Future middle school teachers at NIU hear expert advice from 13-year-olds, parents

Joyce Laben
Joyce Laben

As a former middle school principal and assistant principal in the McHenry County towns of Woodstock and Cary, Joyce Laben knows well the value of listening to the “stakeholders” at those institutions.

It’s something she stresses in the EPS 512: Principal, Family and Community course she teaches in the M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration Principal Preparation Program.

But so do students in Laben’s EPS 419: The Middle School Child course, also offered in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF).

Laben brings in guest speakers from all levels of the middle school stratum, from principals and assistant principals and guidance counselors to parents and even the adolescent students themselves.

“What I want my students to get out of this is the knowledge available from these current stakeholders,” says Laben, who adopted the concept from Assistant Professor Lindsay Harris, who formerly taught the course. “Many have told me that they’re going to apply what they have learned.”

Recent visitors to the classroom included Calvin Vander Schee, a seventh-grader at DeKalb’s Huntley Middle School, and – one week later – his mother: Carolyn Pluim, chair of the LEPF department.

Vander Schee was joined by classmate and friend Cayden Harbecke.

The pair candidly answered questions on everything from their biggest fears entering middle school and what helped them to adjust, to their favorite and least favorite subjects and teachers.

Calvin Vander Schee (left) and Cayden Harbecke
Calvin Vander Schee (left) and Cayden Harbecke

Other questions from the NIU students prompted the two 13-year-olds to address:

  • the importance of friendships;
  • the evolution of their friends from elementary school to middle school;
  • the quantity and value of homework;
  • how they navigate social media and other digital spaces;
  • their involvement in extracurricular activities;
  • their opinion on the hallway transition from one classroom to the next and whether it’s disruptive to their concentration;
  • how rules are enforced;
  • bullying and what adults do about it;
  • popular kids and their cafeteria tables; and
  • pre-teen romance, which they deemed “not necessary” to laughs from the crowd.

Nuggets of wisdom during the Q-and-A included their enjoyment of hands-on activities, their expectation that high school is harder than middle school, their wish that teachers would cover material on standardized testing and their belief that not everything that they are learning will benefit them as adults.

Later, pressed for their advice to future middle school teachers, they were clear. Calvin: “Don’t give busywork.” Cayden: “Try to understand how people think. Don’t try to guess.”

Calvin and Cayden give good marks to their time on the hot seat.

“It was cool to help them. I can’t believe that future teachers are interested in what we think,” Calvin says. “It was nice to have my voice heard for the betterment of the school districts.”

Pluim fielded questions on topics from the depth of parental involvement needed for middle school students to what fears she experienced when her oldest son – Calvin’s brother, Jared, now a freshman at DeKalb High School – entered sixth-grade.

Carolyn Pluim
Carolyn Pluim

She spoke about homework amounts, school-based discipline and how children tell their parents about whether teachers are good or bad. (She also shared with the NIU students something Calvin and Cayden had told her over dinner a week earlier: “When I was talking to the boys about the school subjects they love, it was all about the teachers.”)

Many of the questions focused on communication.

What information should or should not be provided to teachers in getting to know your child? Should teachers reach out to parents before the school year begins? How would you feel if a teacher made a home visit as opposed to a phone call or a traditional parent-teacher conference? What is one thing that should or shout not be discussed in a parent-teacher conference?

Have you reached out to the teachers of your children? How often? Was it easy? Did the teachers respond? If your child performed poorly on an assessment, would you want to be told via email or phone call? What communications have you appreciated the most? How often do you expect to hear from your child’s teacher? Do any teachers share too much information?

Pluim appreciated her opportunity to offer a mother’s perspective to the future middle school teachers, all of whom are in the course to understand the psychological framework of sixth- through eighth-graders.

“An emerging sense of identity and independence,” Pluim says, “is what middle school is.”

Mallory Drake
Middle Level Teaching and Learning major Mallory Drake listens as Calvin and Cayden answer her question.

Mallory Drake, a sophomore Middle Level Teaching and Learning major from Homer Glen, Ill., calls the guest speakers “very beneficial.”

“I’m glad that Dr. Laben brought them in,” she says. “It helps us as future teachers understand where our students are. I feel like sometimes there’s that disconnect between adults and children, so being able to actually hear their voices and let them know that they’re being heard – and that they can make a difference in future teachers – is really important.”

Drake, who wants to teach “to be an influence on young kids’ lives … as they’re going through this awkward phase of middle school,” especially took note of Cayden’s advice.

“As teachers, we forget sometimes that our students do have a mind of their own and they’re thinking – that they have their own opinion – and it’s really important for us to remember to ask them,” she says, “and to remember that we are there for them rather than just teaching them the content.”

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