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Middle School is Still the Neglected Middle Child of Education

Published in ChicagoNow, January 30, 2019

They passed notes, threw spit balls, popped their gum, and seemed far more interested in their hair than in the hair-raising poem I was trying to teach them. It was 1967 and student teaching sixth grade English was my first encounter with middle school. Luckily for me, there was no such institution when I was their age. And despite their shockingly (to me) immature behavior, I grew to love these kids on the brink of adolescence.

That experience left me unprepared for many of the teachers and the institutional attitude I encountered when my own children attended middle school. During my son’s sixth grade year, “teams” of sixth through eighth graders attended classes together. As a small sixth grader sitting next to a man-child who was shaving, he was terrified. I guess reorganizing to a traditional grade level structure was a good idea, but for some reason it resulted in him repeating the exact same curriculum in seventh grade. Let’s not talk about the social studies teacher who had him reading the newspaper to clip coupons for her. Or the boy who threw lit matches at his backpack as he walked home. Or the principal telling me that the match-throwing student was not his responsibility if it happened on the sidewalk outside of the building.

For my daughters, indifferent teachers and uninteresting classes were the least of the problem. No bad teacher could hold a candle to the impact of a mean girl. Middle School is an environment in which Queen Bees rule, with most girls falling into the anxious Wannabe category. Social status was far more important to them than social studies. I made the mistake of reporting the threatening behavior toward a girl who was told by a Queen Bee that if she came to school on her birthday, it would be the worst day of her life. This was before the power of social media, but my daughter told me the girl was crying all of the time and afraid to go to school. When I told a teacher I respected, her response shocked me. She didn’t care because she hadn’t seen the behavior in her class.

Aside from not learning very much academically, my kids did learn that most adults in the building didn’t care about the bullying and cruelty with which kids treated one another. When my granddaughters started middle school, my hope was that things had changed. Perhaps by now, middle school would no longer be the neglected middle child of our educational system. Sadly, I found the culture to be much the same. Even more sadly, some teachers and administrators still seem to view the students with little empathy or respect, and social media has given more power to those who exclude and bully others.

Very little progress has been made on the unfair practice of using well-behaved girls as buffers between unruly boys. Nor have gender issues in general been addressed. For example, in advanced math classes, boys still greatly outnumber girls. Despite efforts to remedy the imbalance going back to my children’s time in middle school, this inequity as well as a lack of racial diversity persist. The greater emphasis on group learning and collaboration to tackle math problems has further suppressed the girls’ voices. Seating one girl with three bright and boisterous boys at each table and expecting them to work together results in silencing most girls. At this age, an all-girl table would enable those voices to be heard.

There are rules that make middle school feel almost prison-like. Bathroom privileges are denied during “important” classes. This despite the fact that many middle school age girls are menstruating. In fact, the only authorized time to use the bathroom is during the lunch/recess time, which is so short that trying to use a crowded bathroom results in the loss of the only time kids are allowed limited socialization. Social interactions are also limited by requiring students to sit with their homeroom classmates for lunch, eliminating any opportunity to talk to friends who are in a different class. For a shy student, being forced to interact with a random group of kids at lunch each year rather than being permitted to sit with a friend can be devastating. The consequence of these policies is students who do not use the bathroom at all during the almost eight hours they attend school and social isolation for students with friends assigned to other tables, who end up eating lunch alone. Clearly, these practices are physically and emotionally unhealthy.

Last year, I watched a movie with some of my grandkids that really resonated with how they feel about the random rules and general disrespect they encounter in school. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is based on the popular book of the same name by James Patterson. The story of a middle school boy who sets out to break every arbitrary rule in the principal’s handbook, after the administrator destroys his journal of personal writing and drawing, appeals to tweens and young teens because they understand the absurdity of unjust and silly rules that exist solely to control students’ behavior. It’s not a great movie, but it speaks to what students encounter in middle school, along with bullying, social hierarchies, and many indifferent adults.

A better movie that unfortunately is somewhat inappropriate (mostly due to a couple of sexual scenes) for the age group that could benefit most from it is Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham. As I watched the struggles of the main character, Kayla, trying to navigate her way through the social and school-related issues of a shy fourteen-year-old girl, I was reminded of the challenges of being that age. She is socially awkward and overlooked by her peers and teachers. Children ages twelve to fourteen have a lot on their plates. They need flexible and understanding teachers and administrators who create an environment that understands and helps to ameliorate the developmental chaos of these early adolescent years. Sadly, they often encounter the opposite.

I understand how challenging immature kids with raging hormones can be. What I learned in working with, raising, and now having grandkids this age is that it really matters for them to know authority figures like and respect them and that the reasoning behind the rules makes sense. I get that this is a difficult age, but it is also a time when teachers and administrators can make a huge impact on a child’s school trajectory. Rather than throwing in the towel and accepting the notion that kids this age are unteachable, let’s find a way to make middle school more humane and enriching for students.


by Laurie Levy
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