My husband is a urologist. Usually, when he announces this at parties, people respond politely, “A neurologist?” as if hoping he will change his answer so they don’t have to ask him more about his job.

Interestingly enough, the same thing happens to me. As soon as the words “middle school principal” leave my mouth, eyebrows start to rise and the words “middle school” are repeated, this time with a question mark hanging in the air after them, in a way that implies my listeners aren’t reflecting fondly on their middle school experience and are simultaneously wondering if I misspoke and actually work in a more civilized place, such as an elementary or high school.

I’m guessing that the astonishment people show when I mention where I work — and more importantly, with whom I work — has a lot to do with their own memories of middle school: social cliques, their first bad grades, teasing, awkward first kisses, tense relationships and low self-esteem.

But what no one remembers, because it’s hard to notice at the time, is what all those experiences were helping to build: that much-loved independence and those first glimmers of self-confidence and individuality they were able to find in high school.

Middle school might look like chaos, but it is really a well-organized stage for individual development, self-exploration and growing up. Like any true exploration, this inevitably leads to some mistakes and a few bad experiences. Kids begin to push the limits and test the waters. For the first time, many of them try to lie or cheat or put down a friend. They try to follow someone social rules tell them is “cool” and they end up in trouble — more trouble than they could have imagined was possible.

But middle school can also be the first time they may really stick their neck out and stand up for someone, learn that they are capable of higher grades than they ever believed, or rethink an issue they have always taken for granted. Their minds are growing and being challenged. With every mistake, they reassess what they thought was true, and their minds continue to form and reform their value structures, their political and personal opinions, their view of the world.

At the end of each school year, these changes become most pronounced. After months of experimenting with their friends and their classes, our students in May look nothing like the kids who walked through the doors of our middle school in September.

I get to watch students, who, when beginning middle school in the fall, were unsure of themselves, stand up in the spring to present their work to the whole school. I get to watch students who came to us shy and quiet, race around the playground during recess, playing with their new (but now old) friends. I get to watch middle school students who failed their first tests because they couldn’t find their notes and didn’t spend time on their homework, fly through midterms and finals with A’s and B’s because the organizational lessons have finally started to kick in. Mistakes morph into learning — the most important theme in grades 6, 7, and 8.

Middle school is a time when kids begin to find out who they are and more importantly, begin to sketch out who they want to be. At times, there are tears and disappointment, at times smiles and pride. Always, they are growing human beings, curious about the world and their role in it.

Each year, another generation of middle schoolers matures in front of my eyes. Kids become adults. It isn’t over, of course. There will still be a lot of things these kids will do that they wish they hadn’t, and a lot they will do that they never believed they could. There will be moments of shame and moments of excitement — and if we do our jobs well, these will all be moments of learning. It is for both of these reasons — the failures and the successes — that I look forward each morning to spending the day with middle school students.

In the education biz, we call these “teachable moments,” and middle school is one teachable moment after another. For a teacher, nothing could be more exciting to watch.

That’s all too much to explain at a cocktail party, so when people ask me again why I would want to teach middle-schoolers, I usually just smile and say that I guess I like the chaos of it all. That’s certainly true, but in reality, it’s what comes out of the chaos, beaming in a black graduation robe and a ticket to high school, that I like the best.

Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle-based writer and the head of middle school at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland.


Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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