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This research study has been a journey for me. It is a journey that began many years before I was even cognizant that I would one day be embarking on such an all-consuming task. Since many of my life experiences have prepared me for this endeavor, it is impossible to identify the beginnings of my journey. Neither do I see the writing of this document as the completion of a journey; it is merely the synopsis of a journey thus far. Were I to undertake a similar research study in the future, I would experience it differently because in the course of time I would have changed as all individuals change in the ebb and flow of life. I do, however, want to articulate experiences and events which led me to choose this particular research study at this time in my life.

Discovering Middle Schoolers

My interest in and commitment to middle school students began in 1993. Prior to this year I considered myself an elementary teacher, having taught a variety of elementary grades for 10 years. I had no interest in teaching middle schoolers and periodically found myself saying that I would never teach those grades. Had the truth been told, I was afraid of middle schoolers. I heard stories about how unruly and disrespectful they were. I disliked having to interact with them when I entered the middle school wing of the buildings where I taught my elementary students. The less interaction I had with young adolescents, the more comfortable I felt.

As I was nearing the end of my 10th year as a teacher, I realized that it was time for a new challenge. I knew that I could not continue teaching fourth grade because my small school no longer needed two sections of Grade 4. In the midst of contemplating what my next step should be, the thought of transferring to the middle school entered my mind. This thought, however, was a frightening proposition. Being a religious person, I told God that if this awful idea was from Him, then He needed to show me in a dramatic way by having my principal broach this topic. Under no circumstances would I breathe a word about the possibility of teaching middle school to another human being. After my conversation with God, I promptly dismissed this preposterous idea.

One day not too long after my pact with God, my principal stopped me at the door of his office and calmly asked if I would consider teaching in the middle school for the following school year. I was stunned and vividly remember the suffocating fear and anxiety I felt during our conversation. Of course my earlier proposition with God came rushing to the forefront of my mind. In the midst of my swirling thoughts, I heard myself calmly say that I would consider his suggestion. After much deliberation, observing in the middle school, and talking with various friends and teachers, I finally agreed to interview for a middle school position. The interview went well, I was offered a teaching position, and I was asked to provide leadership to restructuring the existing program into one that reflected current research on effective middle schools. To this day, I have no idea why the school board entrusted their students and program to my inexperienced hands, but I am grateful.

I had no specific training and very little practical knowledge in teaching middle schoolers. I recognized my urgent need for practical and theoretical information in determining how to best teach these students and what steps to take in developing a program designed especially for middle schoolers.

At that time I was also in the process of completing studies for my master’s degree; consequently, I chose to delve deeply into the middle school literature and discuss the unique needs of middle schoolers with experienced educators. As my knowledge grew, so did my excitement and commitment to designing a program which took into consideration the developmental characteristics of young adolescents.

As I got acquainted with the other teachers assigned to the middle school, I discovered that we shared similar educational philosophies. We quickly became a team of educators committed to teaching middle schoolers effectively. Though part of our task was to evaluate and restructure the existing program for these grades, we had very little voice in shaping the basic structure and program at the outset of our first year together. That, however, did not stop us from changing things over which we did have control. All of us worked to develop relationships with our students which made our classrooms positive places where students were listened to, valued, and respected. We discovered that we had a great deal of freedom in determining what would occur in our classrooms and the kind of atmosphere we created in spite of structural constraints. Then during our second year as a team, we instigated changes in the structure of our school to reflect the programs commonly found in exemplary middle schools.

Through these years I discovered that I loved teaching middle schoolers. I was able to establish meaningful relationships with students and impact them at this crucial stage in their lives. We had wonderful discussions in our Language Arts classes about the books we were reading. I learned and grew along with my middle schoolers and began feeling very defensive when I heard others speak negatively about young adolescents. To me, they were wonderful, unpredictable creatures with a desire to grow as they learned about life.

My heart was also heavy during those years as I searched for other educators in Christian schools with a similar vision. I found very few of these schools committed to implementing the middle school philosophy, though I was aware of a number of public schools which had adopted and were implementing the middle school concept. My questions, reflections, reading, and visits to various schools led me to conclude that teachers play a large role in determining the quality of young adolescents’ school experiences. It is in teachers’ day-to-day interactions with students that the middle school concept is lived out. While administrators can institute programs suggested in the literature and provide curriculum touted as developmentally responsive, it is ultimately what teachers choose to do behind classroom doors that determines the effectiveness of the educational program (Hunt, Wiseman, & Bowden, 1998). I have met effective middle school teachers who were like a breath of fresh air in schools which appeared to have little vision for restructuring their programs in spite of evidence in the literature concerning the needs of middle schoolers. Other schools have the suggested programs and structures, but to my disappointment I encountered teachers whose classrooms felt stifling because they were using developmentally responsive programs in ways which reflected the old junior high philosophy.

Further reflections led me to consider why some middle school teachers choose to teach in developmentally responsive ways while others seem unable or unwilling to embrace practices which meet the unique needs of early adolescents. As I compared the members of the team I led, I realized that our professional preparation and experiences, personalities, and personal backgrounds were very different yet our educational philosophies were similar. With all of our differences, what motivated us to teach the way we chose to teach? Were there any similar threads running through our lives which motivated us to adopt the practices we utilized?

An important aspect of my personal journey leading into my research study was understanding the historical context of the middle school movement. This pursuit introduced me to the evolution of the junior high school movement. Understanding the beginnings of both of these movements further deepened my convictions for the need of understanding who effective middle school teachers are and why they have chosen to teach in developmentally responsive ways in their classrooms. I will now discuss the inception of both the junior high and middle school movements.

The Junior High School Movement

The junior high school concept had its beginnings in the late 1800s when educational leaders began calling for reorganization of secondary education. Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard University, wanted to lower the age when young people entered college; consequently, in 1888 he proposed to the National Education Association (NEA) that secondary education begin with seventh grade (Moss, 1969). Beginning secondary education earlier allowed students headed for college to begin their college preparatory courses at a younger age and also allowed those desiring vocational training to prepare for their vocation earlier (Howard, 1968). During this period there was a high dropout rate after sixth grade and during the early high school years; educators hoped that beginning secondary education with Grade 7 would change this trend (Moss, 1969).

During this same period, G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist, was researching and writing about adolescent development and stimulated thinking about the developmental needs of young adolescents (Howard, 1968; Moss, 1969). According to Moss, it became increasingly clear to educators that young adolescents did not belong in elementary schools because of their developmental characteristics.

These influences and ideas resulted in a series of recommendations by the NEA from 1894 to 1918 relating to the education of students in early adolescence. The first statement in 1894 suggested that the secondary program include Grades 7 and 8 as an intermediate school to form a bridge between elementary and high schools. By 1899 the NEA recommended that elementary schools consist of Grades 1-6 and that Grades 7-12 compose secondary schools to allow for earlier subject area specialization. It became apparent that students in Grades 7 and 8 needed a special program separate from Grades 9-12; therefore, in 1918 secondary education was divided into two sections, junior high for Grades 7-9 and senior high for Grades 10-12. Schools adopted this configuration until the rise of the middle school movement in the early 1960s (Alexander, William, Compton, Hines, & Prescot, 1968).

The original purposes of the junior high school movement were to: (1) provide secondary education for younger students; (2) form a bridge between elementary and high schools; (3) provide exploratory activities for students; and (4) provide students with guidance for academic, vocational, and personal matters (Alexander et al., 1968).

As the junior high school movement gained momentum, educators continued debating its objectives. Leonard Koos (1927), an influential leader in the junior high movement, summarized functions of the junior high school. At that time, the most widely recognized functions included having students spend less time in the elementary school, providing for individual differences, opportunities for exploration and guidance, allowing for vocational training, retention of students, and providing an educational program which takes students’ physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral changes into consideration. A number of these functions are similar to the ones stated at the turn of the century by those first calling for reorganization of secondary education.

William T. Gruhn and Harl R. Douglass drafted a statement in the 1940s which remains as the "foundational framework for defining an effective middle school" to this day (Lounsbury, 1996, p. 2). Gruhn and Douglass (1956) saw the six basic functions of the junior high school as: (1) integration: integrating skills, attitudes, interests, ideals, and understandings students have acquired and are acquiring into their behavior and understanding; (2) exploration: giving students the opportunity to investigate, discover, and broaden their personal interests and abilities in order to help them make vocational and educational decisions in the future; (3) guidance: allowing teachers to help students make good decisions and adjust socially and emotionally in this phase of their development; (4) differentiation: addressing the individual needs of students and their unique differences so they can benefit from their educational experiences to the fullest extent possible; (5) socialization: providing learning experiences for students and promoting the development and utilization of their social skills; and (6) articulation: preparing students for a smooth transition from elementary school to their secondary educational experiences.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the junior high school enjoyed widespread acceptance, but by the late 1950s educators began recognizing its inadequacies (Alexander et al., 1968). Criticisms leveled against junior high schools which led to their demise included: (1) replication of the senior high school program, (2) providing an inadequate bridge between elementary and senior high schools, (3) utilizing a departmentalized program instead of an interdisciplinary approach, (4) lack of a well-developed exploratory program, (5) failure to provide personal guidance for students, (6) trying to fit ninth grade into the junior high program when ninth graders’ needs didn’t match those of seventh and eighth graders, and (7) failure to adequately prepare teachers for the special needs of young adolescents (Alexander et al., 1968; Howard, 1968; Moss, 1969).

The lack of success of the junior high movement in achieving its objectives and the criticism leveled against it became the spawning grounds for the middle school movement in the 1960s. Societal issues such as widespread criticism of American education, pressure to end racial segregation, and an increase in school enrollment which led to overcrowding also paved the way for reorganizing schools (Wiles & Bondi, 1986). William Alexander, Donald Eickhorn, and Judith Murphy helped lay the foundation for middle schools by calling for a separate educational structure for young adolescents (Baldwin, 1974). Alexander is credited with reviving the term middle school which had been used in some private American schools and in European schools (Wiles & Bondi, 1986). Educators disillusioned with the junior high school saw the middle school as a means of starting over though they still believed and supported the original junior high objectives while recognizing that they had never been met (Alexander et al., 1968).

The Middle School Movement

Middle schools, much like the junior high schools, began largely as an administrative organizational plan before having clearly articulated purposes (Moss, 1969). As middle schools received favorable reviews, administrators chose to restructure their schools according to this new pattern (Wiles & Bondi, 1986). Many schools, however, reconfigured and attached the term middle school to the building housing the middle grades without ever making philosophical, curricular, or program changes. A survey in 1967-1968 indicated that few so-called middle schools differed significantly from junior high schools (Alexander & Kealy, 1973).

Efforts were made to articulate distinctions of middle schools which would best meet the needs of young adolescents. In 1966 William Alexander developed an educational plan of elements integral to middle schools: (1) An organizational structure of either Grades 5-8 or Grades 6-8, (2) team teaching, (3) teachers providing guidance for students, (4) teachers as subject area specialists, (5) opportunities for individualized instruction and independent study, (6) instruction in study skills, (7) a core academic curriculum providing continuity between elementary and high school, (8) exploratory experiences, (9) intramural sports program instead of interscholastic sports, and (10) involvement of parents and community agencies in the school (Alexander, 1969). Alexander’s ideas remain prevalent in the middle school literature.

No discussion of middle school literature is complete without noting two crucial publications cited widely in the current literature, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development’s Turning Points (1989) and the National Middle School Association’s (NMSA) This We Believe (1995). Turning Points was published after an examination of American middle schools to see how well schools were meeting students’ needs and calls the young adolescent years many students’ "last best chance to avoid a diminished future" (Carnegie Council, 1989, p. 8).

The Carnegie Council’s study resulted in eight recommendations and an urgent call for reform in middle school education. These recommendations are:

1. Create small communities for learning.

2. Teach a core academic program.

3. Ensure success for all students.

4. Empower teachers and administrators to make decisions about the experiences of middle grade students.

5. Staff middle grade schools with teachers who are expert at teaching young adolescents.

6. Improve academic performance through fostering health and fitness.

7. Reengage families in the education of young adolescents.

8. Connect schools with communities.

The first draft of This We Believe was printed in 1982 during a time when "no single comprehensive statement appeared that seemed to crystallize the educational beliefs inherent in [the middle school movement]" (NMSA, 1995, p. 1). As NMSA’s position paper, This We Believe had a tremendous impact on middle school education and became the "most widely cited statement about the education of young adolescents" (p. 1). NMSA revisited the original position statement which resulted in the 1995 publication of This We Believe. It is not intended to be a "blueprint" for middle schools but to call attention to middle school philosophy and practices (NMSA, 1995, p. 2).

NMSA’s characteristics of developmentally responsive middle schools are:

1. Educators committed to young adolescents

2. A shared vision

3. High expectations for all

4. An adult advocate for every student

5. Family and community partnerships

6. A positive school climate

7. Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory

8. Varied teaching and learning approaches

9. Assessment and evaluation that promote learning

10. Flexible organizational structures

11. Programs and policies that foster health, wellness, and safety

12. Comprehensive guidance and support services.

Both Turning Points (1989) and This We Believe (1995) address the structures found in exemplary middle schools and emphasize the need for teachers specifically trained for and committed to teaching middle schoolers. These documents also address characteristics and practices of effective middle school teachers. I was intrigued when I placed the ideas in these documents side by side and identified the items individual teachers are free to implement regardless of the structures and programs determined by administrators in their schools. Table 1 illustrates this. The items in italics are ones which can be implemented by individual teachers in their classrooms.

The Questions Crystallize

My questions concerning who effective middle school teachers are and what has led to their commitment to young adolescents remained. As a result, my journey led me to become interested in delving into the stories of effective middle school teachers. As a teacher myself, I am aware that teachers constantly tell stories about their professional and personal lives. Stories lend understanding to what happens in classrooms, what teachers value and believe, events which deeply impact teachers, and what drives them to persevere in spite of increasing challenges (Mattingly, 1991; Schmidt, 1997; Sparks-Langer & Colton, 1991). I finally concluded that listening to and

examining the stories of effective middle school teachers were the keys to use in gaining an inside look at who they are as individuals and what has shaped them into teachers committed to young adolescents.


Statement of the Problem

Throughout the history of the middle school movement, educators have attempted to describe effective middle schools. Many discussions about middle school practices focus on the structures which constitute an exemplary school program, but effective teachers are found in schools with diverse programs. They are found in schools which have completely adopted a middle school philosophy and the recommended programs; other effective middle school teachers find themselves in an environment which is structured much like the old junior high schools or a revised elementary school program. Regardless of their setting, all middle school teachers have the challenge of being a bright light in young adolescents’ school experiences. Effective middle school teachers ultimately make choices concerning their instruction and relationships with students regardless of their school setting.

While there is general agreement in the literature concerning characteristics of effective middle school teachers, little has been done to understand what has influenced these teachers to teach the way they do. A need exists to understand and discover the beliefs and experiences of effective middle school teachers which may give insight into the change and development process, both professionally and personally, that these teachers have gone through to become who they are.


Purpose of the Study

My research study adds to the middle school knowledge base an understanding of the life experiences, practices, and beliefs of effective middle school teachers which impact their choice to use developmentally responsive classroom practices. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1990) suggest that "what is missing from the knowledge base for teaching . . . are the voices of teachers themselves" (p. 2), and my study is designed to hear teachers’ voices and stories as I gain an understanding of their lives as individuals and middle school teachers. My goal is to share these teachers’ stories with other educators so they may be motivated to restory their own teaching experiences and also become more effective middle school teachers (Clandinin & Connelly, 1991).

The purpose of this dissertation is to describe the life experiences, beliefs, and practices of effective middle school teachers and what has influenced them to become effective teachers. Three questions provided direction for my study:

1. What life experiences have molded educators into effective middle school teachers?

2. What curriculum and instruction are employed by effective middle school teachers?

3. What beliefs guide the practices of effective middle school teachers?

Focus of the Study

I limited my study to four effective middle school teachers in the Michiana area. Two males and two females representing both public and Christian schools opened up their classrooms and their lives to me. They teach a variety of academic subjects in the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades. All of them have taught more than 10 years and have had experience teaching grade levels other than middle school. Though their stories are unique and will not necessarily mirror the experiences of other teachers, Debbie, Jack, Mark, and Renae provide a window into the hearts and lives of effective middle school teachers. (These are pseudonyms as are the names of all other individuals throughout this document.)

Overview of the Dissertation

This chapter relates a number of significant events in the journey I have taken in coming to this study. It also presents the context for the study by discussing the history of both the junior high school and middle school movements and the theoretical framework built on the two crucial middle school documents, Turning Points and This We Believe. Boundaries of the study are set through the research questions and purposes of the study.

Chapter 2 discusses the methodology used for the study. I not only leave a trail for others to follow in conducting a similar study, but I also discuss selected literature concerning qualitative case studies.

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are the personal stories of the four participants in my study. They describe these teachers’ journeys in the process of becoming Real. Each chapter includes a brief description of their school settings, life experiences, classroom practices, and beliefs which guide their lives.

Chapter 7 is the cross-case analysis. In it I return to the theoretical framework of my study presented in Table 1 and discussed in this chapter. As I discuss themes evident in the participants’ lives, I include a discussion of selected literature on effective teachers at the middle school level.

Chapter 8 summarizes the study by returning to the original research questions presented in this chapter. I also discuss several recommendations for middle school teachers, teacher educators, and considerations for further study.