My Sister Taught Me to Have Empathy for Students in Middle School

Voices | Teaching and Learning

My Sister Taught Me to Have Empathy for Students in Middle School

By Avery Thrush     Mar 29, 2023

My Sister Taught Me to Have Empathy for Students in Middle School

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

Content warning: gun violence and mention of school shootings in Nashville; Newport News, Virginia; and Uvalde, Texas.

In some ways, middle school is very much the same as it was a decade ago. In my own classroom, I recognize some of the hallmarks of the middle school years — changing voices, students spurting up three inches by the time May rolls around, and the awkwardness of being surrounded by so many developmental stages at once. In so many moments, it reminds me of myself when I was in the sixth grade. I wore my waist-length hair in a middle part back when extreme side parts were cool, had bungee laces in my Asics tennis shoes and frequently got in trouble for reading under my desk during math.

However, some aspects of the middle school experience are really, really different these days. For a generation who has never known life without smartphones, students live in a parallel online world equally consequential to their real lives. The ubiquity of phones and social media has always been accepted as a double-edged sword, but lately, it seems as if extreme violence on the internet is only a few clicks away at all times. Headlines about the teacher in Virginia being shot by her 6-year-old student blew up in the news, and recently, Nashville experienced its own tragedy when a school intruder at The Covenant School killed three students and three adults. Our students have a window into this violence that we could have never imagined.

My 12-year-old sister, Kate, is living through this change as she navigates the sixth grade this year. We both have ideas about how the middle school experience has shaped us — one from the vantage point of a teacher witnessing the change in her classroom and one from the student experiencing the changes herself. Through conversations with her, I have realized how much my time as a student in middle school has informed how I approach my students — and how much room I have to grow.

What Would I Do to Protect My Students?

When I was a student, the coverage of school shootings was hardly ever mentioned in my school. As an eighth-grader, I felt confused and devastated when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened. Not knowing all the details of the event, I tried to make a compelling case for why and whether it actually happened, leading me down a brief Youtube rabbit hole of Alex Jones conspiracy theory. It’s chilling to remember this moment that could have radicalized my young mind due to the lack of communication and awareness from teachers and school officials. We were never reassured that we were safe — maybe because no one was truly convinced that we were.

Me on my first day of 7th grade, age 12

Unfortunately, gun violence has intensified since I graduated college and eventually became a teacher. I remember the shooting at Robb Elementary School last year in Ulvade, Texas, unfolding and what that felt like as a teacher. The day after the shooting, I rehearsed what I would say to my group of sixth grade students. I didn’t want them to have the same feelings of confusion I’d had, wondering why such a huge event pertaining to such a central part of their lives went unaddressed. I stumbled, but eventually, I was able to get my message across to students: You’re safe here. You are safe in school.

I fielded even the silliest of their questions: “What if someone came through the ceiling?” “Ms. Thrush, can you even throw a punch?” We ended up diffusing the tension of the moment by giggling together and moving on to the lesson. While I genuinely believed what I said, I hoped I was right.

Kate, also in sixth grade at the time, remembers it, too; unfortunately for her, it’s the first mass shooting she really thought about. Reflecting on the tragic incident, she said:

“It was really scary, and I saw a lot of stuff on TikTok about it, too. I see interviews from little kids who were like 10 years old and what they did to survive and make the shooter think they were dead. It makes me think about what I would do in that situation.”

Her response put me in deep thought, as well. What would I do to protect my students? The week after the tragedy in Uvalde, I spent nearly all my downtime running through scenarios in my mind. There was a heavy filing cabinet on the opposite side of the room: Should I move it closer to the door so it could be used as a barricade? Did I really have what it took to tackle a gunman or grab their gun and try to wrestle it away?

Student Restrictions and Outright Bans Aren't the Answer

We all want to do everything we can to protect our students. At this moment, when threats made via Snapchat can shut down an entire school for a day, it can be tempting to tighten the vise around students and their phones. At Kate’s school, administrators have gone so far as to use metal detectors purchased for the purpose of detecting weapons to do random phone checks, pulling entire classes at a time out for a screen. But it’s important to remember the lessons of D.A.R.E., the “Just Say No,” police-led drug prevention program from the 1980s to 2000s that failed spectacularly and publicly. Absolute zero-tolerance policies, bans and tight restrictions often lead to the opposite of the intended effect, especially when implemented without the presence of student voices.

Kate also shared that at certain times during school, she feels safer with her phone on her, like when a student from her school threatened to bring a gun on social media. While the post was proven to be non-credible, she was among the 60 percent of students that chose to show up to school the next day. “I brought my phone with me, and I didn’t care that it was against the rules,” she said. “I was not about to leave my phone in my locker, just in case.”

When we simply try to curb phone use as much as possible, we’re robbing ourselves of the ability to have honest conversations with our students about scary and difficult things — real things that they will inevitably encounter, both in real life and on the internet.

The Impact of the Pandemic Lingers on Students and Teachers

During my conversation with Kate, another difficult topic we tackled was the widespread emergence of distance learning and what near-unlimited screen time during COVID did to her brain. She said, “I wish I could know what I would be like now if I hadn’t had to go through it, but it wasn’t that bad for me. I’m definitely shyer now, though. When I’m at school, I feel sad a lot like I want to go home.” Feelings of “persistent sadness and hopelessness” have risen in the years leading up to the pandemic, and research suggests that this is, at least in part, due to increased cellphone and social media usage.

There are varied opinions on what the role of schools should be in curbing this effect. Doug Lemov, bestselling author and founder of “Teach Like a Champion,” a nationally recognized organization that provides resources for effective teaching, asserts that teachers should not be solely responsible for the psychological impact of students’ technology usage. In an article published on Education Next, he says:

“Schools are not designed to address, much less unravel, psychological dependence on portable supercomputers designed to disrupt and hold our attention. Teachers already have a daunting list of educational priorities. They are not trained counselors, and the school counselors on staff are in woefully short supply.”

As a teacher, I was tasked with teaching curricular standards as well as the prosocial behavior students seemed to lack when they came back to school in person. Spats between friends and rivals blew up into physical altercations before anyone had time to intervene, and all the while, teachers were trying desperately to improve test scores and remediate students back to in-person testing assessments and instruction.

Admittedly, I’ve also felt the impact of increased screen time in my own life; my attention span is shorter, and I have a more difficult time latching on to a book and reading for long spans of time without checking my texts or refreshing Instagram. I have less resilience and less drive to push through difficult tasks. At times, it felt hypocritical to preach to my students about using their phones when I knew my own usage was out of control.

Kate, my students, and students nationwide are all suffering from the effects of a pandemic within a pandemic. Screen time is up, mental health is down, and middle school classrooms that were never entirely conducive to connectedness and belonging are feeling the effects.

Having Empathy for the Middle School Experience

Kate on her first day of 7th grade, age 13

Experiencing the trials and tribulations of middle school, both as a student and as a teacher, is something I think everyone should do if they want to understand the human experience better. Talking with my sister was fun and cathartic; it made me think about how much middle school has changed for students today and how much has stayed the same. Middle school is still a painfully awkward period; homework is still hard, and friendships are complicated.

Occasionally, I mention my sister to my students during one-on-one conversations, mainly to reiterate my care for them. “I have a sister your age,” I usually say, and continue with whatever lesson I’m trying to impart. Sometimes this device is met with eye rolls, and sometimes it succeeds in emphasizing that I really do want the best for them, just as I would want for Kate.

When I look at my students, I see Kate. I also see myself: 11 years old again, feeling awkward and wanting to fit in. Yes, most adults do not look back on middle school with fondness, but it’s the only grade I can see myself ever teaching, and ironically, these challenges and experiences are what drew me to get my Middle Grades certification in the first place.

When I was in middle school, I couldn’t have anticipated the global pandemic, the multiple years spent in virtual school, the rise of social media or the surge of school-based violence that has radically shaped the school experience for teachers and students in the past few years. But middle school is still middle school, and I have been challenged in ways that have made me think deeply about how I teach, making me more empathetic toward my students and this transformative period of their lives.

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