Palo Alto, Calif. — These are not easy children to teach. Gone are the cooperative elementary school students eager to please adults. They have become pre-adolescents worried about the opinions of their friends, not of their teachers.
As they take their first precarious adolescent steps toward adulthood, they are preoccupied with their emotions and not much interested in their studies.
These are the children, aged 10 to 14, who populate the country's middle schools and junior high schools. They are described by the adults who work with them as energetic, responsive, extremely sensitive, confused, and fun.
``And, oh, can they be obnoxious,'' says Dr. Tom Cloer, a professor at Furman University.
According to many educators, these are the children who need the best of teachers, teachers who understand how to help them make progress both personally and academically during these important years, teachers who can like them even when they are at their most unlikable.
Unfortunately, that is not what many of them are getting.
``These teachers have to do better than they do at other stages because they are such difficult years,'' says Dr. Cloer. ``These kids can be taught, but it takes the utmost competency.''
Neither the children this age nor their teachers are getting the kind of attention and support they need and deserve, says John T. Davis, assistant dean of the school of education at the University of Connecticut and a former middle school principal.
The problem, he says, is one of neglect. Because little is understood about the educational and emotional needs of pre-adolescents, little has been done to meet those needs.
``There is a frustration in terms of dealing with the junior high and middle school level,'' says Mr. Davis. ``We have dealt with it by ignoring it because we don't know what to do. To me, that is almost a crime.''
The problem is not that the middle grades get incompetent teachers, say educators. The problem is that they get teachers who are not trained to deal with the specific and complicated needs of children this age.
Very few teachers who end up in the middle grades ever planned on teaching there. Very few want to.
``One in a hundred students [from graduate schools of education] who comes through my door says he or she wants to teach in a middle school, and when they do I fall off my chair,'' says Davis.
The majority of people going into teaching opt for lower grades or the higher grades -- in part because pre-adolescents are notorious for being hard to handle, and because the prestige is low.
Teachers whose main interest is helping children grow choose to become generalists in elementary school classrooms, and those who want a more intellectual job head for the departmentalized teaching at a high school, says Kathleen Dunn, chairwoman of the education department at Simmons College.
``You have the real pull of the focus on the child and the focus on the subject matter,'' she says.
The teachers who land in the middle grades tend to be new teachers who go where the jobs are, or experienced teachers who are transferred to openings as school enrollments go down and teachers without seniority are let go.
In either case they are trained elementary school or high school teachers -- and what the children need is neither, says Cloer. What they need is a combination of both. They need their own teachers.
The perfect teacher for the middle grades is as sensitive to the emotional and social growth of each student as a skilled elementary school teacher -- and is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a subject as a good high school teacher.
``It is the hardest place to be,'' Cloer says. These children need teachers who can treat them as children and teach them as adults.
``I can treat them as though they are more adult,'' says Ted Wassam, a former elementary teacher who moved five years ago to teaching junior high math in Palo Alto, Calif. ``But I have to remember that it is OK to treat them as children because sometimes that is what they really are,'' he says, explaining the juggling act of teaching children this age.
The good teachers in middle schools and junior high schools have, for the most part, learned to meet the needs of students on the job, says another principal.
There are very few places where they can get training.
Most colleges that train teachers offer programs in elementary or high school teaching, in part because most states certify teachers for one level or the other. Only a handful of states have set up a distinct certificate for teaching the middle grades.
``Many states certify kindergarten through Grade 8 or Grade 7 through 12,'' says Davis. ``What we are really saying is that anyone can be a middle or junior high school teacher.''
In addition, education students prefer the broader certificate, Davis notes, because the more grades they qualify for, the less restricted they will be in their search for a job.
Specialized training and certification would improve education at the middle level, say educators, because it would help people with good basic teaching skills to address the needs of this age group.
Educators feel that the adults teaching these children should know how to help them with all of the growing they are doing. Despite the challenges, it is possible, even exciting, to teach this age group, they say. ``If you divert all that energy into learning, it is incredible what they can learn,'' says Cloer.
Although it sounds contradictory, he adds, they need both diversity and routine. They love variety, but they also need clear limits and structure. ``They have a lot of needs,'' he says. ``But they'll do anything for you . . . if you tell them why.''
Children at this age are extremely sensitive to their own inadequacies, says Cloer. Any negative reaction from a teacher or any hint that they are inferior will turn them away, he says. ``They desperately need to be liked,'' he says. ``The kids must genuinely believe that the teacher cares. And they can detect a phony in a minute.''
The best teaching for this age group, he maintains, is instruction that helps them do something new to build their self-confidence.
Unfortunately, most teachers are trained to get students involved by asking questions, a technique that backfires with this age group because it makes them feel they are being judged. And, if they don't know the answer, they feel like failures.
At Simmons College, where students training for secondary level education must choose between middle school and high school preparation, the emphasis for students choosing the middle years is on managing group dynamics, in creating hands-on activities, and in providing variety, says Dunn.
``It is not an easy job,'' she says, ``but it is an exciting one. They are not so jaded (as older students). And there is more freedom because there is less pressure from outside testing.''
It is during these years that children seem to confirm their academic prejudices, Cloer says, deciding, for example, that they are bad at math and therefore hate it.
One of the rewards of teaching junior high students, Wassam says, is that those prejudices can still be overcome.