After 29 years teaching junior high school, state Sen. Joe Hull admits he is disenchanted.
His classroom is packed with 35 to 40 students. Each class period, three or four students disrupt the learning atmosphere.Some are students who have been kicked out of school in other districts for various discipline infractions. Others simply refuse to participate in class, let alone bring a textbook.
For a precious few, Hull asks only that they sit at a table and not assault one another.
"I've felt like more a failure this year than I ever have in my life," the Hooper Democrat told members of the Legislature's Education Interim Committee Wednesday afternoon.
For Hull, the answer to the junior high conundrum is high academic expectations and discipline. And for students who can't meet those expectations, alternative education.
The issue, in Hull's eyes, is not more teacher training to deal with young adolescents.
A committee of public education and higher education officials is recommending that the Utah State Office of Education develop a middle-level teaching endorsement. The endorsement would not be required for employment in middle schools, but it would enhance elementary and secondary teaching certificates.
After extensive evaluation of teachers who obtain the middle- level endorsement, the state would consider requiring over time that all middle-level educators obtain the endorsement, according to recommendations.
Further, colleges and universities should expand training opportunities for existing middle-level teachers and ensure teacher training programs include teaching theory and practice in the middle-school setting.
"This is a hard sell for me. I'm probably the hardest sell you have in the Legislature," Hull said.
"There's not a teacher in their right mind who's saying `Hey, I'm going to teach in the middle school.' They want to teach in the high school. They want to teach in the elementary school. Your tough-est place to teach is junior high."
Steve Laing, assistant state superintendent for public instruction, agreed that teaching students in grades 5-9 is fraught with challenges.
However, the committee believes educators can benefit from the extensive research on the best teaching practices to reach young adolescents.
"Those type of extremes (disruptive students) are always going to be a problem. There are other students whose needs could be better served by changes we're able to make in middle schools," Laing said.
During the 1998 Legislature, lawmakers voted to appropriate $9 million to reduce middle school class size.
A bill to form a middle-school task force failed, but Gov. Mike Leavitt is exploring empaneling his own middle school study committee, said Gary Carlston, the governor's education deputy.
"There's no magic bullet, and it's not going to come cheap. But there are some steps to take along the way that can help," said Laing.
Some schools have implemented middle school reforms without the benefit of extra funding.