The Heartbreak of Middle School

Oh, the pain. The pain. The absolute pain of teaching on Valentine’s Day. There is no place in the world that feels more of an emotional whirlwind for this holiday than the halls of a middle school.

Kids can feel. Strongly.

As Valentine’s Days go, this was a pretty laid-back one for me. By accident, I planned for my students to be silently writing the final drafts of their essays today, so most of the chaos happened in the beginning and ending minutes of class. As a joke, my department created a “middle school bingo” with boxes that said among the following: huge balloons, crying, kids complaining that you didn’t give them candy, kids asking you too personal questions about what you’re doing this Valentine’s day, BIG TEDDY BEARS, etc. I scored over half of them.

There were so many funny moments today, and a few aggravating ones, but it was largely yet another reminder for me that kids feel so, so strongly. That’s always something that I need to recognize every once in a while, because it is surprisingly easy to forget; kids have so much emotion, and it can be really exhausting to be a kid. That can make it difficult to function in school. Hopefully tomorrow will be a little easier on the heart (and less balloon-filled) than today was for some of my students.

Encouraging Change, Seeing Hope

Year: 2

In class, my students are currently reading a book about workers’ rights and the history of protest. Honestly, a big part of why we are reading this book is due to the pressure in education right now to read nonfiction, informational text (I have very strong opinions on why only English teachers are feeling that pressure but that’s a different conversation for a different day). The really cool aspect of this book are the conversations I get to have with students, and I saw that today in a surprising way.

This morning, I began grading assignments that my students had completed while reading part of the book; it was the section that explained the origin of this particular workers’ strike. One question I put on the handout, due more to personal curiosity than anything else, was the following: “What do you feel strongly about in the ‘real world’ that you want to change or support? How would you go about making that change, or making it stronger?”

The answers were incredible.

Now, there were a few silly ones. It is middle school, after all, and middle school is an odd place. One such answer said “I would make a strike that unicorns be real and I’d glue horns to horses.” (I still don’t know if that’s genuine or not.)

Most answers, though, were so powerful and heartwarming. Students wrote about fighting animal testing, finding a cure for cancer, lowering costs of healthy food for impoverished families, fighting climate change, lowering pollution, gun control regulation, teacher pay, deportation policies, government shut downs, tax laws (!!!), and more. These kids are seventh graders.

It should not surprise me that my students are capable of this type of answer. I see their curiosity and awareness in our class discussions. More than anything else, I found it incredibly heartwarming and endearing to read these answers. These kids care about the world around them. They are aware – with the internet, more aware, perhaps, than we were at their age – of the issues our society has, and they are concerned.

I need more conversations like this with my students. I want to encourage their curiosity, but I also find it filled with so much hope to see my students this focused on making the world a better place.

Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

On Being Mean

Year: 2

Some weeks in teaching seem to have themes of a sort. This week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of how mean kids can be to each other.

One of my students has been suspended for getting in a fight, and when I saw him in the front office, he told me that he was defending himself. Another kid limped past my classroom because someone shoved him into a basketball pole during lunch. Another student said something so terribly mean about one of his classmates that I had no choice but to send him up to the front office; and this kid, I’ve already had a very recent conversation about respect and being kind to others.

I heard once that everything a person does is an echo. If a person is behaving kindly, they are echoing the kindness that has been shown to them in the past. If a person is behaving unkindly, that person is echoing the pain that has been shown to them. I’ve always thought this to be a powerful analogy to explain general behavior: you react to the people around you, often unconsciously, and it is often a mirrored behavior.

Kids can be mean. It’s so easy to forget until you come into contact with that kind of malevolence. It feels like a kick to the gut, to me, when I see viciousness, like in the behavior I’ve seen done to my kids this week.  I’m never not bothered by it. Kids echo the behavior they see around them, and when they are shown pain, they throw pain back. It’s really difficult to be a witness to that process. As someone who spends their life trying to teach children, and care about them, you just want to protect them as best as you can, but there won’t always be an opportunity to do that.

I wonder if we’re doing something wrong, something that we could be teaching our young ones and aren’t, or if this is a natural part of human behavior that can’t be rerouted. We could teach kids to think about their actions and emotions more, teach kids to reflect more. I don’t really have an answer or opinion. I just can’t help but ask that question when I see a week like this.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the teaching of things, because that’s our job description, that it’s easy to forget that kids have so much to deal with only a daily basis. It is that same lesson I have learned, and will learn, again and again, in teaching: kids are just kids, and you should have compassion above all else.