First Person

Ask an Expert: Middle school and mean girls.

Q. My daughter is wrapping up her second year of middle school. I’ve noticed there are some mean girls in her world now – even in her group. My main question is how much should I get involved in their petty little disputes? Should I share my opinion with my daughter? (i.e., “She must have really low self esteem to be putting others down…I’d ignore her.”) A few weeks ago, one of the girls in my daughter’s group told everyone that another girl was being kicked out of their lunch group because no one liked her. This resulted in the girl crying for hours at school. My daughter was very upset and told both the victim and the mean girl that no one felt that way. I was wondering if I should call the offending girl’s mom to discuss what’s happening, or tell a teacher or counselor?

A. In the grocery store just the other day, I overheard several women in a conversation that sounded very similar to the one presented in this question, though they were not talking about their kids. I don’t know the back story, don’t know Teenage girl texting.what provoked this discussion or who the actual players were. What I do know is that no matter how tall we become, this is not something that we all grow out of. More importantly, and to speak directly to this question, this is not something, in my mind, that we learn to “work out.”

Our instinct, which you’ve highlighted here, and with which I agree, is to see the “mean girl” as someone who is not confident, who might have low self-esteem and who needs to tear others down in order to feel OK. This is a common reaction, and one that is useful in encouraging the victims to not internalize the cruelty of others. This insight is typically not far from the truth (especially, but not exclusively with kids) but it can also encourage more separation, more isolation, and less understanding.

How parents and children can get involved

I would get involved, and I’d start here with my own kid. I’d encourage her to think about the times when her thoughts have been judgments and not questions, negative instead of soft and ask her why this was so. Mark Doty, contemporary American poet and memoirist wrote: “We love disasters that have nothing to do with us.” When we feel like baby disasters, we turn on the news – someone else’s – to find peace. This default technique keeps us from walking into the discomfort of growth. So often we find ourselves in these spaces when we are hurt, afraid, feeling insecure – and the last thing we need is to be left alone, ignored, or explained away in some sort of rationalization.

What we need is to learn to engage in these spaces and enlist others around us to help us through. This being said, it’s also important for your daughter to create boundaries, to know when a friendship is not serving her and to be able to speak openly and directly about her feelings and her needs.

Another way to get involved is to encourage this outside of school, even talk to other parents – including the parents of the “bully” – about how to support healthy friendships and about how to help your kids learn how to engage in this type of communication. In understanding others, in listening, and in working things out.

Including teachers in the plan

One strategy that you might request from your daughter’s teacher (ideally a home room teacher, as counselors are increasingly swamped these days), and one that I’ve used over the years, is weekly chats. These can be specific to issues that are salient in the classroom or general issues that are teacher or student-generated. This type of forum also requires everyone’s participation and is less threatening than a one-on-one conversation with a “troublemaker.”

One prompt that I’ve used over and over again asks students to share “what’s going well and what’s not” in their lives. Oftentimes, a lot comes from just this simple check-in. It’s a space to really gauge how everyone is doing – outside of the curriculum, outside of homework, outside of mandated standards. It also gives other students a chance to hear and to understand their classmates – and for students to understand themselves. Chances are, the “mean girl” doesn’t even know where all of this is coming from, as we are rarely taught to check in with ourselves.

Meanness can start early

A friend of mine recently shared a similar story about the social dynamics of pre-K and her 4-year-old daughter, Eloise. “You’re not my friend” became the mantra after a lost race or a playground mishap. One day, Eloise came home with a picture that she had drawn; in it were several girls, one with big black X through her face. Eloise explained that this was Karla and that she was X-ed out because “we don’t like her.” My friend interrupted her, reminding her that this isn’t the way to talk about anyone, especially her friends. Almost instantly, Eloise started sobbing and crawled into her mother’s lap.

We don’t enjoy being mean. Sometimes we don’t understand why we are or haven’t thought through how our actions are affecting others – or how we are being affected. The sooner we can understand the root of our own feelings, the sooner we can try to understand the actions of others. Talk through our little disasters instead of creating new ones.

Editor’s note: EdNews Parent expert Finessa Ferrell, director of the Denver-based National Center for School Engagement, suggests reading Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons and Queen Bees and Wannabe’s: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. She also suggests consulting The Ophelia Project.


First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede