Observations of a Middle School Paraeducator

What I’ve learned so far about adolescent development hasn’t come from books or research.  I’ve spent the last ten years alongside adolescents in a variety of capacities – as a paraeducator, coach, and YoungLife leader.  Here are a few amateur observations I’ve made working at a public middle school over the last three years, and the ways in which these observations impact my interactions with students.  Since my job duties didn’t include classroom instruction, I’ve included my own philosophies of student support and a few comments on the instructional styles of certified teachers I’ve observed.

  1. Middle and high school students seem to be interminably hungry and tired. For many adolescents, school is just one piece of tackling a full schedule on an empty stomach.  They are easily, and understandably, distracted.  As a result, an adolescent’s attention must be earned through powerful, student-centered instructional techniques.  Teachers who keep this in mind implement creative pace-changing elements in their lesson plans, such as short bursts of physical activity or opportunities for students to turn and engage their seat partner.
  2. Many high school students seem to live for peer approval; middle school students seem more torn between pleasing their parents and pleasing their peers. I wonder if this indecision about whose approval they want leaves them with a sense of not living up to anyone’s  An important part of my approach to students is positivity; I want to make sure students know I’m happy to know them and happy to help.
  3. Gender has a peculiar, highly varied, and fairly significant impact on the social-emotional landscape of a middle school. Middle school students’ approach to members of the opposite gender range from indifference to obsession.  A comprehensively compassionate classroom culture requires an educator’s empathetic awareness of the interactions – or in many cases, separation – between boys and girls.
  4. In addition to the social and emotional impacts it can have, gender comes with some distinct biological and behavioral implications. There seems to be a belief among educators that boys are still in elementary school and girls are adults.  At times, I’ve been troubled by the ways some educators have incorporated these perceptions into their classroom management, particularly when it comes to discipline.  I’ve also seen a few teachers hold boys to lower standards of behavior and achievement than they do girls.  I look forward to learning more about the research related to gender in education and to hear from expert teachers on their instructional philosophies.
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Characteristics of an Effective Educator

Effective educators are empathetic experts.  The order is paramount:  empathy comes first.  Empathy is the means by which an expert earns the right to share what they know with students.  In other words, passion for students is the necessary first step toward sharing a passion for content.  Students will encounter a variety of obstacles with content – disinterest, fear, embarrassment – until teachers communicate their willingness to be with students in the difficulty:  You can do this.  I’m with you.  I’ll help if you get stuck.

Empathy is communicated in atmosphere, words, actions, and reactions.  Empathetic educators will create a welcoming environment where students feel comfortable to ask questions and make mistakes as they confront new content.  Empathetic educators will remember more than just the names of their students; they’ll take pride in adapting a lesson for a specific kid.  Empathetic educators will respect even disrespectful students, will persistently treat everyone like they can learn.  This all-encompassing empathy is built with care and persistence.

Empathy continues and meets with expertise in the next phase where content is communicated.  An expert educator is intimately familiar with both their audience and their subject.  He or she can deftly field the questions of the intellectually curious, as well as break down material for the students who have yet to taste success.  At every step, each student is more important than the lesson or the content.