Several years ago, when a girlfriend of mine was applying for a coveted teaching job close to her home, she told me that she was one of over 550 applications for the position. Sit with that for a moment–that is a huge number. Even if only 20% of the applications were any good, that still means that 110 applicants were in contention for the position. 110 applicants are not going to get interviews. 110 applicants are not even going to get seriously looked at.
So, how does someone get moved to the top of that pile? It turns out that standing out is the name of the game. What makes any one applicant unique?
Lesson Number Two: Uniqueness is an asset.
As adults, we can appreciate this, but in middle school standing out is not such a great thing. This is simply illustrated by taking a quick look at what a typical group of middle school students is wearing on any given day. While it may not be a uniform, it might as well be–similar brands, similar styles, and even similar hair dos. Another great example for you: while no one wants to appear too dumb, neither does anyone want to appear too smart. It would make you stand out. (All the way through middle and high school and into college and even sometimes today, I hesitated to let my peers know how smart I was/am–not for fear of appearing to brag, but because I was worried that people wouldn’t like me.)
And these are not ridiculous concerns. Think about how that kid who always wears the high water pants or that Star Trek shirt gets teased, and heaven help the child who does something truly out of the ordinary, like wear a costume when it is not Halloween. Or how about names that get thrown around for the smart kids–nerd, geek, and smarty pants just to name a few. And this doesn’t even touch on the social repercussions for those who do things like join chess club or read fantasy literature (and Harry Potter and Twilight don’t count here) or the ones that are overweight or have skinny legs or even the ones who bring split pea soup and whole grain bread in their lunches when everyone else is eating bologna on white bread. Being unique is hard.
But despite this, uniqueness is something we should all strive for and may even need. A unique style might lead to a career in the arts and great transcripts open doors for you. And if you ever find yourself as one in a deluge of applications, uniqueness is a must. How though do you convince your middle schoolers that the things that set them apart are not just acceptable, but assets? It is not something that can be done overnight or even over a week or two; it is a challenging and an ongoing process, but it is not impossible. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Three Things Teachers Can Do To Help Their Students Embrace Their Uniqueness
One: Like the uniqueness of each child yourself. Children and young adults are incredibly good at responding to non-verbal cues. This is great when you are exuding excitement about an upcoming lesson, but it also means that if you act as if a child is out-of-the-ordinary or a little weird, your students will pick up on this too. (And watch yourself–sometimes just the fact that you think these things can color your behavior toward your students.) Don’t just love the student in spite of their quirks; love them quirks and all.
Two: Use praise. Don’t assume your students realize that you notice and like things about each of them. Regularly tell your students, both individually and publicly, how much you like what makes each unique. And don’t just use empty praise–mean what you say. This positive environment will not only help your students see the positives in themselves, but also will help them see the positives in others. (Side Note: Doing this across the board for all students will help keep any of them from being labeled as a teacher’s pet.)
Three: Help students identify the great things about themselves. As you may or may not have realized from previous blog posts, I am a great advocate of structured journaling. This is one great way to get students to reflect on themselves (as well as many other things). By having students journal on questions like the one in the journal questions section below, you not only get them to reflect on why they are unique but also on why their uniqueness is good and why they may have negative feelings about this quality. It also allows you, as the teacher, to find out where your students may have insecurities and then build these areas up.
Got some ideas that you would like to add to this post? Please share them in the comments section below!
Have a great day and…
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This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: Who is a student that I find a little odd? What is great about this student? How can I show this student that I like them and their unique qualities?
For the student: What is something that makes me different from other people I know? Why is this a great thing? Have I ever thought it was bad? Why?
A Recipe from My Kitchen:
Mom’s Eggplant Rigatoni with Sausage
- 1 1/2 lbs. sweet or hot Italian sausage (or a mix of the two)
- 1 large eggplant, about 1-1/2 pounds, cut into 1” chunks, salted, drained and patted dry
- Olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, diced
- Fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
- 1 large can (28 oz.) peeled whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands (or use fresh, if in season and available)
- 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dry basil)
- 1 lb. rigatoni, cooked al dente and drained (reserve ½ cup cooking water)
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 1 cup fresh grated Parmigianino cheese
- 1 lb. fresh mozzarella cheese (can use ½ lb. fresh + ¾ c. shredded)
- Heat a large skillet with olive oil on medium-high heat. Add sausages, and cook until golden brown but still a little pink on the inside. Set aside.
- Turn the heat down to medium, add more oil if needed, and let it get hot. Sauté the eggplant (in batches—do not crowd pan) for 7-8 minutes until pieces are brown and crisp on the outside, soft on the inside.
- Place the eggplant in an 11 x 14.5 x 2” baking dish.
- Add more olive oil to the skillet if needed, and sauté onions and garlic for 3-4 minutes, until translucent. Add mushrooms, if using them. Add the tomatoes and basil to the skillet. Cook until relatively thick, about 15 minutes.
- Pre-heat the oven to 450ºF.
- Cut the sausages into bite-size chunks and place in baking dish with eggplant. Add the tomato sauce, rigatoni, and reserved pasta water. Break up ½ of the fresh mozzarella over the mixture, season with fresh pepper, and gently mix with a spatula.
- Dust with the Parmigianino and drizzle with more olive oil. Bake for 15 minutes.
- Scatter the remaining mozzarella in an even layer over the top and continue to bake for another 10 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly.
- Let rest for 15 minutes and serve.