First Person

Seven ways to prepare for middle and high school transitions

Q: What can I do to help my children make the transition to middle school and high school?

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Whether it’s sixth grade or ninth, graduating to a new school level usually means bigger school buildings, larger student bodies, more choices and more freedom. Along with excitement, students can feel anxiety, frustration and isolation. We spoke with several veteran middle and high school educators who gave us the following advice for how parents can help their children make a smooth transition.

1. Logistics are the hardest part

Let’s start with middle school, where students’ first hurdles are logistical — needing to remember a locker combination, learning the building layout and getting to class on time.

“It’s all those little things that at their stage of development become everything to them,” said Sandra Bickel, principal of Webber Middle School in the Poudre School District.

One safeguard is early exposure. Jessica Fiedler, principal of Westlake Middle Schools in Adams 12, urged parents to make sure their kids visit their future middle school as fifth-graders and attend any orientation or kick-off activities prior to the start of school. This and a variety of other suggestions are contained in the district’s 11-page “Middle School Transition Guide“.

2. Let them handle challenges on their own

Both Fiedler and Bickel emphasized the importance of giving children the space to handle challenges on their own. That could mean letting them fiddle with their combination lock without stepping in to help. Or, if they come home with a complaint about an assignment or class, pushing them to problem solve for themselves.

Instead of stepping in with a solution, Fiedler said, parents might ask, “Have you spoken with your teacher?”

Bickel said homework is another area where parents should show support but not take over. She said parents can help by focusing their praise not on talent or natural ability, but the hard work their child is doing.

“Praise the effort,” she said. “Parents can let their kids struggle through some of that and not enable [them].”

3. Don’t end your involvement; change it

Parent involvement is still important as children grow older — the form just needs to change, middle school educators said. Classroom volunteering is usually not appropriate after middle school, they said, but parents can show interest by having dinner with their children, asking about their day and monitoring their phone use and social media presence.

“If parents just wash their hands of it and give them free reign…it can be very damaging to kids,” said Bickel. Sixth-graders “want to be treated more like young adults…but they’re not.”

Jen Holm, a counselor at Webber, noted that extracurricular activities, whether at school or in the community, are also very important to students’ success. She said while parents should let their children pick activities themselves, she suggested parents say, “You need to be involved in something every quarter of the year.”

4. In high school, establish routines

When it comes to the high school transition, “the absolute number one thing that’s different is the amount of freedom,” said Pam Smiley, principal of Horizon High School in Adams 12.

Students have to adjust to not being part of “teams” as they might have been in middle school, having a broader spectrum of peers and a wider range of movement within the school building. In addition, she said, “The rigor amps up a little bit. The amount of work amps up a little bit.”

For some students, the demands of high school can bring about feelings of loneliness and isolation, she said.

She said parents can help their new high-schoolers by setting up after-school routines at home to ensure homework gets done at  and students stay organized.

5. Monitor progress

Smiley also recommends that parents monitor their students’ grades and attendance if the school offers some type of online parent portal showing students’ progress. One system used at some Colorado schools is called Infinite Campus.

If parents see poor grades or attendance, it may be a sign that the student is wasting study time, battling disorganization or struggling in some other way. Smiley also suggested that parents push their students to monitor their own progress on Infinite Campus or whatever system their school uses.

6. Keep track of friends

At both middle and high school, educators recommend that parents keep track of their child’s friends. Smiley said parents should be wary if their ninth-grader starts hanging out with 11th– or 12th graders, whether in a romantic relationship or a platonic friendship.

“It’s usually never a good thing,” she said, noting that  older students sometimes take advantage of the younger ones.

7. Red flags to watch for

At the middle school level, Bickel and Fiedler said red flags that may indicate the transition isn’t going well include students complaining of headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness or simply not wanting to go to school.

“That’s definitely a time when parents need to say, ‘What’s going on?’” said Fiedler.

Smiley recommended parents not only watch for any out-of-character behavior, but also any mismatches between how students say things are going and what their grades or other indicators suggest.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.