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The Desire to Learn: Outstanding Faculty Award

By Erika Mantz, Media Relations
February 14, 2007

Michael Middleton

Michael Middleton prefers to focus on the energy part of adolescence, but he isn’t one to shy away from the angst of it either.

“My favorite days are when I’m out in the middle schools with my interns and their students,” he says. “I can’t imagine working with any other group. Early adolescents still want to build strong relationships with their teachers and peers, but they also have rich experiences in their own lives that they bring to the classroom along with boundless energy. They are starting to struggle with questions like who am I, how good am I, and where am I going. I can’t think of more meaningful work than helping them figure out those issues.”

Middleton, who joined the faculty in 2001, has established himself as a national leader in the field of educational psychology, introducing a new area of research on how students are motivated to learn. His interest in the topic was sparked by his first job out of college. With an undergraduate degree in psychology and the encouragement of a friend, Middleton found himself teaching students, who were anything but motivated, at an alternative high school .

“I watched many of those kids blossom and succeed when they were given the ‘right’ classroom context,” Middleton says. “And then I saw the opposite while teaching some college students who went from being stars in high school to unknowns in college. It led me to question how people are motivated. I’ve learned a lot by looking at groups that have traditionally been thought to be unmotivated. I’ve discovered that people are most motivated when focused on improving, rather than proving, themselves.”

Middleton ought to know, because it’s what brought him to UNH. “This is a place that respects quality research and expects it,” he said. “It’s a supportive environment where senior colleagues really want to see young faculty succeed.”

Succeed he has. For the last two years he has directed the teacher education program in Manchester while teaching full time and serving on countless committees. In one research project, he’s working with a doctoral student on the use of dialogue journals in writing classrooms and on a grant with education colleagues to implement teaching coaches in schools. Three of his articles have appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology, and recently, he joined the journal’s editorial board. As a University Outreach Scholar, he works with two engineering faculty members to look at girls’ participation in math and science as a result of their participation in the LEGO competitions. Middleton also helped start and develop the University’s summer Middle School Institute.

This fall, for the second time, Middleton will teach a first-year Inquiry class he designed, but with a twist. (Inquiry courses prepare first-year students to succeed at the college level.) The 25 first-year students taking Middleton’s class will not only study and learn together but also live together on their own floor in Lord Hall and run a homework help room for local middle school students.

“I do best at a place where I feel a part of things,” Middleton says with a laugh. “I won’t be living with the students in the dorm, but Chelsea and I will probably attend a few dorm events.” His constant companion, Chelsea, is a golden retriever/giant schnauzer mix who is almost as popular a member of the education department as Middleton himself.

Middleton has served on the University’s judicial board and as an academic adviser. As cochair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues for two years, he worked on the community’s response to protests against the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson and to get gender identity and expression added to the University’s nondiscrimination policies.

“As a member of a minority group, it’s important not to shut the door behind you. A community can best be judged on how it treats its most disenfranchised group,” Middleton said.

Or, its least motivated.


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