Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

“Engage Brain Before Opening Mouth”, or EBBOM, has made it into our slang dictionaries.  It’s good advice, of course, and most people can at least respect the wisdom driving such a saying.   Notice, please, that I said “most”.  There is one identifiable age in all societies where this wisdom simply resists application.  It’s not for lack of willpower.  And dealing with this age requires exceptional patience.

Raise your hand if you enjoyed middle school (or junior high)!  This is a question I often ask seminar audiences when addressing the particular educational needs of betweenagers.  Invariably the room falls silent for a few seconds.  A bit of nervous, tittering laughter follows.  Two, maybe three hands are raised.  After we adjourn I am struck by the number of people who seek me out, often to share painful (or at least uncomfortable) memories of those formative years.  The odd thing is that many people say that they can’t remember very much about those years at all!  They didn’t like them, but they can’t quite remember why!  Solid stories of second grade are ingrained; high school activities are remembered like it was yesterday.  Middle school?  Well, it seems rather like a blur.

Neuroscience is expanding at a marvelous rate.  Experts in this field are now able to explain what teachers of this age group have long observed, and what anthropologist Margaret Mead described so eloquently. We are more different at this age than at any other point in our lives.  In the classroom it doesn’t really matter if this is a result of “raging hormones” or “synaptic pruning” or being “neither fish nor fowl.”  Middle school aged children are different.  Very different.

This is why the smart principal or head of school, upon finding a teacher who understands this age group, will hang on to her for years!  The truth is, these people are rare.   Parents, especially if they are going through the middle school years with the first of their children, are perplexed.  The formerly docile boy has become inappropriately physical.  The outgoing girl is now shy.  Communication between parent and child is reduced to question-and-short answer sessions that leave both dissatisfied.  Parents will often blame friends or the school for what appears to be a sudden behavioral change.  “It’s that awful Jones boy’s fault!” they weep.  The truth of the matter is that the body is changing.  The brain is being reformed.  Social opportunities become less parent-directed.  Our children are doing precisely what they were created to do:  grow up.  If you think it’s hard to be a teacher or a parent of a child this age, I would urge you to consider how hard it is for the child!  Remember that question I asked at the seminar?

None of this is to say that we should adopt a laissez faire attitude toward guiding the children.  We must continue to do our duty of helping them to grow, learn, behave, and think for themselves.  It’s helpful for all concerned, however, to do this with exceptional patience.

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN