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I Went Undercover at My Son’s Middle School and This Is What I Want Parents to Know

Ms. Meyers is a mother, teacher, and advocate for children. She has spent most of her long career working at inner-city schools.

Seventy-two percent of eighth graders say they aren't taught about engineering and technology in middle school.

Seventy-two percent of eighth graders say they aren't taught about engineering and technology in middle school.

Okay, I admit that the headline is a bit misleading, but it sounds so much cooler than saying I was a parent volunteer at my son’s middle school.

The truth is, along with one of the teachers there, I led a service club that met each Tuesday at noon. For three years, I helped a group of kids organize various fundraisers: a rummage sale, a bake sale, a car wash, a talent show, and so forth. All the money we amassed from these events was donated to a gravely ill child in our community.

From that experience of being on site, I realized the untapped potential at our nation’s middle schools and the need for more rigorous classes, especially in math and technology.

I realized how vital it is that middle school principals ban the use of cell phones and how teachers needed to do more to acknowledge and accommodate introverts.

No Man’s Land

While “undercover” is a bit hyperbolic, I did feel like a spy in this unexplored realm where few moms and dads ever go.

After all, volunteering at middle school is a rarity. Most parents know very little about what goes on there in this no man’s land between elementary school and high school.

Parents love to volunteer at elementary school: doing craft projects with the kindergartners, reading books to the second graders, and going on field trips with the fifth graders.

They love to volunteer at high school: selling refreshments during football games, helping in the career center with college planning, and organizing the graduation party.

Moms and dads, though, avoid volunteering at middle school because, if they did, their youngsters would be absolutely mortified.

The Jan Brady of Education

While volunteering at my son’s middle school, I began to view these three years of education like a middle child who often gets overlooked.

Marcia got attention because she was older and groovier. Cindy held the spotlight because she was younger, had curls, and spoke with an adorable lisp. Jan, though, frequently went unnoticed: stuck in the middle, undefined, moody, and jealous of Marcia.

Yet, Jan had so much untapped potential. She just needed someone to notice and help unleash it.

The Lush Meadows and the Rocky Patches

By being on site, I was able to take in the complete landscape of the middle school experience. I saw both the lush meadows and the rocky patches.

Without a doubt, the lush meadows were the caring, competent teachers who were uniquely gifted to work with this age group. Being there often transported me back to my own painful middle school years, making me feel like a gawky, pimply preteen once again. But these educators were in their element and interacted so seamlessly with their students.

The rocky patches convinced me we can make middle school so much better by focusing on just a few key areas. While I’m speaking specifically to what I observed at my son’s school, it turns out research shows many middle schools across the nation have similar weaknesses.

The Need for More STEM Classes

According to the Center for American Progress, 72% of eighth graders say they aren’t taught about engineering and technology.

Most certainly, this was one of the most noticeable deficiencies I saw at my son’s middle school. For all the hype there is about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), our middle schools definitely need to step up their efforts to accentuate these critical subjects.

We parents are constantly being told that the STEM fields will provide high-paying jobs for our youngsters. We’re told over and over again there will be an abundance of STEM positions available well into the future.

It all sounds good except for the reality that many middle schools don't offer any classes in engineering and technology, not even introductory ones.

It was jarring for me to walk around my son’s middle school and see kids taking cooking, sewing, and yoga classes while something as basic and necessary as keyboarding wasn’t being offered.

My husband is a chemical engineer who uses a computer and keyboard throughout his work day. It irritated him to see his 12-year-old son still “hunting and pecking” on a laptop because he never had a keyboarding class.

The Need for Academic Rigor in Math and Science

Another major disappointment at my son’s middle school was the lack of challenging classes in both math and science.

There were TAG (talented and gifted) classes for language arts and social studies but not other subjects. Therefore, if you were proficient at math and science like my son and needed more advanced work, you were simply out of luck.

Sadly, 29% of eighth graders nationwide report that their math work is often too easy or is always too easy.

If this is where jobs are plentiful, why don’t kids have challenging math and science classes instead of ones that demand so little of them?

The Need for a Stricter Cell Phone Policy

What horrified me the most when I volunteered at my son's middle school was the easy access kids had to their cell phones throughout the day: at lunch time, during study periods, at club meetings, and even during some of their classes.

The most infuriating experience I had was when I helped a group of kids plan a school-wide social. We chose a theme, planned a dance contest, created a photo booth, bought snacks, organized games, and made decorations.

Sadly, many students who attended didn’t even interact with one another but kept their eyes glued to their phones the entire time. I’d NEVER again work so hard on such an event unless the school had a no phone policy firmly in place.

After all, why go to all the trouble of planning a school social when no one is going to socialize?

Students' social-emotional development  would be helped by a ban on cell phones in middle school.

Students' social-emotional development would be helped by a ban on cell phones in middle school.

The Need for Social-Emotional Development

Believe me, there’s not one single middle school student on the face of this earth who doesn’t need to practice their social skills: having a conversation, listening, reading body language and facial cues, making eye contact, asking questions, explaining their thoughts, showing interest, and displaying empathy.

Not one of them can afford to miss precious opportunities at school to be social with their peers in favor of scrolling on their cell phone.

If parents, school administrators, and teachers don’t appreciate this fact, our future as a society is in tremendous peril. There’s just nothing more important than learning how to get along with one another and, if kids aren’t doing that at school, where will they do it?

The Need for Rational Leadership

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, youngsters use cell phones, TVs, video games, and computers for an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day.

Therefore, the last thing they need is to spend more time on their phones in middle school. Yet, as insane as it sounds, some administrators are actually in favor of them doing just that. One of them was my son’s principal.

Her stance was that kids needed “real world experiences” with their phones and, thus, should have access to them throughout the school day.

From my observations, I’d say her position was completely ludicrous: counterproductive to creating an environment conducive to learning and to promoting the social-emotional development of the students.

France banned cell phone use in their schools nationwide, calling it a “public health issue.” I couldn’t agree more.

The Need to Acknowledge and Accommodate Introverts

Even decades after attending middle school, some adults like me still remember those three years as being the worst of our lives.

Experiencing it once again as a middle-aged volunteer was just as uncomfortable for me as it was the first time around because I’m still fundamentally the same person. I’m still an introvert.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain explains that one-third to one-half of us are introverts. That doesn’t mean we’re shy and need fixing to “come out of our shells.”

No, we’re absolutely fine just as we are. We simply need less stimulation than extroverts.

Introverts at middle school need quiet periods during class where the teacher assigns silent reading or has students write in their journals. They need opportunities to share their thoughts without having to speak in front of the entire group. Teachers can facilitate this through small group activities and partner projects.

They need peaceful places where they can recharge their batteries because being around people all day drains them. These places for respite can include the library, a rose garden, a meditation room, or an art studio where they can relax by painting, drawing, and molding with clay.

They need activities at school socials that appeal to them such as making a craft and playing board games. They need physical fitness options other than team sports such as aerobics, running, biking, walking, swimming, and yoga.

When I was volunteering at my son’s middle school, there was little or no acknowledgement that introverts even existed. Just like it was when I attended middle school decades ago, the loudest and most popular kids ruled the roost and the quieter and more thoughtful ones sat in silence.

The Need to Implement “Wait Time”

One of the easiest ways to help introverts at middle school is for teachers to use “wait time.” This means extroverted students can no longer shout out answers as is too often the case.

Instead, the teacher asks a question and then waits three to seven seconds so that all kids— introverts and extroverts—can formulate a well-thought out response. The teacher then calls on someone who has their hand raised.

With wait time, all voices get heard and not just the most vocal ones.

The Need for Parent Volunteers

Lastly, I’d ask parents to please consider getting more involved at their children’s middle school. There’s such untapped potential there.

When I volunteered at my son’s middle school, our paths never crossed so he never felt humiliated by my presence there. Best of all, he saw that I valued these three years in his academic journey and wanted them to be impactful.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I read in France that they banned cell phones in all schools. What do you think of this policy?

Answer: As a general rule, I believe big government should stay out of education, giving individual schools and school districts more autonomy. With that being said, however, I think France's ban on cell phone use in schools is a good move and wholly necessary. After volunteering at my son's middle school for three years, I saw firsthand how out of control the situation had gotten. Kids were using their cell phones during classes, between classes, at lunch time, and even at school socials when nobody was socializing but rather fiddling with their devices. At a time in their lives when they're socially awkward and need practice communicating, listening, and empathizing, their eyes are glued to little screens.

Unfortunately, a nationwide ban on cell phone use at schools in the United States is highly unlikely. The tech companies have too much lobbying power over our government and educational institutions for that to become policy. There's too much money involved. That's why it's critical that superintendents, principals, parents, and teachers insist on bans at the local level.

Officials in France called their ban on cell phone use in schools a “public health issue,” and I can't agree more. They argued that children were sitting around staring at their screens during recess and breaks rather than playing and interacting with one another. This was definitely what I witnessed, and it frightened me to see how little face-to-face contact kids were having. This has long-range implications for them as adults but also for society at large. How can we have empathy for people when we're not even looking into their faces and seeing their sadness, joy, or frustration? How can we hold on to our humanness when technology is so addictive?

We have ample evidence from reputable organizations showing the dangers of too much screen time and that cell phone use in schools should be banned. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has linked excessive technology use to sleep problems, behavior issues, and obesity. Dr. Peter Gray has done extensive research on how the decline in play and the dramatic increase of screen time corresponds to major health issues in children and teens such as depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide. Results of the “Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking” show a steady decline in creativity among American children over the last two to three decades. Analysis of the test results shows kids are less talkative, less verbally expressive, less imaginative, less passionate, and less likely to think critically and examine arguments from all angles. The lack of these skills will limit young people's performance in their careers but also in their personal lives with romantic relationships, friendships, and parenting.

With all this evidence to back up a ban on cell phone use in schools, parents need to become pro-active. They need to call their school superintendents and express their concerns. Unfortunately, too many moms and dads like the convenience of being able to text their kids throughout the day. They feel a false sense of connection through technology. A recent study showed that this current generation of parents is spending more time with their kids than ever before but is interacting with them less than ever. Family members are in the same room together, but each one is doing their own thing on their own devices. We're heading down a dangerous path but, at least, in France, they're willing to do something about it. Hopefully, it's just the beginning.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers