Can I Talk to You?

If you’re open to it, middle school students can teach you some profound lessons about the world around you.

I’ve been lucky enough to learn some pretty wise lessons from my students over the years, but there is one lesson I first learned from a student, and from many others since, that seems to stick with me most. The lesson: there is power in being available for one another.

“Mr. Healy, could I stop by after school? I have a few questions I was hoping to talk with you about.”

“Okay, sure. I’ll be working on some posters for an upcoming event. Do you mind helping out while we chat?”

“Sounds great. See you after school.”

Simple enough. A kid asking to stay after school to ask some questions.

At the time I didn’t know what the questions would entail, but I knew I needed help with some posters and the student seemed earnest in their request.

Turns out most of the questions were simple things about the student and their future plans. We had been learning about the power and meaning in serving others through our leadership class, so when the student asked this very pointed question, I was floored: “Mr. Healy, what’s the best career to serve others?”

What a profound thing for a student to consider. We talked about a variety of different careers, and I spent some time sharing about teaching and how there are many powerful opportunities to serve students and families by meeting their needs every day. It was a conversation I’ll never forget.

This conversation became the first of many conversations with that student, as they sought to navigate the social and emotional minefield that is middle school.

It’s been quite a few years since those conversations, and what I’ve learned since is that students want adults to be available. But, they want that availability to be about what they want and need.

Imagine you’re a middle schooler. You’re looking for more autonomy as you begin to get closer to young adulthood, but you’re often treated like your opinions and feelings are not as valid as those older than you, when all you’re really hoping for is to have an adult in your life say:

“I get it.”

“I’m with you.”

“Your feelings are important.”

“I have time to talk.”

What I’ve learned is middle schoolers are really looking for these three things when it comes to the adults in their life being available:

Will you listen without judging me? Will you make me feel that what I say matters to you? Will you be ready to show up when I need you to, not just when it’s convenient for you?

As a teacher, I try to use these three concepts regularly. I build time in my classes and throughout my day to listen to students. I try to use language to validate how they might be feeling, whether that be something they are excited about or something they might be struggling with, and sometimes, if I get creative with my time, I drop everything I’m doing to make sure they know their experiences matter to me.

Managing all of that as a teacher or parent or any adult who is around middle level students is difficult. I have to get creative to pull it off and sometimes I’m more successful than others. Sometimes I have to say, “I can’t chat with you right now. Can we find another time or can I set you up with another person you trust who might be available?” What we as adults say to kids in those moments is crucial. Telling a kid “it’s not a big deal” or “you’ll get over it” might fit with your experience in life about the things that happen to us as kids, but to a middle schooler, it doesn’t seem to feel that way. And words that make them feel like their experiences aren’t real or valid can make things harder for them to move forward in the face of their challenges.

I’ve been lucky enough to stay in contact with that student who asked to stay after school all those years ago. Now, they’re a college graduate in their first year as a long term substitute teacher, working to complete their masters in teaching (that conversation about teaching still in the back of their mind to this day).

I was able to get them on the phone recently and I asked them what they remembered about those times chatting after school and how that shapes their work in their own classroom today.

“You treated me like a human. I felt seen and heard. My perspectives mattered, and you were willing to listen. These are the same things I try to do in my own way with my own students now. I want them to feel validated like I did.”

The first time that student asked to stay after school to chat, I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know effective ways to be available. I didn’t know what help I had to offer and how best to support a middle school student navigating the ups and downs of life. I didn’t know that sometimes the offer of availability helps kids just as much as actually being the one they seek out for support. But, I do know I was available, and sometimes that's what counts the most.

Ryan Healy is originally from Olympia, WA and has taught for 15 years at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, WA. Ryan was the 2019 Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. At his school he helped develop a transformative student leadership program where he teaches classes focused on social and emotional learning and character development.


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