Is middle school a power vacuum?

I attended several classes about the middle school years at a recent education conference. One of the theories floated as to why middle school was so awful for kids had to do with a power vacuum.

The speaker explained that in elementary school the teachers were in control and directed everything for the children. Besides just teaching academics, teachers are also often social engineers. They would keep the peace and make sure all were playing nicely. If Bobby has a problem with Ken then the teacher tries to help them work it out or keep the apart. If Sally is a little catty or hurts other girls’ feelings then the teacher may point that out to Sally and help her see the error in her ways.

You also have a teacher that knows her 25 kids pretty well. She knows if they are having bad days or if something seems out of place.

However, according to this expert, when pre-teens/teens head off the middle school, the teachers’ roles subside to just teaching and there is a power vacuum to fill.

Since the kids switch classes, the subject teachers don’t know them  as well and may not be tuned into problems. The kids are encountering social dilemmas in hallways and bathrooms where teachers are not present.

So who fills this power vacuum in middle school left behind as the teachers withdraw? The socially stronger students start running the show – sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.

I took it that the speaker was advocating for having a stronger presence of at least one teacher in the middle schooler’s life. That some adult within the school knows the child well enough to know if he or she is having problems or needs help.

I read an article a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine that advocated that middle school kids stay in elementary school so they could seek help from the elementary school teachers they trusted. The story said in schools with that arrangement the confused middle schoolers would routinely seek out teachers they bonded with when younger and found guidance and comfort from them.

Do you buy that middle school is a power vacuum? With what would you fill it? Do you think the teachers retract too much from the middler schoolers’ lives and should be more of a presence? What about theory of having one teacher that knows the child better than the other teachers – maybe even like an advisor instead of homeroom teacher? What about keeping them grouped with the elementary students so they have trusted adults that they have previously bonded with near-by?

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Joe Bruzzese

April 27th, 2011
2:52 am

Theresa, important questions. Thanks for asking and being open to all of the responses. The US doesn’t seem to have settled on a right way to help kids navigate the middle school years. Some schools keep kids in a K-8 setting while others have created a junior high (7th and 8th) before shipping them off to the high school. I’m not sure that any one set up is better than the next. Looking elsewhere around the globe though there seems to be a consensus that keeping middle schoolers with the younger group would prove more beneficial.

With the variety of options available to parents here in the US I think the bigger question is, “Where will my child flourish?” Is she independent, a leader and connected with a positive peer group?” The strain of middle school or a junior high doesn’t bode well for kids who lack confidence and need the extra support of a few trusted teachers, coaches and mentors in order to thrive. Looking for a k-8 option may be a better source of support in the years leading up to high school.

Your questions have prompted a wonderful discussion that I would enjoy engaging with in the coming days.

Joe Bruzzese


April 27th, 2011
10:57 am

@Middle School Teacher – I hope you come back to check this… I just happened to come back to see if there were more responses.

Yes, actually, I am a very involved parent and do way more than show up when there’s a problem. I have always gone to the teacher first when I feel like there is an issue and never try to go straight to administration. Of course since this incident occurred at the beginning of 6th grade, there was no history to prove I was an involved parent other than the fact that I signed up for the PTA and paid my $5. I’ve been to every Open House, Curriculum night, parent-teacher conference, performance and nearly every field trip my son has ever been on. I’ve run ticket booths and concession stands, coordinated pre-game meals and end-of-season banquets. I had no issues with the other teachers at the time, just this one; but it seemed to fall on deaf years until I escalated the issue up the food chain. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who had an issue with her or she would have been kept in the classroom. My point was that a lot of time administration gets completely on the defensive and won’t even open their eyes to consider that the problem may not be with the students.

Perhaps it was this school specifically that didn’t want parents involved but I’ve heard it from more than one person and do think that a lot of schools give lip-service to parents involvement. I think they want you to be involved at home but don’t really want you on their campus. Perhaps it’s out of fear; there are some wacky parents out there but from someone who has always been and wants to be involved, I felt completely unwelcomed.

We pulled our son out of public school after that year for two reasons: first, the curriculum was a joke. It was terribly slow and our son was incredibly bored. He is not gifted, he’s smart but lazy. In the end he was constantly in trouble for talking or not paying attention. Secondly, I felt like there was no partnership between the school and parents. Could he have survived there? Certainly. Could he have thrived there? No. And so in the end we decided that we would sacrifice to send our son to a private school that suits his learning styles better, has smaller classes which allows the pace at which the curriculum is to be more flexible, and that actually PARTNERS with parents in education.

Believe me, I wish it had been a better experience, especially every month when I’m writing out that hefty tuition check.

middle school teacher

April 27th, 2011
11:58 am

Thanks for your response, techmom! I was trying to be fair and explain both sides of the equation for everyone – I hoped that you got that. It’s disappointing to hear your experience, and so different from mine as both a teacher and a parent. I teach in my neighborhood school, and I have always felt that the cluster from elementary to high was very inviting of parents, but I’m sure I have neighbors who might feel differently.


April 27th, 2011
12:27 pm

Middle school teacher…Yes, I was also involved as much as I could be. There were few opportunities to get involved or volunteer in any way. I did go to open house, curriculum night, etc. To be fair, I’m sure the teachers have to deal with some difficult parents and difficult students, but neither me nor my child fell into that category. Even the most neutral question was met with hostility and defensiveness. I got lots of calls and emails wanting me to donate to “teacher appreciation” events or canvas local businesses for donations. It really seemed like the only time they wanted parent involvement was when there was something tangible in it for them.