Middle Schoolers and Judges: Observations from a First Year Judicial Education Manager
by Bryan Walker
One of the few interview questions I was prepared for was, “We can see you have a lot of experience working with students, but tell us about your experience working with adult learners.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking how much different could it be? My belief has always been that great teachers can teach anybody. The student’s age does not matter. My first disclaimer: I do not consider myself a great teacher. I have, however, found success as a teacher and coach. In my opinion, certificates and degrees have never determined the efficacy of a teacher. I have seen many teachers with Ph.Ds. who fail to connect with learners. As Jack Anderson Pidgeon, the headmaster of the private Kiski School in Saltsburg noted , “Teaching must flow from within. Teaching is an art.” I guess I relayed this message well to the interview committee. I have just completed my first year as judicial education manager with The National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada.
Of all the students I have had the privilege of working with, I believe middle schoolers are the most fascinating. I’ve spent 18 years in the world of independent schools as a teacher, coach, and administrator. Over the course of these years, I’ve learned many pedagogical lessons. I found it important to write these down in order to survive in the middle school environment.
At the beginning of my teaching career as a middle school math and science teacher, I learned the most important lessons did not revolve around content, but rather ensuring students were establishing a foundation for a strong work-ethic, organizational skills, and conducting themselves with some degree of decorum. I later learned as a dean of students, the importance and impact of advisory activities. Advisory activities would ensure every student is connected with an adult on-campus. Focusing a large amount of time providing a safe environment for students led to an increase in student achievement. Learners and their relationships with teachers are critical for success to occur. As the head of a school, I learned the importance of creating a strong foundation of close-knit relationships within the student body. When influential students study, every student studies. If influential students party, everyone parties. An environment conducive to learning can only be created with the “trend setters” on-board. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” (Gladwell, 2000) rings true in middle schools. I believe many of these lessons are just as valid in judicial education.
I have just completed my first year as a judicial education manager. I am now accustomed to primarily working with adults, the judges who serve as participants and faculty members. I am surprised at the pedagogical similarities relating to the first interview question I answered. Observations and insights I have gleaned from my first year of working at the National Judicial College coupled with my many years in K-12 education reveal the surprising similarities between middle schoolers and judges.
- Middle schoolers are fragile, curious, and strong-willed. Judges are assertive, keen, and anxious to gain knowledge. Both parties carry an incredibly high degree of expectations and pressure to do their jobs with an incredible number of variables impacting their ability to perform to their potentials.
- Middle schoolers, like all judges, want to do well. When a middle schooler feels loved at home, they are able to learn at school. When a school environment is safe, middle schoolers will voluntarily participate. Creating a safe learning environment for judges is equally important. Learners will gain the most out of a class when class participation occurs. Judges want to be active learners in a dynamic classroom. Creating a safe environment for both classrooms allows participation and the exchange of ideas, which is a sign of authentic learning.
- Many middle schoolers carry a false sense of bravado. The more intense the bravado, the more care that is usually required. Many judges require the same amount of care. A black robe may portray an intimidating and self-assured front, but the same care and attention for details is required for judges. Judicial educators must ensure the needs of each judge is met for a course to be successful. This can range from changing the classroom seating arrangements to altering the delivery of content.
- Mastering the art of teaching is required to connect with both middle schoolers and judges. There are so many changes happening with the students’ adolescent bodies, teachers must cater lessons to students’ excitement, lethargy, or mood swings. Judges also need each lesson to be presented concisely and coherently to ensure the small window of time they have for professional development is maximized.
- Many girls in middle school are more physically capable. This trait allows girls to be more confident in some areas of school, leading to a more successful academic experience. Although there are fewer female judges in my courses, I have noticed female judges are generally very active participants. I have seen female judges maximize the opportunity to attend a course through lively participation.
- Many middle school teachers I have worked with are relatively young and are inexperienced teachers. They are newbies to teaching. Many judges are also newbies to teaching. Judges, however, possess a wealth of experience from the bench. A breadth and depth of content knowledge is not always associated with being a great teacher. Effective teaching requires a connection with the students through common ground. This connection cannot be assumed. It must be identified and tapped into.
- Middle schoolers and judges seek autonomy. Teachers should teach in such a way that learners discover the answers on their own. In both environments, teachers need to create environments where they empower students to gain knowledge on their own. Middle schoolers and judges do not want anything handed to them.
- Middle schoolers believe no one understands them. These years can be a difficult time in their lives. They are seeking relationships with peers and crave the opportunity to be part of something bigger. Like middle schoolers, judges crave the opportunity to foster collegial relationships. When judges have the opportunity to be collegial, they share experiences and gain knowledge that impacts their daily decision making.
- Middle schoolers must be active learners to fully understand a concept. Lessons should actively involve students and ensure relevancy for improved retention rates. Judges also require interactive and relevant courses. There are too many emails, too many cases, and too many other responsibilities vying for their attention. The lessons must be engaging and relevant to be worthwhile for the judges.