Submitted by Don Doman.
Middle school can be very rewarding for students, but it is also filled with challenges, including harder coursework, needing to make better decisions, and thoughts for the future. These decisions lead students to expand their horizons, to see beyond their friends, the latest song, love interests, pick-up BB games and all the other instant gratification that’s available today.
One question a student should be asked to think about is what they want for a future career and what plans they need to put in place to achieve their goals. Starting out, this can be just pie in the sky conjecture: professional athlete, entrepreneur, artist, airline pilot, novel writer just anything. Just picking out three careers they might like to pursue and planning what they need to accomplish in middle and high school and then college, opens up new horizons for them.
The final decision doesn’t have to be made for a few years, and given today’s fast pace, what they choose now may have morphed into something completely different or may not even be an option. In middle school, they can see some paths opening up to them, be it through math or writing or music or art or Tai Kwon Do. This is where a teacher who knows them and a counselor becomes really important. They can help them see the steps and make the course choices to get the pre-requisites out of the way for post-secondary education.
Being asked to think about the future and take on more educational responsibility puts a lot of pressure on students. That’s why it’s necessary to have a good support system at home and at school. This includes parents and other family members, educators and counselors. Peer pressure is extremely powerful at this age and students should be encouraged to be themselves to choose the path that they want in life, not one that their grandfather or mom thinks they should take. Some parents have a plan for their child – they’re going to be a doctor, going to my alma mater, taking over my business, etc. While it’s OK to share the plan, a teenager shouldn’t be forced into a career that they don’t think suits them. Some careers are more profitable than others, while others may be more rewarding in other ways.
I like what Andy Rooney once said, “Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.” I was at a fundraising dinner for Bright Water Waldorf School in Seattle and I heard the most compelling story of a teacher who made a difference. One of the parents spoke about his father who wanted him to attend a prestigious medical university. That was the plan, but a teacher suggested the student attend the University of Chicago instead because it’s the “teacher of teachers”. In the end, he attended the University of Chicago and became a respected physician (which was the result the father had wanted). A good teacher helps students find their path. That this doctor and researcher chose to send his children to Bright Water speaks volumes about their support system and faculty.
Goals and dreams change. Some are more certain, but a dream should never be discouraged. Career dreams should be considered with care and support. Careers can be discussed, and action plans developed. For example, someone might want to become an artist. While the art world can be difficult, it can also be rewarding and fulfilling. A plan might be put into place where the student takes business classes in addition to art classes, so that if they do become a professional artist, they can manage their career. Or if they have to work part-time at a job that pays an hourly wage and part-time trying to scratch a living from their art, then so be it.
While in middle school (junior high school in those days) I worked for my parents. They had a motel in Ponders Corner, just outside Lakewood and close to McChord Air Force Base and Ft. Lewis. The motel was doing well and constantly expanding. From the seventh grade on I rented rooms and learned to repair, remodel, and mix concrete. I began playing Saxophone at Park Lodge in the fifth grade and continued through my senior year. My electives involved band and orchestra, although on a whim I signed up for video production classes every afternoon at Clover Park Vocational School during my junior year.
Through middle and high school I took the standard college prep classes. When I went to college I first took business courses and then I took art classes which had never been available to me at Clover Park. By the end of my second year of college at the University of Puget Sound I switched my major to Fine Arts. My fellow artist buddies and I laughed at the business majors. Within several years I found myself taking Business Law, Probability, and Data Processing. My wife and I bought houses and fixed them up and rented them out. This put all my motel skills to good use. When the bottom fell out of the housing marketing we used our video production and computer skills and made a marketing career. There is no way I could have mapped out that route, but, all the skills I learned so far had been useful.
Studying, doing homework and attending classes is necessary for students to do well, but students also need to meet their other basic needs like eating well, sleeping properly, getting fresh air and spending time with friends. For students to eventually become well-rounded adults, they must be allowed to partake in a variety of activities, which helps them develop.
In order to have a diversified life, a discussion of a student’s homework schedule or extra-curricular activities can be held with parents. It might be suggested that free time be set aside to allow for going for a walk, gardening or reading a book on the porch. In order to soak up information, the student must be able to relax and learn. I really like the idea of a liberal arts education. On my own I had always enjoyed reading, drawing and storytelling.
Rewards including praise, impromptu celebrations and outings can also help boost a student’s morale. If a parent can sit at the table while their child does their homework, to be close if they want to confide something or ask any questions, is a helpful way of bonding and offering moral support. Parents shouldn’t view this time as wasted or idle. There is plenty of work that can be done at the same table or nearby to make themselves available for their children. Teachers who have an open-door policy for their students are also a valuable resource for students who might be struggling with a subject or have something that they want to talk about.
Mr. Treloar was my sixth-grade teacher. He changed my life. Two friends and I were ne’er-do-wells. We should have been listening to a review for a big upcoming English test. Mr. Treloar banished the three of us to the music room, where we wouldn’t bother the other students. He then called me into the hall and calmly said, “You’re smart, you’ll pass the test with or without the review, but your pals don’t have a chance. What kind of friend does that make you?” He then turned and walked back into his classroom.
He was right. I walked into the music room where my friends were just sitting and looking around. I went to the blackboard and said, “Okay, here are a couple of things you’re going to have to know when you take the test.” I had a “B” on the test. My friends each got a “D.” But, I probably saved them from an “E.” Mr. Treloar gave me an education with just two sentences. I was never a really serious student, but I did listen . . . and learn. Later I took a course in goal setting and project management. Each skill is another tool for success. Each person needs to find their own path; however, having compassionate instructors is the backbone of education.
Education is necessary to reach goals, but this can be frightening. Acknowledging that fear and letting a student know that they are not alone can help them as they work on their goals, make good decisions and experience success. That climb can be difficult, but it’s rewarding. With the right support systems in place, they can achieve their goals while realizing that help is available when they need it.