Thursday, October 30, 2014


As an elementary trained teacher working in The Middle, I frequently find myself making my lessons too “cutesy.”  But the funny thing is, the supposedly too cool for school 6th graders LOVE them! Their eyes light up when they see scissors and markers and glue sticks coming out instead of pens and paper. They get so excited, they fail to notice how much work and new learning I manage to hide beneath the fun. It’s a win-win

And then there are the times things backfire, and guess who winds up the loser?
Every year, my students read a realistic fiction novel about a young Jewish girl who escapes from Russia and travels to America. To help the students grasp all the history and background knowledge needed to really understand the story, I created a unit that mimicked an immigrant’s journey.

It was cutesy, complete with passports that I stamped each time they completed an activity. When we created the passports, I had them choose Russian names from a long list of popular boys’ and girls’ names. A few were able to find the Russian version of their own name, but most picked new ones for themselves.

When it came to last names, I explained the history of how the Russian government basically assigned names to the citizens by taking their father’s first name and adding –ov to the end of it, so all the people who had dads named Ivan, would have Ivanov as a last name. Anton would be Antonov, and so on.

“So, I said to the class, “if your dad is Mark, your new last name would be Markov. Got a dad named Steve? Drop the last vowel, and yours would be Stevov. Understand?”

They did, and seemed to like this little tidbit of information as they eagerly went back to the list to find THEIR dad’s names so that they could create a last name for themselves.

I was so  busy patting myself on the back for such a well-crafted lesson, that I neglected to walk around the room to observe what it was they were actually writing, so it came as quite a shock when I asked for volunteers to share their new names.

Hands shot up.

“I am Sergei Jackov!” one boy exclaimed.

“And I’m Dimitri Jurgov!” another shouted, after he found the Russian equivalent of his dad’s name, George, on the list.

I did my best to keep a straight face, but I couldn’t hold it. When you’re in The Middle, you learn pretty quickly that it’s usually best to just laugh along.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


By now, most anyone who has used email has made the dreaded “reply all” mistake, or inadvertently sent something to the wrong person, sometimes with disastrous results. And while I’ve seen my fair share of those, being in The Middle makes things even crazier.

Teachers are notorious email checkers, and with many public computers housed throughout the building, they can sign in and check from their classroom, the library, the computer lab, some else’s classroom, etc.  

The problem is, many forget to log out, so when the next teacher goes to use the computer, they suddenly find they have access to someone else’s email account. 

Now, the polite and proper thing to do would be to log out, but where’s the fun in that? No, what WE do is take advantage of the opportunity to hack their account and send flirty emails from the unsuspecting teacher to some other equally unsuspecting teacher. Or volunteer them to chair dance committees. Or offer to host the next Happy Hour.  

Harmless fun that no one takes too seriously. Though occasionally, the jokes get carried too far. Usually by me. 

A few years back, after Hurricane Katrina, our music department sent out a district-wide email asking teachers to donate any gently used instruments to replace the damaged ones in the affected New Orleans’ schools.

The moment I read it, a funny joke popped into my head, but I refrained from responding, as it was a bit off-color. Problem is, that joke was still on my mind a few hours later when I sat down at a computer that a female teacher forgot to sign out of – so – as HER, I sent out the following response, to the entire district:

“If you’re still looking for donations, I hear Rich Sufalak* has a small organ he never uses ;)”

Funny, right?

My principal didn’t think so. 

I was chastised, told to apologize to the entire staff, and written up. A union rep was even brought in to watch as I signed the official reprimand, which can still be found in my ever-thickening permanent file. I'm guessing it's somewhere in The Middle!

*name changed to protect the innocent, but it was a fellow teacher with an equally rowdy sense of humor who totally appreciated the joke!

Sunday, October 12, 2014


After listening to a very convincing speaker demonstrate how if you polled the teachers in a typical school and asked them to name the students they felt a strong connection or rapport with, 80% of the teachers routinely named the same 20% of the kids. And vice-versa. Meaning, if I had a good relationship with “John” and “Mary,” odds were, most other teachers did too; the problem being, that left too many students feeling disconnected from the staff.

Looking to fix that, I decided to make it a point to give a little more attention to the students I did not know all that well.  Nothing too elaborate or intrusive, mind you -  I wasn’t about to start eating lunch with them! But I figured asking a couple questions here and there, maybe sharing some personal experiences, would help us bond a little more.

My first opportunity came when I happened across two girls working on a mural in the hallway. I only “knew” them from homeroom, and did not have them in class, so I thought they would be a great place to start. They were happily chatting about whatever it is 6th grade girls talk about, when I heard one mention something about Girl Scouts.

“Girl Scouts?” I interrupted. “My step-daughter just had her…flying away? Crossing over? Building a bridge ceremony? You know, when a Daisy becomes a Girl Scout?”

“Daisies become Brownies,” the first girl corrected.

“And Brownies become Girl Scouts by flying up,” the other added.

“Got it,” I said, already a little flustered. “She’s in Fourth Grade now, so I guess that would that make her a…”

“Junior,” they both said. “We’re Cadettes.  And the high school girls are Seniors.”

“Really?” I asked, truly confused. You see, I honestly thought my daughter was a full-fledged Girl Scout, and did not even know kids stayed in past elementary school.  So, seeing an opportunity to learn something new, and to build some rapport, I pressed on.

 “So, what do Girl Scou…sorry, I mean, Cadettes, do at this level?" I asked.  "I know my daughter is excited about going camping for the first time. But what do they teach you girls about?”

“Mostly about how to protect ourselves,” the first girl answered.

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said. “So, like karate and self-defense? That sort of stuff?”

“No,” she replied. “They teach us how 'protect' ourselves. You know, from getting pregnant?”

I’m not sure who walked away more embarrassed that day, but thus ended my attempts at reaching out to the 80%.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Student names are rarely a problem for me. I pride myself on knowing ALL of them by the second day of school, have never used a seating chart, and can typically recall them even years later. Sure, there’s the occasional kid who happens to look like a former student, and is then called by the wrong name all year, or the one with more vowels than a Wheel of Fortune puzzle, but I’m usually pretty good at it.

Nicknames on the other hand…

Middle school kids are impressionable, and twisted, so nicknames bestowed by teachers tend to stick. I learned this the hard way my first year, when I was explaining to my class how their new computer usernames were created. I told them it was simply their first initial and first three letters of their last name, but some still looked confused, so I pulled out my roster to give some examples.

The first kid on the list was Andrew Butcher, so I said, “For Andrew, he’d take the first letter of his first name, which would be A, and then add the first three letters of his last name, which are BUT, so his user name would be…ABUT!”

The whole class started laughing, and poor Andrew has been known as A-Butt to this very day

More recently, a colleague of mine had to cover my class while I was at a workshop. He was taking attendance and called on a girl named Katherine, who prefers to be called Kat, so when he said, “Katherine?” she cheerfully replied, “It’s Kat, but hi!” He gave her a look and repeated, “Your name is Kat but hi?”

Again, the class laughed and she’s been Cat Butt High ever since.

But they should both consider themselves lucky, for back when I was in school, a teacher with the last name Abate was promoted to the position of House Master, and instantly became known as Master Abate!


Let’s be honest, The Middle is not a desirable place to be. Whether you’re in the middle of nowhere, suffering from middle child syndrome, or receiving the middle finger, chances are, you’re not happy about it. No one requests the middle seat, they want the aisle or window. Banquet waiters don’t field requests for middle slices of prime rib, typically all 10 people at the table want the end cut. And the whole POINT of “Monkey in the Middle” is to avoid becoming the monkey!

No one wants to be in the middle…unless they’re below the middle. The poor may strive to be middle class, underlings may work towards a promotion to middle management, and pitching prospects may settle for a middle reliever position. But once they’re there, they rarely want to stay there. Other than cows and sheep, who seem quite content with being in the middle of the herd, the majority of us have Jeffersonian aspirations and want to keep “Movin’ On Up!”

We live in a world where middle of the road answers are for the weak, Middle-earth is for the geeks, and the middle man is always getting skipped over, so it’s no wonder middle school gets such a bad rap. Granted, much of it is deserved. Few of us can look back on those years of cracking voices and poor fashion choices with anything but relief that they’re over. They’re tough times and awkward ages that we all had to go through, but few would want to do again.  But as a middle school teacher for the past 14 years, I know it’s not all hormones and horror stories about growth spurts and gym shorts. There’s some good stuff happening there, too.

Lucky for you, I’m not here to talk about those things, as where’s the fun in that? No, the bulk of this blog will be dedicated to highlighting the special people and special times that make middle school such a special place. Of course, names will be changed, identities concealed, and facts exaggerated, but they should still offer a true insight into what it’s like to be stuck in the middle.