How to Make Your Students Feel Valued
It’s a cold, crisp February morning. Frost on the grass is just starting to melt under the sun, but I can still see my breath when I exhale. The middle schooler next to me grunts as she awkwardly lifts the maul a foot above her head. She hold its there for a moment trying to keep it steady and take her aim. Then she brings it down–or rather gravity does as she just tries to keep it straight. The maul tip smacks the piece the wood leaving a slice across its top, but not much more. The student frowns for a second before repeating the process. It will probably take at least a dozen swings before the round splits, but she will get there. And when she does, the feeling of pride and excitement will all be worth it.
Middle Schoolers Want to Feel Valued and Needed
Middle schoolers crave real work. I have written some variation of those words at least four dozen times throughout this blog and on the school’s website. Whether I am talking about students spending their weekends doing community service or arguing the importance of chores, or describing how academics are most effective when they apply to real world problems, the question of how to make your students feel valued is always present. That is because I believe more than anything else we give our middle schoolers, the feeling of being important and necessary is our greatest gift to them.
Young adolescents can often feel like they are in the way. Their awkward bodies have an almost super human ability to make a mess out of anything they do. When they wash dishes, water somehow finds its way to distant corners of the kitchen. When they sweep the floor, something is almost guaranteed to get knocked over making a bigger mess than was there before. Its tragic, because they want to help and feel useful, but consistently get the message they just make things worse.
Real Work Equates to Real Value
At Arthur Morgan School, our middle schoolers do work projects every Wednesday. They trade their pens and notebooks for hammers and shovels and perform real work all over our campus. They might chop wood, fix a broken washing machine, build a fence or dig a trench. A lot of times they make a mess and don’t always get much done, but that’s okay. The real goal isn’t to complete these project perfectly, but to give our students a sense of purpose, to show them they are valued for their contributions.
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All of the school’s building are heated by wood stoves. We don’t employ a maintenance team or regular grounds crew. We don’t have cafeteria workers or a janitorial staff. This means if the grass is too long, its up to us to cut it. If we want to eat lunch every day, we need to harvest the vegetables from our garden and prepare them. And if we want to stay warm on cold, winter days, we need to chop lots of wood. There is no way the AMS teachers could complete all this work and still have time to prepare for classes. Therefore, the students need to help. They are essential to keeping AMS running every day.
Our Ultimate Goal: Students Feeling Valued
The feeling that the students are necessary to the school’s existence is the ultimate lesson we strive to teach at AMS. At an age where they are constantly getting the message that they are troublesome and inconvenient, feeling valued could not be more important. When students graduate from AMS, they know they’ve made a real difference. They worry about who will take on their responsibilities when they leave and make sure to pass down their wisdom to newer students. AMS feels like their home because they are responsible for it, even after they leave. By bestowing them this responsibility we help them feel seen as the accomplished, capable people they strive to be.
Learning Alongside Teachers
During work projects, students work alongside other students and one of their teachers. By doing so, they are exposed to seeing their mentors do manual labor. They recognize that these practical skills are just as important as being able to write a paper or solve a math equation. Sometimes the teacher doesn’t always know how to complete the work project. The students and teacher learn together, making mistakes but forging ahead to complete their task. The students learn that they don’t need to be perfect before trying to help and that being valuable isn’t necessarily tied to proficiency.
At the start of every Wednesday, work project groups announce the work they will be doing to the entire community. At morning’s end, there is a opportunity for people to recognize each other for the hard work they accomplished. These moments help students see the bigger picture of all the work that is necessary for AMS to function and also witness how someone’s specific contribution makes a difference to that common goal. When we are done, students feel tired and worn out, but also proud because they accomplished something meaningful.
-by Nicholas Maldonado