Why Can’t the Middle Schoolers be Quiet

I received this email from our principal a few days ago. It made no difference to me until today, when I was sitting in study hall and repeatedly (as usual) telling the students to sit silently and read or work on homework. With the rolling eyes, and scornful looks after their request to get a drink was denied, I decided to finally answer her question.

Dear Faculty, My question to you is why is it so quiet at the E.S. when teachers are teaching and when I walk the halls here there is a great deal of talking? It hit me like a brick wall the other day when I walked the halls at the E.S. and visited classrooms that the students were all focused on the teacher and yes, when the teacher was talking they were listening! 

As you can see, she is comparing the elementary school students to our middle schoolers. Apples versus genetically mutated pineapple grapes. My answer to her question flowed quite quickly and fluidly as I typed out the following from beginning to end with no edits and in about 20 minutes. Obviously I had given it some thought before today…

I have an answer to your question. It may sound like I am being sarcastic, or like I’m trying to be funny, but I’m not. The answer to your question is “they are teenagers.” Again, I’m not trying to be funny. I’m actually trying to stay calm and sane, because each eye roll and sarcastic argument the students make with me inches me ever closer to wanting to chuck a desk out the window (and yes, that was for comedic effect). Honestly, I just think it is simply because of the time of their lives the middle school students are in. I also think it has a lot to do with respect, or a lack thereof, which they no doubt learn from their parents, teachers, coaches, and even peers. I’m sure you all know this already, but as I sit in study hall and have to fight back anger, repeating my instructions over and over, with the threat of detentions and being sent to the office, praying for wisdom and peace, I realize I am upset for the same reason my parents were upset with us when we were young. It’s the same reason adults yelled at us when we were teenagers. It’s the same reason we got in trouble. These children are literally fighting to fit in. They are disrespectful, rude, scared, self-conscious, hiding, and calling out all at the same time. They are trying to be unique while also trying to fit in. They want the attention of their peers and teachers at the same time they want to simply blend in to the background. Their brain chemistry is changing every minute, hormones are racing through their bloodstream, and new thoughts and feelings are emerging. Some of them just want to do the right thing. Some of them want to do the fun thing, no matter the cost. Some of them really don’t care about anything other than their personal interests. They are old enough to know better, but not old enough to comprehend the reasons. An 8th grader once asked me a question, which I cannot recall, but my answer to him was, “you won’t like my answer.” As he inquired I simply told him he would understand when he got older, and there was no reason for me to even try to explain it because he simply would not understand it. These kids have not had the experience necessary to “get” where we are coming from. They will not sit still, they will not be quiet, and they will not act with respect… unless forced. Unfortunately there are only two ways to handle things from here. We either force the students to do what we want: that is, what we believe is right, just, moral, safe, considerate, kind, helpful, loving; or we tell them what we believe and think about the world, and let them choose for themselves, which they will ultimately do anyway; with or without scorn for us adults.

The simple answer is, “because they are teenagers,” but it’s really not that simple of an answer. It is common knowledge that teenagers are complex people. Even though recent developments in science have given us better understanding of the ever changing chemistry of the adolescent brain, we are no closer to understanding the adolescent mind. They are literally children trapped in a body they assume should have grown-up responsibilities; with some of them looking the part. Their actions usually are met with mixed reactions as they assume an adult should be proud of them for taking care of business, but they are instead reprimanded (not for the action itself, but rather for the way the student went about completing the action: disrupting class, causing distractions, making more work for a teacher, and so on).

The bottom line: there is nothing we can do. Sure you can yell at them, guilt them into behaving, and threaten disciplinary action, but this will only go so far and it will only work for so long. Expecting the students to just “be good” is equally ignorant, as they will not behave properly unless told how to behave properly. Tell them why? Isn’t it best for them to just do as you say? If the students are asking questions it can only be for two reasons: they are trying to be funny, get you off topic, or waste class time (for whatever reason); or they have a sincere question and because they are able to come up with and ask the question they are probably capable of understanding the answer on some level. If the answer you give isn’t enough, they are probably capable of understanding deeper thoughts and bigger concepts than you realize. So explain it a bit more. But with all this explaining, and all the discussions, and all the talking, and all the teaching there is still no way to force teenagers to do what you want. A wise politician (yes, they exist) once said the best way to affect your kid’s decisions is to find out what they want and advise them to do it. With the intent of getting them to do the opposite, simply because they will do exactly what you told them not to.

I didn’t actually send this, as I have gotten myself into hot water by sending out emails that were too long for people to make sense of my point. Instead I’ll just keep this to myself, as well as the millions of people who won’t read it out here on the Internet. But if you are reading this, I hope you got something out of it.