The First Day of Middle School
It was the first day of school. I was working as a substitute PE teacher at one of the largest middle schools here in Los Angeles. This middle school had several multi-story buildings and was spread out over several acres and was a logistical nightmare for new students (and unfamiliar substitute teachers).
On this first day, in PE, we were enrolling and checking attendance of the 40 or more students enrolled in each period and we were giving locker assignments. The 6th graders were living portraits of terror and frustration.
Many of these young boys had gotten lost and showed up late and scared. Some missed the orientation and some missed the instructions for how to use a combination lock. Just finding their way around this massive campus reduced many a young boy to tears.
Added to the difficulty of finding their way around was the novelty of a combination lock. Most of these youngsters had never dealt with a combination lock before. Many were English language learners and even those who were proficient at reading English had trouble with the language of a combination lock’s instructions: i.e. 1) Turn right past 0 to 25; 2) turn left past 0 to 15; 3) turn right to 8. Many also lacked the manual dexterity to accurately land on the correct number so even if they understood the instructions, young fingers had trouble with the details of the locks which added to their frustrations. And on top of that, they had to do all this quickly due to time constraints. I helped as best as I could but I still was unable to stem the flood of tears of these frustrated young men. It broke my heart.
Anyone who has read my writings knows I am loath to use the words ‘should’, or ‘should not’, but I’m going to break my own rule here and state,
“If we are to improve education in America and foster a life long love of learning in our citizens, the first day of school should not be a source of terror and frustration.”
Any new situation will give rise to some anxiety, but to reduce someone to tears with a novel experience is not good.
There are those who eventually make the adjustment, but a look at current skill levels and test scores suggests that many do not make the adjustment fast enough if at all.
I have never been in favor of the separate Middle School/Jr. High concept. I believe it comes at a developmental stage when puberty and adolescence needs all the attention and support we can give rather than subjecting young minds to such an overwhelming experience that a (giant) new school can be at that age.
If we are to keep the Middle School as part of American education, we need to reject the ‘business model’ of the giant education factory that is the standard design used at many of the middle schools at which I have worked. Smaller campuses are better because they are able to address the individual needs of the students better. That means, it is easier to deal with behavior problems and learning issues at smaller schools than at the big schools.