“You want to work with them?”
“God bless you for doing that job; I could never do it!”
“Do you know what you’re getting into?”
All comments I heard when I shared with people that I had accepted a new role as a middle school principal. Many of the celebrations were laced with statements of confusion, bewilderment, and the frequent addition to their prayer list. It’s my first year as a middle school principal, and in my beginning weeks, I’ve noticed, most of all, that words matter.
I love the middle years. The curiosity and quirky inhibition of middle schoolers are ripe for deep learning and deep experience. Interacting with middle schoolers often feels like someone showed up to an archeological dig with a jackhammer. It’s a delicate dance that is often met with the clunkiness of the middle years' rapid development period leaving behind memorable dust and artifacts. It’s at this construction site of middle school that we are presented with countless opportunities with how we speak and engage students.
The developmental period of adolescence begins to open one's mind toward understanding abstract thought. Minds are primed for engaging in deep questions. These deep questions, in the middle years, must be met with authentic answers. Middle school students do not have the developmental ability to sort out an inauthentic response other than to recognize its inauthenticity (and they’ll probably show you that in a very awkward way). While our canned responses or well-intentioned lectures may be good, our audience has deaf ears toward socially acceptable candor.
While I understood everyone’s sentiments when I accepted my role as a middle school principal as well-meaning and considerate due to my developmental stage, a general middle school audience would be sent into a tailspin of questioning themselves, their authority, and their social counterparts. This forced me to think, “what if I had been met with an on-ramp to the deeper conversation?” What if I was met with statements such as, “Wow, what are you most looking forward to when working with middle school students?” Or “Middle schoolers today really need authentic leadership; you’re just the person for the job!” Or “How did you feel called to accept this role?” All responses elicit deeper reflection, connection, and understanding of an incredible learning experience before me.
I want to share a story of a middle schooler named Steve. One day after church, Steve approached his pastor with a magazine that had an image of starving children in Africa on the front. He kindly asked his pastor, “Does God know about these starving children in Africa? If you say God knows everything, why would he know about this and not do anything?” The very well-intentioned pastor responded, “Yes, God knows about the starving children, and we need to trust God,” and then walked away. This answer from the pastor left Steve at a dead end. While I wasn’t present for this conversation, I assume the well-meaning pastor thought Steve, at his age, was not ready to engage in the complex nature of the answer to his question. Later this pastor would come to find out that he was interacting with Steve Jobs, one of the most influential technology pioneers of the 21st century. When Steve left church that day, he wouldn’t return again to a church pew. Steve Jobs asked a question in middle school that, with all good intentions, left him without the tools to understand the deep things of God. There was a moment where the pastor could have taken the on-ramp into a deeper conversation with Steve but instead steered toward an exit.
In our conversations with and about middle school students, are we taking the time to steer them toward deeper thinking and understanding about the complex nature of themselves and the world? Are our conversations guiding toward the tools of reflection, truth, and hope?
As I continue to engage with middle school students, my prayer is that I would intentionally walk in authenticity and invitation. The words we use with middle schoolers (and all students) help to form their attitudes and beliefs and what they are capable of accomplishing.