Get past the hurt. See the potential. Provide a space.

The world vastly underestimates middle schoolers. They underestimate what they value. They underestimate what they feel. They underestimate what they can do. Whenever I tell any human over the age of 16 that I work teach middle school, I’m left with their condolences. They’re sorry that I work with such a hormonal and crazy bunch. They know that middle schoolers often smell and are unaware of their stench.

And I’ll admit, sometimes even I fall into this trap. There are times when I want to teach high school again so that I can “achieve a deeper level of analysis with my students.” That’s really what I say. But the truth is, I continually underestimate my students. 

I first learned this lesson in the summer of 2010 when I was working as a middle school and high school counselor at Mount Hermon Camps. It was a particularly draining week. My girls were struggling with hard things, and despite by best efforts, I was unable to solve them. I was continually focused on the hurt, not the potential underneath the hurt. And then they did something that blew me away. Together with our “brother cabin,” these ladies wrote and performed a song/rap on the Bible passage we were studying this morning. In twenty minutes they created something fantastic; in twenty minutes they created this:

I was astonished. They did something beyond what I could ever do. But more than that, they did something far beyond what I ever dreamed. I underestimated these students.

I’ll never forget that morning. I’ll never forget those students. Many of them were deeply hurting, and the adults in their lives focused on that hurt. Myself included. 

It wasn’t until we removed the focus of the hurt and gave them the freedom and space they needed to create, that I truly saw them and their gifts for what they were. 

This, to me, is why the classroom is all about community. I need my students to feel safe within my classroom. Safe to be real with the hurt, but also safe enough to push it away for a while and do what they love to do, what they were created to do, what they need to do to make this world a better place. 

And so I confess, I continually underestimate my students. I’m so thankful they continue to surpass my expectations and bravely share who they truly are. But that’s a post for another day, if a post at all. Because the truth is, it’s hard to share outside your classroom walls when the community you find there is such a sacred place.