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How Can Earning a Master’s Degree Help Teachers Tackle Current Issues in Middle School Education?

The Northern Kentucky University (NKU) program dedicated to middle school education is a progressive and skillful career move for classroom teachers who want to specialize in a niche range of grade levels and for college graduates who wish to enter a new field. NKU’s online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Teaching – Middle Grades program prepares professionals to find success in teaching, specifically in grades fifth through ninth. It is also pioneering approaches to instruction that combine SEL, including a more diverse curriculum, a deeper connection to the community and increased communication with stakeholders who can improve student success in middle school.  

Middle school educators must understand the challenges that youth face in this period of their life. Students between the ages of 10 and 14 are experiencing a tumultuous period of physical, cognitive, social and personal development. However, today’s modern educational environments can also offer immense opportunities to improve student learning, development and support from surrounding communities. NKU’s online program provides the tools teachers will need to maximize academic growth through the unique and sometimes challenging elements of 21st-century instruction.

The following are some best practices that middle school educators should keep in mind for their students that go beyond traditional assessment and curriculum:

Encourage Cultural Responsivity

New America, a Washington think tank, suggests that encouraging students from different cultures “to reflect on their own experience with bias” helps them value both their own culture and their peers’ cultures. NKU’s Cultural Identity in Schooling course seeks to clarify how theories of “prejudice assimilation, feminism and cultural reproduction explain patterns of behavior in schools” and touches on curriculum reform that would systematically increase inclusivity in the classroom. Graduates of NKU’s online M.A. in Teaching program have experience evaluating unconscious prejudices in the classroom and know how to strive for consistent “cultural competency,” as defined by New America. This course instructs future middle school teachers to empathize with students and appreciate their distinctive viewpoints.

Utilize SEL

Social and emotional learning (SEL) in middle school is not just limited to curriculum or assessment. The Atlantic points out that “the transition to a new [middle] school…can be exacerbated by the disproportionately high rates of bullying and pervasively low self-esteem that occur in those intermediary years.” The ability to develop age-appropriate experiences is the goal of a course in NKU’s program titled Studies of the Learners. This course focuses on “life-span development: physical, cognitive, social and personal development … at specific levels of instruction.” Since the inception of public education, the non-academic development of any student was a moot point because the only characteristics of student commonalities under consideration were void of culture — namely age, gender or income. However, recent years have devoted more attention to students’ social and emotional needs.

Address Student Desires

Middle school students expect a different educational experience than before the pandemic. Classroom curriculum and teacher pedagogy will have to adapt to a new type of middle schooler who feels the need to self-direct their day, choose more specialized courses or even admit their SEL needs. Students with Exceptionalities in Middle/Secondary Classrooms is a course in NKU’s program that purports to adjust to these new expectations with skills like adaptive teaching strategies and behavioral management. The Washington Post notes a great deal of “work ahead to figure out how to help middle-schoolers heal, and their voices must be part of the discussion.” Again, this is an advanced approach to earning students’ trust and using that relationship to foster stronger academic outcomes.

Facilitate Relationships

The program’s Curriculum Design and Assessment course adds a specialized focus on “teaming for faculty and students.” By 20th-century standards, curriculum design is solely instructional, but today, it is imperative that effective teaching happens through a more emotionally responsive relationship among students, teachers and their classmates. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is an interdisciplinary institution that argues the need for emotionally “age-appropriate tasks and challenges” to plan instruction and assessments. Using qualifiers like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making, CASEL provides an added layer of pedagogy in the classroom. New middle school teachers must understand how to implement this groundbreaking learning strategy. The idea of ‘teaming’ teachers with their middle-schoolers inherently supports a student-led instructional day. Data shows this is a more efficacious classroom for all levels of learners and all cultural perspectives.  

In NKU’s M.A. in Teaching – Middle Grades online program, students will complete 200 hours prior to student teaching and then a total of 70 days logged during student teaching. Students will complete assignments and conduct observations of experienced middle school teachers to guarantee that they are immersed in a growth mindset and can see a realistic application of what they have learned in the program.

An advanced teaching degree with a focus on middle school grades equips professionals with the tools needed to enact the mentioned strategies that encourage young students’ success.

Learn more about Northern Kentucky University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching – Middle Grades program.

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