Some Strings Attached by John Gifford, Head of the Middle School
How we think about students facing adversity in the Middle School years
My daughters, now 6 and 8 years old, finally wore us down and we made the family pilgrimage to Disney last week. One day, after a long day of walking, one child leapt from a short stone wall onto my back in an attempt to catch a ride. I was taken by surprise, stumbled, and snapped my three-year-old $9.99 flip flop sandals. They were useless. It appeared that I’d be hopping home.
Then the Disney magic kicked in: A woman appeared from nowhere and started yammering on her walkie-talkie. She approached me and, with a Magic Kingdom smile, gave me my directions: “Take this N.S.A. Form to the nearest gift shop. Pick out a pair of new sandals, hand the form to the cashier and you’ll be all set – no strings attached.”
I was still wondering where the woman had come from as my wife steered me to the shop and in three minutes I was walking around with new $40 sandals on my feet. It took me some time to put together that the “N.S.A.” in “N.S.A Form” stood for “No Strings Attached.”
We began to fantasize about a life, outside the Magic Kingdom, with N.S.A. Forms. The speeding ticket? Hand Officer Krupke an N.S.A. Form and you’ll be on your way. That big investment in Enron? Your kid’s college fund is magically restored! And just think about the number of N.S.A. Forms students at Nobles would go through! And yet…
Like most fantasy fixes, it would be wonderful in the short term and awful in the long term. We’d feel elated by having been given the “free pass” and as soon as humankind realized that the there were no consequences to our actions, intentional misdeeds and chaos would reign. We would become careless and irresponsible.
Careless and irresponsible. Those are terms that I hear parents use, in moments of frustration, to describe their middle-school-aged children. At times they are behaving in a foolish way, but often young teens are just providing a reminder of where they are developmentally. Life’s experience hasn’t yet taught them how to consistently make good choices. Some students intuitively sense the right direction, or can better anticipate the outcomes of certain choices. Others need to have the implications of their decisions smack them straight between the eyes. In short, some messing up is a vital component of the growth process for middle schoolers.
That is why a zero tolerance policy for young people is, to my mind, inappropriate. Zero tolerance allows a youngster to turn a learning opportunity into a contentious moment. The shame at having made a poor decision can be focused as anger at the institution rather than a cause for reflection and learning. That said, it is wrong to hand out “free passes,” as well. It must be quite clear to young people that unsavory consequences are the result of their poor decisions.
I believe that the Nobles Middle School provides a salutary balance as we help kids make good decisions. We work to, in effect, meet them where they are and help them achieve the next emotional and intellectual step in their personal development. When the first bump in the road comes for a student, it is not met with a one-size-fits-all policy. Faculty members work exceedingly hard to establish relationships with Nobles students and then use those relationships to connect with the student. They leverage their connection while explaining the implications of the student’s action and delivering the news about the resulting consequences. Missteps in the Middle School are not the end of the world but students must show that they take them seriously and that they work assiduously to not repeat errors in judgment.
I have said before that the Nobles Middle School is a wonderful place to fail. Many new students who join us from public schools report that this is the hardest they have ever had to work. They meet academic challenge here that they have never faced. It takes some time and the great support of the faculty to adjust their learning strategies. In the interim, they may have to become comfortable with results that they had not yet seen in their academic career. While we hope that the “failure” is short lived (and history tells us that this most often the case), the Nobles Middle School is a wonderful time and a supportive place to be comfortable with that adjustment.
I contend that the students who came to Nobles from an independent elementary school have a better opportunity to face challenge at Nobles than they would if they’d stayed at their old school. If they'd remained at a school that finishes in the eighth grade, those middle school years become loaded with significance in terms of the “next step.” High schools will be looking closely at the results from seventh and eighth grades. While this can often provide positive incentive, I want to work with young people who are willing to risk a new and untested study methodology. I want the faculty to be able to do what is best for the student without worry about the future implications of a poor grade.
At Nobles, there are some strings attached. The strings are meaningful to students and provide consequences to their actions which lead to better future decisions. But there is also an understanding of where students of this age are developmentally. Finally, the Nobles academic environment is not stymied by the pressures of feeling that a middle schooler’s results become part of an important academic résumé. That feels right. While I love my new sandals, there will be no N.S.A Forms in the Nobles Middle School any time soon.