By: Andrea Smith, Ed.D.
I am in a long line at the pharmacy and the person in front of me turns around to make small talk to pass the time. Inevitably, the conversation turns towards the polite question of “what do you do for a living?” I have learned that this question is a crossroads in a surface conversation with well-meaning people. I know that once I utter a certain answer, I am in for a more in-depth conversation. And I also know that it is my duty as a middle level educator to step right up into that discussion. So, I internally grimace and brace for the typical reaction as I reply, “I am a middle school principal.”
If you are a middle level educator and have ever encountered this type of situation, then you know exactly what comes next. Empathetic head tilt. Knowing glance. Slight wince followed by a smirk. Then, the usual reply. Something along the lines of, “Ooooh, wow. Middle school is the worst! You couldn’t pay me enough to have to work with kids that age.”
I could easily avoid this type of interaction. I could simply say “I work in education” or “I am a principal.” However, I intentionally choose not to because I have come to LOVE having these types of conversations. They used to bother me a bit as I would find myself frustrated that others thought so negatively about students in their adolescent years. However, now I see these conversations as an opportunity to impact public perception of working with adolescents. I see these interactions as a way to push back against the negative assumptions people often make about the young people that I love and adore. I see myself as a change agent. As a middle school principal, I now see that it is my duty to not only find the joy in these often-tough years for students but to then share that joy with the world.
Here are ways that I think we can find and share the joy in the work we do:
Make Room for Laughter
How often do you truly laugh with students? We have so many obligations pulling on us each day that it is easy to not make room to connect and laugh with our students. Whether it is laughing at your own mistake, a corny joke of the week, or even a silly Super Bowl ad. Take time each day or week to build in an opportunity to laugh with your students. And take it further than your classroom walls. Share one of those funny moments with a colleague when you are in the hall or on lunch duty. Create collegial connections of joy and laughter. Be a source of humor within your school culture.
Embrace the Stage
We work with 10-14 year olds. Their brains are changing and growing every day. They can be forgetful. They can be impulsive. They can forget things from one day to the next. They can have a completely different understanding of how time and deadlines work. And they can also be delightful and goofy and utterly unique. It is easy, especially this time of year, to get caught up in the frustrating aspects of working with adolescents. However, creating space to recognize that what these young people really need is someone that can meet them where they are and embrace them for exactly who they are. This full and absolute acceptance and delight of what it means to educate adolescents is what truly helps us find the joy in what we do. Be a champion of delight in the middle school years.
We Can Expect Better
We all know that the middle school years often include incidents of relational aggression, social power dynamics, name-calling, and put-downs. However, we must remember that we should continue to expect more. When we lower our expectations to “that’s just the way middle school is,” we forget how much of an opportunity we have to teach key social skills and support healthy relationships. Be the educator that continually digs in and works with students to find better ways to solve problems or resolve conflict. This investment can lead to a shift in what students expect of themselves. Be the voice that expects more.
Reject the Narrative
We all know that these adolescent years can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean that negativity needs to be the headline. There are so many amazing things happening in our schools every day, and we have to be sure that those things are part of the narrative as well. We have to share these amazing moments with the world however we can. Be a positive voice in the narrative.
As we start the final three months of the school year, challenge yourself to look for the joy in each day. Enjoy laughter and embrace the craziness and fun that is middle school. Next time you have that inevitable small-talk conversation, proudly declare “YES! I do work with middle schoolers…and I LOVE it!”
Andrea Smith, EdD, is the principal of Erie Middle School in St. Vrain Valley School District. Andrea has worked in public education for over 20 years and enjoys that every day working with middle school students is different and full of new challenges.