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March 20, 2024

Teaching Channel Talks Episode 88: Middle School vs Junior High? What’s Changing in Middle Level Education (w/Jack Berckemeyer of AMLE)

Junior High. Middle School. No matter what the name on the sign outside says, what’s important is the work happening on the inside. In this episode, Wendy welcomes Jack Berckemeyer of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) for a candid conversation about the big changes happening in how educators approach middle school. Jack stresses the importance of middle school teachers connecting with their students during this crucial time in their academic careers and how staying up-to-date on the fads, fashion, and slang of this age group can help in student success.

Our Guest

Jack Berckemeyer is a nationally recognized presenter, author, and humorist who began his career teaching middle school in Denver, CO. Jack served as the Assistant Executive Director for the Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE) for 13 years and currently owns Berckemeyer Consulting Group. He has presented in hundreds of school district and conference settings nationally and internationally, and is also the author of several middle school-focused books, article, and curriculum.

Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

What happens when you invite two passionate mid-level educators to share a conversation about middle school culture and community?  They brainstorm practical ways to make sure that every student is connected! Download Jack and Wendy’s 3 Simple Actions That Build Middle School Culture and Community.

The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) is an international organization specifically for middle school educators. As the go-to resource for research, best practices, and professional development, AMLE is a community of over 350,000 middle level educators connecting and supporting each other.
Learn more and join the community!

Jack Berckemeyer is a successful author who has written several books focusing on middle level education. In this episode, Jack and Wendy talk about the following titles:


Episode Transcript

Wendy Amato: Welcome to Teaching Channel Talks. I’m your host, Wendy Amato, and as often as I can, I jump into conversations about topics that matter in education. And my favorite topic is middle school. In this episode, Jack Berkmeyer of the Association of Mid Level Educators and I are about to explore culture and community.

It’s a pleasure to welcome you, Jack.

Jack Berckemeyer: Thank you so much. And you know what, I will talk middle school, any place, anytime, anywhere, any day, because as they’re misunderstood. So I love the opportunity to talk about the greatness of middle school and specifically talk about culture and community in regards to middle school.

So thank you so much for this great opportunity to chat.

Wendy Amato: We’re in for a good conversation today. Help me get an understanding of why mid level education is of interest to you and what your background is in that area.

Jack Berckemeyer: And it’s a great story to start with because I firmly believe that you have to be committed to the age group you teach.

In other words in the great state of Colorado where I’m from, I’m actually certified elementary and middle level. But then the reason was is because back then it was to make yourself more marketable in the job career choices. But for me, my passion was middle school and I’ll never forget I went to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, and sat in that education 101 class where there were two 150 people in there and this guy by the name of John Swain came in and he started talking about middle school and he showed the slide of a bunch of kids like one was one height.

The other one was shorter. The other one was taller. The other one was shorter than that. The other one was even shorter than that. And he said, by the way, these are all eighth graders. And I was intrigued by that right away because I was like, they can’t all be eighth graders. And he said, if you like this idea, and if you like the idea of teaching middle school, come join us.

And I tell you what, I ran down that little theater and said to him, sign me up because part of it too, was my favorite teachers were my eighth grade teachers who weren’t middle school at the time. It was junior high. And so it was like a perfect fit. And so from there, I went right on into teaching sixth grade at a middle school.

In fact, I was hired in the middle of the school year, because again, it was one of those things where the middle school movement was really moving forward. And then pretty much have been with it with the association. I worked for several, for 13 years. And then this is like my 32nd year in middle school.

And I get to help teachers all across the world and the United States. Just talk about middle school. So that’s my journey. It was really a calling. I knew it was where I was supposed to be.

Wendy Amato: There’s no question that you have experience and expertise. There’s a lot we can learn from you today.

Tell me, you’ve been very clear in noting the difference in your language. Some people say junior high and some people say middle school or mid level education, why the distinction?

Jack Berckemeyer: Are you ready for your first Trivial Pursuit question?

Wendy Amato: Bracing myself. Yes. Bring it.

Jack Berckemeyer: I know. It’s great. See, when we talk about young adolescents is 10 through 15 year olds, and then get this adolescence is 16 through 25, which is actually fascinating because a lot of people don’t put that into perspective, especially if you’re in a, if you’re in a middle school, you’re not only you have young adolescents, but isn’t it fascinating?

We also have adolescents teaching. Young adolescents, because we have teachers who are like 23, 24 years old, but we’re really when we talk middle school, we’re really talking about that 10 through 15 year old. Then what happened was most of the schools in the United States were junior highs. And then when that movement came about where we’re like, wait a minute.

You know what the junior high model isn’t working for this age group 10 through 15 year olds. We’re not the farm team for the high school. We’ve got to look at things differently. And so that’s when the middle school concept started. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s a joke, but it’s the absolute truth is that a lot of buildings did the name change.

But couldn’t change their name from like Smith junior high to Smith middle school, because there was a stone tablet outside that literally said Smith junior high. And it would have cost like 25, 000 to change the stone sign. And so it was never about the name. It was really about what happened on the inside of that building.

And I think that’s one of the things we’re going to, we’re talking about is that culture and that community of what actually happens on the inside. Now this is old data, but it’s your second wonderful trivial pursuit thing. At the time there were 24, 000 middle schools in the United States, 19, 000 were between the grade levels of six through eight other three or 4000 had 54 different configurations.

So there were 678 buildings there were 6789 there were 789 there were. Five buildings at grade five in Texas. We have tons of schools that are just sixth grade annexes. So that’s why I don’t want anybody to be confused between junior high and middle school. It’s just really about what are we doing to teach 10 through 15 year olds.

And again, if it happens to be in a middle school, that’s great. If it happens to be at a junior high, that’s great as well.

Wendy Amato: If we say it’s not about the name and it is about what happens on the inside, what should be happening on the inside? Talk to me about some best practices. If our focus is culture and community, what does it look like?

Jack Berckemeyer: You better, like I said, you better be committed to this age group. Like you truly better say this is where I want to teach and be.

Wendy Amato: Or else what?

Jack Berckemeyer: Or else they will weed you out. Like they know if you’re in it wholeheartedly or not, if you go in there and you’re like, I don’t think I really like this age group, they know.

And they, this is a joke, but it is really the truth. We went through at the school. I taught, we went through six eighth grade teachers in one year, like one lady, she came in and she goes, these kids are out of control. Like she just wasn’t committed. To the age group and didn’t understand them. So if you want to go in there and think, Oh, these are just many high school kids.

As a teacher, you’re not going to do well, because it’s just, they’re not, they’re very different and very unique. So for me, I tell any educator, you’re going to teach middle school, you better know the fads, the fashions, the trends, and the slang. And you know why? I tell teachers all the time, you don’t believe me?

How many of you have been called a word and you don’t know if it’s appropriate or not? And you’re like, I have no idea if that was a good thing or a bad thing. So again, we want people in there, in middle schools, that truly understand young adolescents and their uniqueness. very much.

Wendy Amato: One of the things that you have told me about students and what we know about them is that every middle school student needs an advocate.

Tell me more about that.’

Jack Berckemeyer: Here’s where I put on my practical hat, because this is the truth. I think that in schools, we’re spending 95 percent of our time on 5 percent of our student population. And I think that’s wearing teachers out and who gets attention in a middle school is needy, naughty, nice, needy, naughty, nice gets all of our attention.

Meanwhile, there are tons of kids. That get little or no attention from us and it’s not their fault. It’s not our fault. You were an educator. I was a classroom teacher at the end of the week. I taught 120 kids on our team. And at the end of the week, there were kids that I know I did not interact with.

And it wasn’t because I didn’t like them or anything. It’s just that needy, naughty, nice. We’re consuming my time. And so I’ve. Again, sharing this with schools, it’s in several of the books that I’ve written in regards to how do you build that advocacy. It’s easy to say as a teacher, Oh, I connect with all kids.

Turn to page 54 is not a connection with a kid, that’s a demand command kind of thing. So one of the things I encourage people to do and if you’re a great middle school, you’re probably on a teacher team, which is a math, language arts, social studies and science teacher. And you may share 120, 110 kids.

I say about six to eight weeks into the school year. What you do is you write down every single kid’s name on an index card. So if you’re on a team of 125 kids, Wendy, how many index cards will we need? That’s your first assessment question of the day.

Wendy Amato: Is it one per kid?

Jack Berckemeyer: Yes, it’s one teacher per kid.

Wendy Amato: Ah, no multiplying, we’re one to one here.

Jack Berckemeyer: So 125 kids, you’re gonna have how many cards?

Wendy Amato: 125 cards.

Jack Berckemeyer: Nope. 135, because you’ll make mistakes.

Wendy Amato: All right, so you set me up just like a good middle school instructor. Thanks for that.

Okay, tell me more. We’ve got the cards. We have the extras now. We’ve spelled everyone’s name properly.

Jack Berckemeyer:

And so what you do is you put them all on the table about six to eight weeks into the school year. And you literally have the most veteran teacher pick first is what an honor that is that veteran teacher literally picks the first kid and says, I will take Nick tombs.

I have taught his brother I taught his sister I taught the whole family. He makes me laugh. He’s such a great kid. And then the next teacher picks and the next teacher picks. And then imagine. That you’re picking kids because you have a natural connection for them. And here’s the best part, Wendy, at the end, what it shows is maybe our biases, teachers.

Are they the shy kids? Are they kids that are a little more needy or naughty? And then what you do is you look at each card and you say, what is it that this kid needs? And you know what? This kid needs some mama loving every team. And someone in middle school has a mama loving teacher in their building.

And then this kid needs a positive male role model. Okay I’m going to take that. So basically it’s every card, every kid. And sure enough, when you’ve done this activity, every single one of those 125 kids has an adult advocate on that team. And all’s I ask is that a teacher takes their stack of cards.

Every Monday, pick about five to seven of those cards and make a positive connection with those kids. And it’s as simple as love your shoes. How was your weekend? How are you doing? Simple little interaction. Keep rotating those throughout the year. And I guarantee you, you’ll make some connections with kids and you’ll learn a lot about them as well.

Some teachers even write notes on the back about strange things they find out about the kids. I just think what a great way to prove an action that a hundred percent of our kids have an advocate within that school.

Wendy Amato: When I was a middle school administrator, I had an understanding with my team that I might lean in a doorway and say, Could I borrow Jack for a moment?

I need some help. And maybe I needed help with something, or maybe I found a reason to need help with something, but it made Jack feel special, and it gave the rest of the class a moment to say, Wow. Ms. Amato is needing Jack for something. And that, that could be another nice way besides the compliments and the hello, it gave us quiet time in the hall to walk down and get something or to move something together, or just have a quick conversation.

It’s great. Then they value that.

Jack Berckemeyer: They value that. And and I need to do a preface on this because, I love, I’m a practical teacher in my head. And so I always joke about this and it doesn’t mean if a kid comes up and they’re not one of your cards, and the kid goes, I’m having a really bad day.

You can’t say, Oh, I don’t have your card. No. Somebody cares. It’s just not me today. So I don’t like people misinterpreting every kids are still going to come to you and talk with you and chat with you. But the bottom line is that stack that you have, they could be the ones you make positive phone calls home to parents, those could be the ones you said you meet in the hallway and have a conversation or walk and talk.

They just need to know and they don’t need to know it. You don’t list it. You don’t tell them. It’s just a natural thing so that all of our kids have some adult. That’s going to watch over them. I’m appreciative

of the way you’re describing the shared ownership across the entire team. I’d like to talk a little bit about who is responsible for culture and climate.

I hear you saying it’s a responsibility that everyone shares, but I think there are a lot of people who put that pressure on the principal.

Oh especially if you use the term culture and community, because it’s oh, the culture of our building is not great. Okay, hold on the principle is not the culture and climate and chief person.

That’s not their role. Yes, it is too. Nurture teachers, support teachers, help them, same for children in the building and parents and communities. It’s to care for them. It’s to support them. It’s to listen to them. It’s also to push them forward in learning and understanding. But a lot of this, like when I work with some schools, they’ll say our culture and climate is horrible.

And I’m like wait a minute. You say that you had five principles in seven years, but you’re the constant variable, meaning we as the teachers have been there for 10 or 12. We have actually more power over the culture and the climate of a building than maybe the administrator does, because especially if you see a lot of rotation of that administrators coming in, you can say, look, this is our culture and our climate.

These are things that we do naturally for kids, and we are definitely a middle school. That’s where the big thing has come in where let’s say a principal that was an assistant principal at a high school comes in now becomes a middle school person. Oh, automatically the teachers are like, great. We’re not going to be a middle school anymore.

No, I think that’s what makes middle school. So great. As you sit down with your principal and say, Hey, this is what makes us unique. And I think to blame it or not blame it, but to put it on one person, To be in charge of culture and community. No, it’s all of us. It is individual teachers, it’s departments, it’s teams, it’s our special ed teachers, it’s everybody that contributes to what that school looks like.

And I think if and value the age group, if you make sure they have an advocate, and I think ultimately, if you’re willing to do things that are right for middle school kids, and not with the belief we’re a farm team for the high school, then I think culture and community. Definitely happen. It’s happened extremely well, and you become a really good middle school that way.

Wendy Amato: We’re doing that right now. We are just declaring culture and community is not the responsibility of the principal. That’s over. We’re debunking that myth, throwing it out, and embracing the fact that it is everyone’s responsibility. We’re all ingredients in the space. Jack, I’d like to ask you a little bit about AMLE’s commitment to comprehensive counseling and support systems.

What kind of tools and resources are available?

Jack Berckemeyer: Let’s be honest with each other, dealing with a pandemic kids in isolation has changed the needs of our middle school students. And I think if you go back even seven or eight years ago, there might’ve been one counselor for 250 kids.

And some of that was just for scheduling. Some of that might’ve been for testing things and stuff. I think the role of a school support system and a school counselor has changed dramatically as well. Our kids are craving more support group kinds of things because they are struggling with interacting with each other.

So anything that a school can do to bring kids together, to actually talk about feelings, emotions, anger, all of those kinds of things, I think have changed because our kids have needed it. We’re seeing more psychologists, more sociologists in our middle schools. And again, I’m not going to spew out all the research and data because middle school teachers know this.

It’s the most vulnerable age right now in regards to peer pressures of social media, peer pressures of each other. And it was always that way with middle school kids, but I think it’s been amplified because of their intense relationship with a phone. And I think that really has changed their dynamics, their thinking, how they seek support, how they get their information.

And I think great middle schools are saying, wait a minute. Our counselors, we need more of them than we’ve ever needed. And we are seeing that, especially in many middle schools, is where they are providing more support systems, more opportunities for kids to do things together, and then ultimately more reflection pieces as well.

So it’s getting them to have a little bit of ownership as well into their own mental health. And I think that’s something that my generation of teachers, and I’m sure yours, we never talked a lot about the mental health piece. We just said, Oh, the kid’s having a problem. Go to the counselor. I think teachers have taken on stronger roles of dealing with identifying and helping kids immediately when they have tough and rough situations.

Wendy Amato: I love that and maybe it’s also a reminder to us to think about the causes for irregular behavior rather than the irregular behavior itself. There’s a lot of work on trauma informed instructional practices, and people feel like trauma has to mean some tragic thing happening, but really it’s just about being derailed from from the regular course of action or normal day.

Jack Berckemeyer: And then ultimately when kids do some things wrong, how do we do some restorative practices with that kid to get back to take some ownership, but also learn from that piece. And I think again, middle schools that are changing and evolving, These are things that have really hit us in the last two to three years and not even, like I said, five, six years ago, these wouldn’t have been conversations we’re having, but I think with the elevated risk factors of middle school kids, we need to make sure some of our best support systems are in the middle level and in our middle schools.

And I think that’s why AMLE is all in on this. Hey, you know what? We know they’re fragile. Let’s figure out how to solve it, make them good human beings. And then that makes our lives better as we all get older.

Wendy Amato: Okay, so we’re describing middle school educators who really want to provide care for the students in their classrooms.

We’re finding new ways of responding to different types of behavior. We’re all in, in middle school. Why then do we have strange responses when people ask us what we do?

Jack Berckemeyer: Oh, and especially, middle school, because I think that when you go back and survey any adult in their life and say, what was the most traumatic time period of your life?

Every single person, whether they’re in a middle school or a junior high would probably say junior high. And so it was always this place about all your worst situations happened. Yes, you can throw in the issue of That’s when we all go through puberty. That’s when we all go through the point of just making dumb mistakes.

Like literally, we would do the stupidest things. My joke is that a great middle school teacher can literally stand in the hallway next to a colleague and go, I’ll bet you a Starbucks. That boy’s gonna run into the wall, and sure enough, , that boy runs into the wall and,

Wendy Amato: Helloooo, mocha latte!

Jack Berckemeyer: Yes. And the funny part is they’ll back up and do it again.

Part of this is that I think we forget how funny it actually is. And I tell everybody this, if you don’t laugh at least five times a day in a middle school, there’s something wrong with you because it is absolutely funny. The kids are funny. My colleagues are funny. It’s just a funny environment, but I think it’s like, Oh we don’t teach high school.

We’re not teaching the AP classes. We’re not elementary where it’s nurturing and loving and everything goes on a refrigerator. We’re in this middle school where everyone’s awkward. Even some of our colleagues are awkward. Our kids are awkward. They have long arms. They smell sometimes they walk into walls.

And I think we’re always at that apologetic mode of, yeah, I’m just at a middle school or why did you want to be in middle school? I think that’s something that only people that can change that you want to talk about community and culture. If any middle school teacher is talking or listening to this, please listen to me.

The next time somebody says to you, what do you say you know what, I am a great middle school teacher and you know what, they’re great kids and they’re funny and I laugh every single day, and I wouldn’t do anything else.

Wendy Amato: If I wanted to learn a little bit more of your thinking and your ideas and recommendations, can you talk to me about being a book author?

Jack Berckemeyer: Yeah. One of the things, oh my gosh, shameless plug. This is not my book that I’m, I have here that I’m looking at. This is actually Successful Schools, This We Believe. It’s really the foundational piece of why middle schools are middle schools. And I’ll tell you what, if you’re going to do some reading at any time, this is one I highly recommend.

It’s not a book that any middle school person reads. It just says, look, here’s why we do this. Here’s why we became middle schools. It’s not one piece. It’s not 9, 000 pages. It’s a quick, wonderful, easy read where you can walk away going. I think I get it now. I think why this is why we are unique. They do a series of different things and I was very lucky to do successful middle schools teaming, which is really my area of love and expertise is really about how we get a group of teachers together to really work well for kids.

The other one, a book that. I think we need now more than ever is that I did with Dr. Debbie Silver, which is deliberate optimism, still reclaiming the joy in education. I really do feel as an educator, we’ve lost a little of that joy and how can we bring that back? And then the other one that just, the title just makes me laugh, which is managing the madness, which is a practical guide to middle grades education.

And again, it’s just more practical, great ways to set up your classroom, great ways to interact, but I’m. I love what I do. I love the fact that I’ve never tried to do anything else. I’ve really stayed in my lane. People say, hey, we need some help with middle schools. People say, get a hold of Jack Berkmeyer.

He knows his stuff. And I’m proud of that. Because not many people would say that not only do they, But I’ve pretty much spent 32 years all in middle level. I’m proud of that. And I think anything you do and listen to my readings or anything that you’ll see, it’s usually joyful, funny, and practical, which I think we all need a little bit of all three of those things.

Wendy Amato: Thank you, Jack. Thank you for sharing a conversation with me. This is wonderful. To fellow educators everywhere, thank you for joining our conversation. If you’d like to explore the topics that Jack Berkmeyer and I have discussed today, please check out the show notes at teachingchannel. com slash podcast.

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