Having spent my full professional life working with early adolescents as a teacher, coach, and administrator, I often consider this question. In my view, what separates a great middle school from a good one is a palpable culture, a place where students feel connected, where their teachers care about them personally. Such a school tone is tough to measure, but it is the “family-feel” in a middle school that parents should want above all else.
Security and Trust
A great middle school provides security and trust in the classroom. Attachment in the Classroom, a 2009 article from Educational Psychology Review, reasons that “Enhancing teacher-student relationships…is fundamental to raising achievement.” The article further explains that a longitudinal study with sixth through eighth graders revealed that students who believed their teacher cared for them were driven to try harder on schoolwork, engaged fully in class, and earned higher grades. The vital question, then, becomes how can teachers forge quality relationships with students?
Teachers grow quality relationships with students when they recognize they are what they do in front of kids. In their astute offprint from Education Week—The Who of Teaching, James Banner and Harold Cannon contend that “Who we are matters to our teaching every bit as much as what we teach and how we teach it.” Middle school students are the most perceptive of all age groups, asking many questions about their teachers right away — does this person really value me? Does he/she want to know me personally?— questions answered when teachers exude the nine qualities outlined by Banner and Cannon: learning, authority, ethics, order, imagination, compassion, patience, character, and pleasure. Displayed earnestly, these personal traits open pathways to connect with children.
Such personal qualities engender a relational culture in middle schools. That is, teachers know good modeling encourages what Nel Noddings, in No Education Without Relation, termed ‘relational pedagogy.’ I believe middle schoolers are most inclined to relational learning because of their developmental age and keen perceptiveness. The socio-emotional growth pattern of young adolescents, for instance, deserves personal qualities like compassion and patience to help them cope with rapidly changing minds and bodies. Moreover, middle school students always watch what the adults do in their community and thus internalize the example set by their teachers: if students see a teacher show passion and satisfaction in learning, then they deem the intellectual effort and process well worth it.
Great Schools are Built on Relationships
Great middle schools must have a faculty of caring role-models that also offer thoughtful gestures toward students. Such school people know that children perceive their teachers before all else. In a 2009 international teaching boys study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives (CSBGL), nearly 1,500 boys were asked, “Tell us the story of a classroom experience that stands out as being especially memorable for you.” The study showed that boys were unable to express effective class lessons without discussing their teachers. In effect, the boys cared more about who taught them than what was taught or how it was taught.
For a 2014 CSBGL study, young adolescent girls were asked a similar prompt. The findings were strikingly alike; the schoolgirls wrote more about teachers than academic content or instructional method experienced in the classroom. Both boys and girls, therefore, are highly concerned for whom they do their school work.
So how can teachers bond with boys and girls for superior effort, learning, and achievement? In 2014, Harvard Education Press published, I Can Learn from You. The book articulates concrete examples of how teachers can effectively relate to students: Demonstrate mastery of subjects and maintain high standards Respond to a student’s personal interest or talent Share a common characteristic with a student Disclose aspects of their personal lives appropriately Accommodate a measure of opposition Reveal some vulnerability to students I encourage teachers to attend their student’s athletic games, recitals, and share personal stories in class to make understanding more relevant. All actions that say, “I care and you matter.”
What to Look For
So what should parents look for when choosing a quality middle school? Be sure to seek a school that possesses teachers who have a genuine joy and love of budding adolescents. The teachers of such a schoolhouse should care more about the particular age of the children taught than the scholastic content and pedagogy delivered. Such educators develop Middle Schools of humane bonding, a culture where students feel they belong, and healthy classroom attachment. When middle schoolers are known as well as valued, they mature and lead a productive, moral, and intellectual life.