Location: Charlotte, NC
As is true for so many people, middle school was a struggle for Michelle Icard. Her parents separated when she was six years old and she attended four different elementary schools. By the time she got to middle school, she switched from public school to private school. “I was in constant flux,” she recalls. I never really had a chance to settle down.” She felt friendless and rudderless, and when she did make two best friends, they ended up banding together and turning against her. It was not a good time.
Fast forward to 2004, and Michelle has just lost her job with Arthur Anderson in the wake of the industry-wide layoffs from the Enron scandal. Her children were little and she wanted to find work that would allow her to spend more time with them. Armed with a teaching degree and a love of children, she started a tutoring business but found that much of what she was doing with her middle school students was serving as their academic coach and cheerleader. She saw how much they were struggling socially and how many of them needed to be pumped up and given tools to help them feel better about themselves.
All of these things resonated with Michelle because she had spent all of middle school feeling like the odd person out. She started researching what methods and approaches were effective in equipping middle school students with coping mechanisms beyond simply assuring them that it will get better. She did not find much in the way of good programming so she decided to create her own. Michelle in the Middle is Michelle’s response to a need she saw, and she is now a writer, educator and speaker on adolescence.
Michelle began by developing a week-long summer camp, Athena’s Path, that helps middle school girls work on problem solving, friendship building and self esteem. The participants learn how to set boundaries, develop and maintain healthy friendships, and, says Michelle, “how to navigate their new social world with confidence.”
She has since added similar curriculum at a boys’ camp, Hero’s Pursuit, once parents began clamoring for social leadership opportunities for their middle school boys as well. Each camp is staffed by a teacher and two high school interns, who often share their own insights and experiences with the middle school campers.
In addition to the camps that Michelle runs each summer, that are usually filled to capacity, she also offers several conferences each year for parents and their middle school children that attract over 200 participants. There she shares her perspective that parents need to act as executive assistants or copilots for their middle school children, because teen brains are more emotional at that age. The analogy works well with both parents and middle school students, who appreciate having a way to reframe their relationship during such a stressful and challenging time. “I give both parents and kids a plan of action during a really scary time,” Michelle says.
One parent approached Michelle following one of her talks and thanked her profusely for helping her rethink how to parent her middle school child. “I didn’t know what kind of parent to be. Middle school got here and I didn’t know what to do,” she told Michelle. Michelle’s talk gave her a new perspective on how to navigate the middle school years. “Oh, be an assistant manager. I can do that,” she told Michelle.
Some schools have bought the curriculum Michelle developed and teach it as an elective during the day or offer it as an afterschool program. Michelle has also written a book, Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years, that is a compilation of her research, her own experiences and anecdotes from middle school, and concrete advice and guidance for navigating middle school.
Michelle also got to put her research and curriculum to work at home, helping her own children successfully navigate middle school. Ella, 18, and Declan, 16, both work at least one camp each summer and Ella also serves as a speaker at the mother and daughter conferences. Michelle also has several camper alums return each summer to help, and many get back in touch with her to let her know how much they have used what they learned to continue to develop their sense of self beyond middle school. As one girl recently put it in a letter to Michelle, “Athena’s Path made me the person I am today.”
For Michelle, success means helping both parents and middle school students reframe that difficult period in their lives. And she finds it immensely satisfying to help them through it. “It is easy to think that your child has a terrible attitude,” Michelle says. “But if you rethink it, you can see that there is so much potential there and it is such an exciting time.”
For information about Michelle’s summer camps, mother-daughter workshop, and speaking events, visit: http://michelleinthemiddle.com
Michelle’s book is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Middle-School-Makeover-Improving-Experience/dp/1937134970