This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country. Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.
The 2019-20 school year started over the past month across the country. What are some “essentials” for middle school educators, teachers or leaders, at the beginning of the school year?
Donald Gately. Middle School Principal, Long Island
For me, it’s important to do something new every year. There is a truism that we needn’t do new things just for the sake of doing them. To keep things fresh, I need to always be trying new things, at least that’s how it works for me personally. This is actually my 18th year as a middle school principal, I know this because my second day as a brand-new principal was September 11, 2001, it was a tragic and challenging start to my career. This year, inspired by one of my colleagues, Anthony Ciuffo, we implemented with our staff an initiative we’re calling “Learning-Edge Buddies”. Here’s how it works: At our first faculty meeting, each member of our staff responded on paper to the following prompts: What are you going to try for the first time this year or what are you trying to get better at? What’s your plan? What are some things you’re going to do differently? Next, each member of the staff crumpled up the paper into a “snowball” and tossed it at someone across the room; pick up the snowball and throw it again. Everyone picks up a snowball. That is your learning-edge buddy. Your role is to be a cheerleader and supporter for your colleague / new friend as they travel on a learning journey this year. A simple and elegant idea that so far is working beautifully. So many of our teachers have commented that their learning-edge buddy drops them little notes, maybe a small treat, an e-mail, a pat on the back, just to keep each other on track and accountable to somebody besides ourselves. I’m excited by this initiative. Wondering what we will do next year!
Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York
Remember being 13? Who among us, given the opportunity, would actually choose to return to this…dare I say, unique time of life?
These questions stick in my mind every September, facing a new school year, lying at the core of my approach with new (and returning) students, families, and staff. Whether for the first time, or a second or even third decade in middle school, September is the time to re-evaluate our memories and perceptions of life in middle school, to reset our perspectives.
Middle School is amazing. Minute to minute, day by day, and month by month, there is this indescribable energy permeating every square inch of space of the building. As adults charged with finding ways to guide, steer, and sometimes harness this energy, a willingness to accept this challenge represents a key to success with adolescents. Catch the lightning in a bottle, and celebrate when you do.
Middle School is complicated. Personal identity, evolving friendships, and puberty. While these are some of the “typical” struggles associated with adolescence, coupled with real-world issues, this makes middle school tough to understand, leaving kids (and even sometimes adults) to wonder, “Am I the only one who…?”
September presents a chance for renewal, a rebirth of sorts. Provided the chance to, not necessarily walk in our own shoes again, but to walk alongside a 13 year-old, that’s where the magic is, the privilege of Middle School. And that’s for us adults as much as the 13 year-olds who we serve.
Chris Legleiter – Middle School Principal, Leawood, KS
The school year is an extremely busy setting but also provides great opportunities for educators to positively influence and impact others. The middle level is unique as kids are striving to grow as learners, develop independence and find their social place among peers. Educators that thrive at the middle level use the following “essentials” within their work:
- Foster Effective Relationships – This is the most important factor in a successful classroom and school. It’s all about the people and how do we support and encourage each other.
- Effective Instructional Leadership – Both teachers and administrators are instructional leaders, and a primary goal must be student learning. We must always learn new strategies to enhance our work.
- Focus on Growth – The School year is long but does move by quickly. All educators must focus on getting better at their craft thru learning new practices, becoming connected with other educators, reflect upon the work and adjust as needed.
- Develop Others – The best schools exist because of its people. They also have a collective efficacy that “we are all in it together “for kids. We must build others up and focus on “being the best for the team, not the best on the team.”
- Show your passion – All educators go into teaching because they want to make a difference. We must let others see our enthusiasm, energy and positivity. Those things are contagious and it’s great when kids see the adults having fun in their roles as it creates a “community”.
The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching is hard as everyday matters but it is great because every day matters as we can impact kids. Be You and Be the Difference.
LaQuita Outlaw – Middle School Principal, Long Island
You spent the summer thinking about all the different things you would try to be better this year than you were the year before. Your desire to inspire students is at its peak. Before the feeling passes, find a way to harness the excitement that you have at this very moment. Grab a pencil (or a pen – whatever your preference) and record the fine details of what makes you smile. The children’s genuine admiration as they look at you when you speak. The way their eyes follow your every moment as you introduce a new topic, or even the surprise in their eyes when you show them something they’ve never heard before. Think about the conversations they’re having with their peers around the task you’ve given them, or the work that they’ve produced, which far supersedes anything you ever imagined. It’s these moments that will carry you through the difficult times of the year.
Use the list that you generated to the sheer joy that brought you into education. There are an endless number of ways to capture, or reignite, the beginning of the year bliss. Here are some to consider:
- Take a picture that sits on your desk as a reminder of the moment that brought you joy.
- Celebrate children! A note home to the child’s family, or a certificate that celebrates an accomplishment will bring you back to why you do what you do
Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
What Are Your Hopes and Dreams?
Each year I look forward to connecting with students, parents and staff when they return to school in the fall. I ask students “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams” and listen carefully to their responses. This question can become a “coaching” conversation by asking several follow up questions helping each student think about their future. The real power behind the question comes when 8th grade mentors have a conversation with incoming 6th graders about their hopes and dreams. This is not only a mentoring connection, but an opportunity for growth.
Parents can play a significant role by carrying out the discussion at home, driving to soccer practice or out for a meal together. Middle school is a great time for parents to engage in the “Hopes and Dreams” conversation with their child. Teachers can promote this at Open House in the fall by posting a welcome on their SMART board stating “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams.” The visual allows for a great conversation starter.
I would encourage you to continue the discussion by asking your staff what their hopes and dreams are for the upcoming year. Ask staff to share their thoughts at a staff meeting before school starts. This allows an opportunity for risk taking and builds school culture at the same time. We are never too old to have hopes and dreams for the new school year.
Jay Posick- Merton Intermediate School, Merton, WI
The beginning of the school year is when we need to focus on the 3 R’s-
Relationships with students
Relationships with staff
Relationships with family.
Most of the interactions we have before the school year starts are with our staff. It’s important to provide our staff time with one another and it’s also important to spend time with our staff. It doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, all professional development. It’s time to talk about our expectations for our students and for one another.
Once the students are in the building, it’s important to connect with students as much as you can. Greet them when they arrive. Connect with them in the halls. Eat with them at lunch. Play with them at recess. Learn with them in classrooms. And say good-bye to them as they leave for the day.
Building relationships starts with the first email you send, either at the end of the summer or as the school year gets started. We have used flipgrid to have our staff share a brief video. Open House and Family Information Nights also bring families into our schools.
Relationships are developed over time in 15-30 second increments. Make the 3R’s a priority for the start of the school year and there’s a great chance it will be your best school year ever.
Ted Huff – Educational Consultant/Retired Missouri Middle School Principal
As educators, it is essential to remember what it was like to be a middle school student. Picture yourself back in 8th grade. Two essential questions ring true: First, Will I be accepted? And second, Can I do the work? If we empower our students to confidently answer both questions with a resounding “Yes”, then our students will be prepared to have a successful year.
Building positive professional relationships with our students begins with the first days of school. Dedicating the first few days of school to relationship building, academic work won’t begin until the first full week of school. During Character Connection Class (our academic lab) teachers and students work together to foster a collaborative and accepting community through a variety of them building activities. This is continuing throughout the rest of the school year. During the “academic” and elective classes, the teachers also focus on class relationships. Here they share the importance of getting to know their students before jumping into curriculum work.
So goes the first week of school, so goes your school year. Start off on the correct foot by building a foundation based on relationships.
Laura Jennaro – Christian Education Leadership Academy (K-8) , Pewaukee, WI
I love the start of a new school year! With it brings an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a positive approach. We educators, are the luckiest people on earth; we get to inspire youth every day. While blessed by this endeavor, we also accept great responsibility. It is essential for educators, to embrace this responsibility in the following three ways: show up, be curious about your people, and lead by example.
SHOW UP When I show up, I am present and engaged in the moment. I am not multitasking; I do not have my phone out; I am listening; I am interacting. I am curious. I seek to learn with and from you. In what ways can we show up?
BE CURIOUS Stories connect us. I enjoy learning the stories of my people, be it staff, students, parents. Commonalities create an invisible bridge over which relationships are developed. How do you learn other’s stories?
LEAD BY EXAMPLE It is not enough to talk the talk, we must walk the talk. Model what is expected in all that you say and do. Inspire others with your actions.
Setting the tone for a new school year is essential, and not always easy. Remember to give yourself grace as you embrace this new school year and the opportunities it provides!