Friday, December 2, 2016

Year 7: Week 14 – The Best Of 8th Grade

“Mr. Tang, I missed you.”

My 8th grade class meets on Mondays and Fridays. Because of various reasons, including me being away on the 5th grade trip, being sick, in-service days and the World Series (we cancelled school the Friday after they won), I haven’t seen my 8th graders in almost a month.

I started class earlier this week, asking them to raise their hand if I haven’t taught in them in the past month, and after some reflection, all of them of did. One of my trumpet players raised her hand and after I called on her, she said, “Mr. Tang, I missed you.” Thinking that she was being sarcastic, I replied jokingly, “Oh yeah, it’s you. Yeah, I um . . . thought about you.” Then I saw a look of disappointment on her face and realized that she wasn’t joking.

I felt horrible. I apologized to her immediately afterwards and again after class. I completely misread the intent of her comment. Way to go Tang.

Something really special happened in that moment. This student had shed all of her armor and genuinely expressed a feeling that displayed sensitivity and vulnerability. This is something that is difficult for 8th graders, but isn’t impossible.

I like to think that it has something to do with the atmosphere I have set up in my own classroom but I think it has more to do with how my school approaches middle school students.

It takes a lot of deliberate and proactive work to create a middle school space that makes students feel safe enough to be themselves. There is a lot of relationship building that happens inside and outside the classroom and consistently expresses to the students that we believe in them.

Middle school students don’t get a lot of props from our culture and the challenges of being a middle school student have colored most people’s memories of this time in their lives as being mostly negative. Kids sense this, so please be conscientious about how you talk about your own experiences at their age.

They frustrate me and push me but they have the potential to be wonderfully perceptive, empathetic and kind. I believe that the vast majority of middle school students who misbehave aren’t bad, they just don’t have adults around them who believe in their incredible potential for goodness and work to show them the way to make their own lives and the world a better place.

We’ve got an uphill battle. When a person gets an important job and isn't held accountable for his hateful, ignorant, sexist and racist words, the expectations we tell our students can seem unreasonable and silly. However if they know that we care and we model a better way, which engenders a genuine sense of community and kindness, we can be a more powerful force than the worst among us.

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