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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Middle schoolers are different from elementary and high school students.
They have their own educational and emotional needs.
That’s why Chandra Diaz, director of middle level education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, believes it’s important to train educators to work specifically with this group of adolescents.
“Often, those who want to teach know of the elementary education major and secondary education major, but rarely do they know of the middle level program,” said Diaz, an assistant professor in UNK’s College of Education. “We want that to change.”
Diaz is the adviser for a student organization formed earlier this semester with that goal in mind.
The Collegiate Middle Level Association, which has about a dozen members, promotes UNK’s middle grades education program while providing students with networking and professional development opportunities. It’s open to education majors and anyone else who is interested in a potential career as a middle school teacher.
Jessica Buss, a middle grades education major with endorsements in language arts and social sciences, said joining the group is a great way to connect with other students and prepare for student teaching.
The organization plans to bring middle school teachers to campus to discuss the profession, and there are ways to get involved at local schools. Buss, a senior from Gretna, helps out during study hall in a six-h grade classroom at Horizon Middle School in Kearney.
“These activities help us become better educators and help us network with teachers in the area,” said Buss, the organization’s president.
The Collegiate Middle Level Association also sponsored two recent workshops on how to best assist students who have gone through traumatic experiences. That’s an emphasis in UNK’s program, which includes a course in counseling and mental health.
“Middle school is a very dramatic time for everyone,” Buss said. “We really focus on the developmental aspects, because that’s so important.”
In addition to these learning opportunities, members of the new student organization serve as ambassadors for UNK’s middle grades education program.
During an introductory teacher education course, they share their reasons for pursuing a degree at the middle school level and encourage their peers to follow the same path.
Buss made the decision to become a middle school teacher after working with that age group through a Youth for Christ program in her hometown.
“I really loved it,” she said. “I loved how energetic they were and how curious they were about the world. They have this passion to learn.”
UNK junior Kelsey Coufal of Cozad, a middle grades education major with a math endorsement, sees the same qualities.
Middle school is when students discover their skills and ambitions, she said, noting that her love for math didn’t surface until then.
“I feel like you kind of become yourself in middle school,” Coufal said, “and I want to be a part of that.”
They’re also talking up the profession and UNK during campus visits, when members of the student organization team up with advisers to meet with high schoolers interested in the major.
“It brings the current students’ voice into the recruiting process,” said Coufal.
The UNK students are there to share their experiences and answer questions about everything from academics and campus life to meal plans.
Topics that come up often include the quality professors in UNK’s College of Education and the hands-on learning students receive.
“Our professors are some of the best you could have,” said senior Kristen Wilkins, a middle grades education major from Holdrege with endorsements in math and physical education.
Their one-on-one approach strengthens the relationship with students, she said, and creates a personal connection that can’t be found at other schools.
UNK’s education programs also get prospective teachers off campus and into classrooms, where they interact with students early and often. The introductory course includes visits to elementary, middle and high schools, and partnerships with schools across the area give UNK students numerous opportunities for field experiences prior to their student teaching requirement.
“Getting that experience early on really proved to me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing and this is the correct career path for me,” Buss said. “At a lot of other schools, you might not go into a classroom and fully take over until you’re student teaching.”