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Raising middle schoolers’ EQ and IQ

Think tweens and teens don't listen and don't care? Think again. If this seventh grade math teacher can get kids to be kind and work hard, you can, too.

By Jessica Kelmon

A few months ago, Trish Tingler and her teenage daughter Kelsey found a note from her middle school days in a box of keepsakes. The note, Trish recalls, meant a lot to her at the time. “As for what it meant to Kelsey," she writes, "all I can tell you is she immediately took the note and placed it front and center on our refrigerator.”

Under the heading “Caught Being Good,” the note lauds Kelsey for her hard work and determination. It came from Mark Schumacker, a teacher who regularly sends notes home when he sees students being kind or working hard in class. With its dorky font and homemade look, it's the last thing you'd expect a middle schooler to respond to — especially since it came from her seventh grade math teacher.

Teaching an oft-reviled subject to the most ugh-inducing of stages, Schumacker has a job with notoriously high turnover. His students are at an age when parents endure a spike in eye-rolling and a reticence to engage in almost everything. Some parents exhaust themselves trying to break through the hormone-induced self-absorption. Others simply give up, concluding that middle schoolers just can’t be reached. Yet this buttoned-up math teacher, who looks more like a tech exec, has discovered how to do the near miraculous — help his middle school students learn and even enjoy math while teaching them how to be kind, hardworking kids.

“Believe it or not,” he says, chuckling, “seventh graders once told me in a class meeting that I didn’t give enough homework.”

Teaching kids to work hard

Schumacker, who teaches at Herman K. Ankeney Middle School in Beavercreek, OH (GreatSchools Rating 9), has success as the result of a unique teaching approach that combines math curricula with what's known as character education, which teaches kids important qualities like honesty, empathy, and determination. The ultimate goal is to inspire them to excel in school and in life.

Character education has been gaining attention and momentum both within the U.S. and abroad as studies find that social-emotional learning (SEL, also often called EQ) goes hand in hand with higher test scores, increased attendance and graduation rates, more engaged students and staff, and better behavior. According to a 2008 Casel (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) report on three scientific reviews,“SEL programs improved students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, positive social behavior, and academic performance; they also reduced students’ conduct problems and emotional distress.”

Incorporating character education into curriculum isn't easy, but it pays off. Data from the Character Education Partnership’s 2011 National Schools of Character showed all reporting schools have increased their state reading and math scores and/or earned passing rates above 90 percent.

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/13/2012:
"My daughter was in Mr. Shumacker class this year and enjoyed the math class and told me " Mr. Shumacker made the class fun and helped us set goals we could use for life not just for the class". Thank you Mr.Shumacker keep up the great work because people like you make a difference. "
06/13/2012:
"To the person asking about "tween"- That means between being a child and a teenager. Middle schoolers are tweens at age 11, 12, and 13. "
06/12/2012:
"Wow, wish more teachers would be like him! "
06/12/2012:
"If you are interested in contacting me with questions, comments, or simply to debate the merits of character education, please feel free to contact me @ mark.schumacker@beavercreek.k12.oh.us I would love to talk to you! Thank you, Mark Schumacker 7th grade math teacher Ankeney Middle School Beavercreek, Oh 45430 "
06/11/2012:
"Nice article. Lots of information. Thanks! "
06/11/2012:
"After many years feeling unfulfilled in the pharmaceutical sales field, I am returning to school to become a middle school math teacher! I am so happy that Mr. Schumacker holds such high expectations of her students, yet they hold high expectations of him too! I intend to model this kind of behavior in the middle school math class teaching not only math but social justice and character development as well. I can't wait to make similar connections with these often misunderstood future leaders of our country! I really want to teach them how to problem solve and be a voice in their communities, so that greater problems of this world will be realized through caring and thoughtful learners. Hooray Mr. Schumacker and others like you who believe in these kiddos! "
06/11/2012:
"Thank you. "
06/11/2012:
"Wish the teachers at my kids middle school would do that here in San Antonio, TX "
06/11/2012:
"Definately positive remarks and encouragement is very powrful! As people we respond better to love and building up rather than being critical and tearing down. Everybody needs love especially kids! "
06/11/2012:
"Very good article, but I think you mean "teen" every time you write tween, right? "
06/11/2012:
"There should be more teachers like Mr. Schumacker? "
06/11/2012:
"Raising teenagers is like tying to nail jello to a tree! "
06/11/2012:
"I agree. Positives bring more positives. I am reminded often that my face is the first thing someone sees as I come down the hall and the first good morning many will hear all day. When I have a bad day I can see that my students are affected. Finding one good thing to say, can turn the class around. "
06/11/2012:
"I was surprised to see character Ed being touted as being a new and innovative teaching approach. I recall our beloved private elementary school having time set aside each week for such talks. In middle school the students started their week with writing and discussing 'attitudes and gratitudes' . This was back some twelve years ago. I don't think our schools were one in a million doing this - just dedicated teachers (with the support of caring parents) quietly going one step further to build good relationships in their classrooms. "
06/11/2012:
"I found that validating the interests and issues sacred and important to middle schoolers' lives gains a teacher a wealth of gratitude and loyalty from this age group... "
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Students pose by their goals.
One way he recognizes students
Kids make plans to meet goals.
Reinforcing positive attitudes
Weekly character challenges
Inspiring words to start class
Mr. Schumacker with his class
Character-themed mosaics...
reinforce school culture.