Curious, Independence and Fun are words that instantly come to mind. Middle School has the potential to be the best years of a child’s life. This junction between primary and senior school typically brings with it a perfect balance of a curious mind, a thirst for learning and a desire to explore. Middle School provides opportunities for students to start to personalise their learning journey with light at the end of their education tunnel to achieve their dreams in what they call ‘the real world’.
The importance of a child’s Middle School experience should not be glanced over, nor should the impact that teachers have. Middle School holds a huge responsibility and as a leader of our Middle School, this is a responsibility I am acutely aware of. We have a responsibility to ensure students have a settled transition from primary school, to ensure academic engagement and keep the curiosity to learn alive, to ensure social acceptance and belongingness and that the stage has been set for students as they move into Senior School and beyond (just to name a few).
The transition to middle school
A highlight of my job is the transition process of students graduating primary school and preparing to start Middle School at Grace College. While their Year 6 primary school teachers are preparing graduation ceremonies, we are investing a lot of time and careful thought into transition activities for our incoming Year 7 students. Everything is important and purposeful – not only the activities we choose to have but also how they are delivered. I love this part of my job, the wonder and anticipation of moving into Middle School is a joy to witness on the faces of both the students and the parents. But it is this moment too, that reminds me of how much responsibility and trust they are placing on us to make Middle School the best years of their child’s life. Every decision and connection in this process is critical.
Now, I have said that Middle School is exciting, important and has much responsibility, but I know firsthand that Middle School isn’t always easy for students. I will be the first to admit that the Middle School years come with challenges. In Middle School, we are encouraging independence within a supportive environment and we are encouraging failure (can you believe I said that…) so that we are developing resilience, perseverance and growing from it.
So, let’s be transparent and discuss the challenges for our eager Middle School students. A respected colleague of mine once described Middle School as an onion (without the need for crying when it is peeled of course) but more to illustrate the number of layers that can be faced when moving into Middle School, these are those challenges.
The physical layer
The excitement of entering Middle School fills the air on the first day, with crisp white shoes and perfectly ironed uniforms filling our Chapel space. I love this moment, although in the busyness of the first day of school, I remind myself to take a moment to stop and watch as these students become part of our community for the first time.
Before long the first layer of the onion is exposed – the physical layer. The Middle School environment requires students to decode timetables, access lockers using combination locks, read maps to find the location of their next classroom, interact with many different teachers daily, remember what books are required for what lessons, ensure laptops are charged and learn new bell times. That’s all after waking up and remembering which uniform should be worn that day.
Yes, these are challenges, but these take place in our supportive environment. An intentional Middle School precinct allows students to have a sense of physical belongingness until they feel ready to explore further. Grace uses a system of year 9 and year 12 buddies which allows year 7 students to have contact with older, friendly, familiar faces as they move around the College. A core class teacher model is a steady transition from a primary school environment to a middle school environment where the number of teachers to connect with increases.
The curriculum starting point layer
We are a 7-12 College. As such, we are blessed to have Year 7 students enrolling from up to approximately 45 primary schools every year. This provides many opportunities but also challenges for our curriculum and consequently our teachers.
We acknowledge that every student is unique and has their own ‘starting point’ when they arrive. Our teachers use a variety of teaching strategies (including screening and pre-testing) to ensure the teaching and learning is targeted at the needs of the students who are sitting in their classrooms. We know we need to be attuned to what is happening in our nearby primary schools to understand where our students are coming from and to target our curriculum accordingly to ensure the transition is an integrated step rather than a blind leap.
The middle school engagement layer
Middle School can have the reputation of being the time where students put themselves into neutral and coast along until when they think it ‘counts’ in the senior years. A purposeful and meaningful curriculum design ensures that the perfect balance of a curious mind, thirst for learning and the desire to explore is maintained. How do we do this? It requires a wide variety of elective subjects so students can personalise in their learning pathway to align with their gifts and talents.
Academic Enrichment programs allow students to be involved in opportunities such as Excellence/Compacted Courses. Equally, Learning Support allow students to be well supported through the challenges of Middle School to ensure accessibility and progress.
Research supports the notion of every student requires a champion, someone who believes in them, knows their potential and challenges them. In 2020, Grace welcomes in our new GEL Program (Grow. Empower. Learn.). A mentoring program where every student has their GEL teacher championing them to the finishing line.
Just as every student is unique, a one size fits all approach to student engagement simply wont work. It takes a variety of intentional and effective approaches in both the curriculum design and the teaching and learning in the classroom to ensure students are engaged and achieving to their potential.
Middle school relationships layer
The Middle School years can be challenging when it comes to the social landscape. Research tells us that it is these years that can be the most influential for a child when it comes to them asking the question, “Who Am I?”
It has also been suggested that this is the time students are seeking positive role models extending beyond parents, including teachers, coaches, mentors etc. Opportunities for students to find the positive role model or influencer needs to made available through various avenues – class teachers, co-curricular coaches/instructors, buddy systems and most importantly in our case, their GEL teacher.
A strong camp and outdoor education culture can provide, not only a varied educational experience but also a tangible purpose of fostering and building relationships. These positive and productive connections contribute to the overall learning community which is integral to the success of students on their Middle School journey.
Parents – It is your turn
Let us not ignore the challenge for the parents/guardians of Middle School students – the challenge to allow your child to relish in their newfound independence. To take the foot off the pedal and stand on the sideline as your cheer on your child to achieving their goals. Please know, this doesn’t lessen the importance of your role as a parent, it is just a new phase. So, how can you help your child transition into Middle School?
- Be optimistic and encouraging about the transition to Middle School
- Guide students to develop the skills of independence and responsibility
- Encourage your child to get involved in activities within the school community
- Talk to your Middle Schooler – stay involved, talk about concerns and collaborate strategies together
- Celebrate Progress – be proud of every step they make
Middle School is witness to remarkable growth and change in a student from Year 7 to 9. With increased opportunities for Middle School students, there is much to get excited about. This is why I love my job.
Middle School … by a Middle School Teacher is a guest post by Kate McKenzie – Deputy Head of Teaching and Learning – Grace Lutheran College.
This article was featured in Issue 39 of our printed magazine, published April 2020