Each of us had different experiences in middle school/junior high.
Some of us muddled through the early teenage years. Others got endless punches in the arm, shoves into the locker or ridicule from the teachers that was accepted at one point in education.
And for many in the middle, they just got by.
Very few will argue that middle school is a “let’s look back at the best years of our lives” moment. The memories from grade school kickball seem a century ago to those enduring mental, physical and emotional changes that accompany any 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds, especially as they enter a new building and a new world of growth, bullies, social norms and acceptance.
Take those already strenuous givens and multiply it by countless hours of virtual learning, screen time and frustrations, and our school district — like so many nationwide — could be looking at long-term, disastrous results for some of our most vulnerable students.
When I started to hear stories of a wide-range of middle school students equally struggling and frustrated with virtual learning, I started asking questions of those parents.
How much time is spent online? How many conferences a day? How much social time are we allowing our pre-teens and teens? And how is this affecting their mental health?
In the adjoining link, you will find a dozen parents and teens responding to my Q&A about middle school learning. And while their answers are all over the spectrum, there are certainly some familiar tones and feelings among them all.
Taking the temperature of families in the Lee's Summit R-7 School District, guest columnist …
I believe the longer we are out of hybrid, the steeper the hill we are going to have to climb with every seventh and eighth grader in Lee’s Summit. When honor-roll students are are begging for normalcy, segments of teens aren’t even showing up to or leaving conferences, kids have figured out they can ask Alexa for any answer they need and parents are getting home from work to find yet another e-mail from the teacher about missing assignments, we cannot even come close to saying we are educationally serving our students to the best of our abilities.
I realize elementary and high school students have their own struggles. But for goodness sakes, we have to take special heed when it comes to middle school.
The unspoken frustrations of parents won’t be silent for long, I would imagine. One dad, a father of a seventh grader at Pleasant Lea Middle School who chose to remain anonymous, noted that even weeks into “virtual” learning, responses and expectations were mixed.
“Many of the teachers are patient and understanding. Some of them, however, are not responsive to email nor messages in Schoology. This is a massive frustration for our family. We’re checking Schoology every day to make sure he’s turning in work and doing it correctly. When he gets a poor score, it’s generally because he didn’t understand something. He then emails the teacher to ask what he did wrong. He has had teachers not respond to emails and Schoology messages for over two weeks. A few times, I have had to email the teachers and then we finally get a response.”
This same dad noted that children will mirror their parents during stressful times.
“Sure, I worry to an extent, but that just means that we, as parents, need to be extra observant and have frequent conversations. I also believe that our children at this age very much see the world through their parents’ eyes. If we make remote learning a big deal and complain about it, they’re going to be down on it. If we let them know that everyone is adjusting (including the teachers) and that this isn’t ideal for everyone, but we’ll get through it together and make the best of it, they will largely adopt that viewpoint.”
Still, some parents are gravely concerned for their teens’ well-being.
“I am terrified over how this is affecting her mental health,” said Amy Ditamore, mother of Addison Ditamore, an eighth grader at PLMS. “The stress, the pressure, the lack of direction, you name it. She is always stating that she doesn’t feel she is ever doing enough. I, as a parent, struggle because I am almost to a point of being afraid of adding to that stress with my expectations. The pressure and the workload being put on these kids right now is beyond extreme. They are kids, and can’t even slightly have the opportunity to be kids.”
Screen time was noted by multiple parents as a source of concern, as well it should be.
Jennifer Brooks, mom to Aidan and Ella Brooks, seventh grade twins at Bernard Campbell Middle School, said as much.
“In the past, my pediatrician always makes me feel so guilty about the screen time my kids get. Now they are on computer screens all day long and aside from sports and occasionally hanging with their core group of friends. Their only interaction is with their friends on text, social media or through video games. I really feel they are losing the ability to remember what it feels like to talk to real people not behind a computer screen. With social media it's so easy to see what they are missing out on. They start to feel really left out and sad. Then they get so absorbed in these games and they are getting frustrated really easily and talking mean to people online. Their empathy ‘level’ is really going down.”
This is where we get into the long-term-effects discussion. It’s one none of us are truly ready for, but a topic that we all will surely face in 2021 and beyond. And, of course, the finite differences in this area will be as unique as each individual teenager.
“In the beginning, I was worried he was too overwhelmed and stressed out. However, his advisor has been great, providing some coping mechanisms for how to deal with stress. We have also discussed how to prioritize homework, for example, Math, ELA, Science, and Social Studies comes first and then, if he has time in his day, work on electives and other classes,” said Lynn Goehring, discussing her son, Cody, a seventh grader at Summit Lakes Middle School.
Ongoing issues have forced one parent, Trisha Fowler, to make the switch to virtual-only for her seventh grader, Ashlyn, for the second semester. Fowler expressed disappointment that neighboring districts, like Independence, are still teaching hybrid and in-person classes.
“Ashlyn has definitely fallen behind,” Fowler said. “I was not keeping tabs on her as much as I apparently should have been and I was not being contacted by the teachers. When I finally did check in on grades and work I was appalled to see just how much she had not done. We had to work for several hours to get her caught up, or nearly caught up, but then she gets new assignments and she begins to feel overwhelmed.”
I applaud all these parents for speaking up and having real and raw discussions about their middle schoolers. These are all words that need to be seriously and thoughtfully considered not only by our administrators at the Stansberry Leadership Center, but by Dr. David Sharp, Jeff Scalfaro and David Mitchell at PLMS, BCMS and SLMS, respectively.
Don’t just listen to their parents. Hear them. And my goodness, hear these teenagers, too, as we make decisions not just for the second semester of this year but for the future of our school district.