The bleary-eyed preteens, fresh from their parents' cars, couldn't help but wake up as they entered the boisterous French Middle School gym.
The Bangles, blaring in the gym, told the kids how they could get to class like Egyptians. Beach balls bounded up and down over the students' heads as they warmed up to the first (for some, second) day of classes at French Middle School. Even Wilson, the school therapy dog, had to bark and spin in circles of excitement.
At the building's first schoolwide assembly in over two years, Principal Kelli Hoffman and her staff welcomed students back, not just to the 2022-23 school year, but back to a more normal school environment.
A few lingering reminders of COVID-19 still hung around. Students gathered in groups between old markers that measured six feet of separation distance. A few teachers and students still wore masks, as is highly encouraged by the district but no longer required.
The school assembly, then, was a celebration not only of excitement for a more normal start to the school year, but of hope that it could stay that way.
Middle school maturity
Nothing seemed to be going smoothly for Susan Hamilton as she rounded up sixth-graders for her first math class, but the veteran teacher showed no signs of frustration or impatience.
Some students struggled with getting into their lockers, and others lined up to ask her for directions around the hall. Her access to the school network was down, and she couldn't quite tell exactly how many of the sixth-grade students were supposed to be in her room.
But with kindness and care for each student, Hamilton sorted out all of the kinks for the students' first class at middle school, remembering to call each student by name and to recognize each students' feelings. She said she felt ready to do somersaults as she fed off the kids' excitement.
Beside the actual math part of her job, it's all part of modeling great behavior for students who are just starting to come into their own.
"Middle school is about kids figuring out who they are," Hamilton said. "They’re leaving that desire-to-please-you mentality, and friends become more important. They’re still fun, and they have a lot of energy. But they’re trying to figure out where they fit, where they belong. It’s fun, because you get to help them figure that out."
In the past few years, middle school teachers have noticed more social-emotional issues among the pre-teen students, many of whom lost the opportunity to learn social cues and intangible skills like working in groups, waiting your turn or even asking for help.
This year and in just a couple days of observation, the new crop of sixth-grade middle school students at French seem to be more in tune with those expectations, compared to their older counterparts, said Hoffman, the principal.
They, at least, had the chance to finish their elementary school careers in a more normal learning environment, while the eighth-graders have known nothing but pandemic-era middle school.
But Hoffman said the beauty of working in education is in learning from each school year and rethinking and adjusting the approach every year, especially in middle school.
"It’s one of the best things about our job, that we have a clear beginning and a clear end, and there’s always a do-over and a fresh start," Hamilton said.
'Finally feels like normal'
Over at Washburn Rural Middle School, the largest in the state, Jenny Wilcox similarly led her students in activities to get them set up for the semester, using a numbers activity more for the team-building aspect of the exercise more so than for teaching math.
She said it's easy to forget how much students have missed out on over the past few years.
"It was very easy to get bogged down in what we couldn't do or what had to change," she said. "It was always feeling like everything kept changing underneath our feet without us even knowing it. That really has made the last two years so hard, but it was the last part of last year when things finally felt like normal again."
Charlie Stoltenberg, the new principal at Washburn Rural Middle School, said he's been in the same boat as many of the district's seventh-graders in learning to navigate around the building. In the first day of school, he says his fitness tracker measured him walking about 10 miles across the various loops he made of the building.
"I don't think we'll ever get back to 'normal,' because we're always going to have to contend with certain things, but the reality is, we're getting back to face-to-face instruction and face-to-face interaction," he said. "If there's one thing we took away as educators these past two years, it's that there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction and instruction. You just can't replicate that in a virtual world."
In Wilcox's classroom, she accepts that chaos will continue to be a part of the middle school experience.
It always was.
"You have to be able to accept a certain kind of weirdness from them," she said. "It's chaos, but it's knowing that it's never ill-intentioned. You just have to accept middle school kids for who they are, and not try to make them be grown up. It's an awesome thing if you can learn to accept that."
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Topeka-area middle schools welcome students as classes begin