I get engaged and excited about the subject.

And then, there are those behaviors we should avoid:

  • In 8th grade, my math teacher would pick one kid each day who didn’t do the homework and chew that kid out for ten minutes. That teacher made me feel stupid even when I got 100 on a test.
  • Some teachers have made me want to count down the minutes until class ended. They either didn’t like what they were teaching or they constantly complained about things that had nothing to do with class. I want to learn from someone who wants to teach.
  • I feel that teachers should work with other teachers to time their assignments better. A lot of us get stressed by school and having four projects due in the same week doesn’t help this.
  • When I was in 6th grade, I missed some school because my grandmother died. When I returned to school, my math teacher told me that I would never catch up and suggested that I return to a basic math class. I felt so discouraged.

The human side of teaching

Teaching is one of the most human of professions and, happily, many of our students recognize that we are real people, not just their instructors. Here are few insights I’ve gained about how we are perceived apart from our teaching prowess.

There are many teachers who really try to relate to their students. They try to understand them and help them comprehend both their lessons and life beyond their lessons. This is truly a great trait in a teacher.

You have those excruciatingly painful-to-listen-to teachers that make you wish you had never been born, but then you have the opposite: those who make students look forward to going to school everyday. Both types teach kids something unintentionally: the first teaches you patience and the second teaches you to be yourself.

Ultimately, a teacher must be him or herself, NO MATTER WHAT. Teachers always tell students this, but why not follow our own advice? The more genuine we are, the stronger connection we make.

One trait of young adolescents – their bluntness – can cause their teachers to either rue the day they signed their teaching contracts or rejoice in the glory of their students’ unfiltered honesty. Me? I prefer the latter, as young teens’ unencumbered expressions of our roles in their lives make me consider, time and again, the importance of listening to those in our care.

So go ahead…ask your middle school students what works and what doesn’t in their education. And be prepared to learn.

Images: Bigstock

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Jim Delisle‘s latest book, Doing Poorly on Purpose: Strategies to Reverse Underachievement and Preserve Student Dignity (2018) is co-published by ASCD and Free Spirit Publishing.

Dr. Delisle has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for nearly 40 years. He retired from Kent State University in 2008 after 25 years of service there as a distinguished professor of special education. For the past six years, he has worked part time with highly gifted 9th and 10th graders in Conway, South Carolina.

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1 Response

  1. Karen A Kraeger says:

    I really enjoyed your post! It’s easy to see your commitment to learning and to kids. Kudos to you for doing the hard thing and going back to classroom teaching with middle schoolers. While earning my EdD, I thought I’d eventually want to teach college courses and even taught a few for a couple of years. Once I found myself in an elementary gifted classroom, I knew I’d found my place. I love my work, every single day! Something I couldn’t say about teaching college students. I guess there’s a right place for each of us, and it’s amazing when you can find it!

    Keep writing! We need to hear what you have to share!

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