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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.