Middle School Survival: “You Gotta Get to June”

By Laurie Lichtenstein

School in Spring. Freedom so close you can taste the poolside popsicles. Teachers open their windows for a waft of fresh air, crisp at 7:30 AM and fragrant by noon. Birds drown out the band.  Sunny dispositions abound. Students squirm but they learn.

Except, this is middle school. In Spring. The reality is much, much darker, think a co-ed Lord of The Flies or if television is more your thing, Survivor. Everyone’s just trying to get off the island in one piece.

Some days the open windows seem like a viable exit scheme, because a couple of months in traction might be preferable to finishing the school year. After almost twenty years I wish I had some foolproof plan about how to limp to the finish line in June, but I don’t.

I do, however, have some tips for the newbies among us. Open windows? Keep them shut. Because right when you hit the hottest topic of the year, the one they have been asking about since September – “When are we going to learn about World War II?” – the bees arrive.

One single 12 mm flying insect capable of commanding the attention of a room full of children. It’s a marvel really. Suddenly, The War has come to your history classroom, and you find yourself competing for attention with a yellow jacket as 20 pairs of eyes follow its every move and duck for cover as it comes in for the kill. A yellow and black striped kamikaze.

Another suggestion: stay out of the hallways. I mean, you should stand outside your door between classes. It’s an excellent anthropological study in the behavior of emerging civilized humans, and your presence will likely ensure at least one more person arrives for his next class intact, but don’t venture further afield. Not to the bathroom (Limit your water intake!) or the copy room (No last minute xeroxing!) and not to share the latest crazy story with your friend down the hall. It can wait.

Trust me. Because orderly in October becomes mayhem in May. The honeymoon is over, folks. You need a license to drive a car, but any 8th grader can walk the halls. Or run. Or saunter slowly, stopping abruptly to congregate in large, gossipy groups that leave no room to maneuver around. And while traffic jams are annoying, the halls can be downright dangerous. Backpacks are carelessly and sometimes purposefully swung. Boys practice the sport of body slamming their buddies against lockers.

So, you can get your Joseph Stalin on and set up your classroom as a gulag  (since we are talking about World War II anyway, and simulations are always fun), or (and this might be wiser and less litigation-prone) you can dig deep and find the little joys.

Tiny gifts propel me forward

While I am by no means an optimist (you guessed this, right?), some tiny gifts discovered in an otherwise chaotic May classroom propel me. At least until June 1st.

► Consider the student who barely uttered a word September through March, but upon returning from Spring Break sheds her shyness as her hand waves in the air excitedly, primed to answer a question. You have a golden opportunity here to make her acquaintance, and add a new voice to the classroom.

► And speaking of new, there is invariably the student who has shed his bad boy persona and settled down quite nicely. You know the one, the kid who tested you through the fall, hoping to home in on your weakness and exploit it when you least expect it? He is now your protector and when the rest of the room devolves, he can sometimes get them to simmer down before you can. “It’s just a bee…”  You’ve finally won! He has surrendered peacefully and joined your side.

► And then there are the fascinating conversations that may have nothing to do with the curriculum, but everything to do with what is important to the emerging consciousness of their 12-14 year old selves. Social Justice, LGBTQ rights, Racism. And what is more important?

These talks usually happen toward the end of a long day, when you just can’t bare to teach your lesson a fourth or fifth time and someone raises a point and you think, “Oh what the heck? I’m`not getting to the Cold War by the end of the year anyway.”

So the class lunges into a conversation. And they listen. Respectfully. To each other. Maybe not to you, as you admonish them not to call out, but to each other. Teachable moments. And you can pat yourself on the back because you created a classroom climate where they feel comfortable speaking and listening to their peers without fear of retribution.

May is “total honesty” month

Of course, don’t be too proud, because that cozy environment you carefully created means that they are comfortable with you, too. And middle schoolers are notorious for letting you know exactly how they feel.

So in January you might have to read the boredom in their facial expressions, but in June they will come right out and tell you your lesson was a fiasco. And they tell each other.

The other day one cherub walked in and asked me to change the lesson because he heard it was boring. Maybe if he had walked on by that juvenile coffee klatch in the hallway, he and I would have been spared the truth. But, since boring in middle school is a four letter word (unless the final is the next day), I changed course and quick!

You gotta be quick, and you gotta be thick skinned. And you gotta get to June.

Laurie Lichtenstein has been teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies in Westchester County, NY for the better part of two decades. In whatever spare time she can scrounge up, she writes about education and parenting her three children. Her work can be seen in Motherwellmag.com, the Bedford Patch, and The Jewish Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @thriceblessed. Read her other MiddleWeb posts here.

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