5 Things I Have Learned From Middle School Girls

Every Tuesday afternoon, I walk into Legacy Charter School, usually toting a large bin with all the supplies I need for the day, or an overstuffed equipment bag slung over my shoulder. I walk through the lobby, say hello to the security guard Officer Ken, and make my way to the back of the cafeteria room.

I set down my bags of basketballs and wait with my co-coach for the gradual influx of middle school girls to come our way. Working with middle school girls has been, at the least, an adventure. There was a learning curve to becoming a coach, high points when programming went really well and girls were engaged, valleys when girls were distracted, and many other twists and turns. Despite the twists and turns, the girls have taught me a lot about interacting with students and connecting with people along the way. Here are five things I have learned from the middle school girls:

1. Let girls be leaders

Middle school girls have the unique opportunity to be junior coaches for a day. For weeks leading up to the day of coaching, the girls at Legacy learned the tennis curriculum that they would be teaching the younger girls who participate in the elementary after-school Girls in the Game program.

Despite an initial few minutes of shyness when meeting the younger girls, many of the middle school girls were natural junior coaches. The middle school girls started by leading the girls in playing Mr. Fox. The girls participating yell, “Mr. Fox, what time is it?” and whoever it is yells out a number and that is how many steps the participants have to take toward “Mr. Fox”. Once the girls are close enough whoever is it can yell, “dinner time!” and run after them to tag participants. This had the entire room running around joyfully followed by the girls leading the tennis curriculum.

After tennis, the middle school girls unpacked their experience with a one word check out: “Fun”, “tiring”, “exciting”, and “frustrating” were some of the words used when describing their experience. The girls were definitely a mixture of happy and tired afterward while continuously asking, “When do we get to coach again?!”

2. Positive praise goes a long way

Ultimately, it’s difficult to be in middle school. There are a lot of changes going on, they care about what other people think of them and they want to be their own individual person, but are still a kid. One week a girl might come to programing with everything in her life going well and another week that may not be the case. Something that has worked well for my co-coach and myself is positive praise. The girls always have a lot going in their lives and it’s so important to affirm the girls and remind them that we care about them.

3. Be thoughtful and concerned about the world we live in

Throughout the first season of programming I was able to see a handful of other middle school programs through teen workshops and subbing. One Monday evening I subbed at Peterson Elementary School, and that day the leadership topic being covered was social justice.

Girls at Peterson brainstormed changes they wanted to see in their community or school and were encouraged to come up with a creative way to share their ideas. They decided they wanted the world to be more open-minded and to accept those who are different from one another, so they authored a rap encouraging this. The ending line was, “Be unique, it’s on fleek.” I remember being so impressed by their creativity, humor and insight and being inspired to carry on their zest and concern for the world.

4. Being patient is so important

Many times throughout my life the phrase “patience is a virtue” has been said to me, or posted on an inspirational poster somewhere. The importance of patience has been tried time and again while coaching at a middle school.

Some days the girls want to spend their time running around the hallways, dancing or playing on their phones; therefore, they sometimes get distracted or miss instructions from coaches. Having to repeat yourself once, twice, 10 times can become frustrating. But, I have learned to remind myself that they are excited to not be in a class, to take a deep breath and to ask for help from my co-coach when needed.

5. Be yourself

Each girl I meet is unique. They are not afraid to talk to you about what they’re passionate about. Kennedi loves playing basketball and talking about history. Dezyre will always greet you with a hug and story about her family. Kendra is into fashion and is usually sporting a unique headband or glasses. Spending time with them every week reminds me to encourage myself, the Legacy team and others to be unapologetically themselves.

At the end of every program session we get into a circle and do a one-word checkout with the girls to see how they are leaving our space. Afterwards everyone hurries to pick up their things to go home.

Once all the girls are picked up, I hustle to my car, load up all the equipment and drop my co-coach off at the L. Finally, on my drive home I reflect on the events of the day, lessons learned and begin getting excited about what I will learn next week. The adventure continues.

Emma Stiver is the Teen Programs Coordinator at Girls in the Game.

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