The middle school concept lends itself to the
notion of family. With any family, giving roles and
responsibility to each family member increases the
family’s connection and productivity. This article
will discuss leadership and learning strategies
I have used in various middle schools to create
comprehensive leadership programs that promote
culture and family. There are strategies discussed for
enhancing teaching and learning with peer coaches
and mentors, empowering teachers for instructional
leadership, decreasing resistance and anxiety for new
instructional practices, and modeling how to lead
one’s own learning within the context of a pandemic,
distance learning, and racial/social inequity.
Peer Coaches and Mentors
Peer coaches and mentors are important members
of the family that enhance teacher learning. Their
role is important in the school because they provide
leadership to the teacher leaders in the school. They
are role models that share their experiences as they
coach and mentor teachers. In developing teachers
into leaders they can build relationships, show not
tell, and provide parallel experiences.
Before mentors and coaches can lead teacher
leaders, they must build relationships with the
teachers they will support. Just like we train middle
school teachers to build relationships with students,
these leaders must build relationships. Relationship
building can start with using these four steps:
- Find commonalities and build upon them.
- Trust that people are bringing their best selves to
- Find the good in experiences and note positivity.
- Be trustworthy.
Coaches and mentors lead by example through
modeling the leadership skills they would like the
teachers to have. Mentees need strategies modeled
to them in a teaching-learning environment, but also
need strategies implemented side-by-side. For this
strategy, it has worked well to have a mentee and
mentor plan a lesson together then teach the lesson
together. After teaching the lesson together, the
pair can debrief to determine next steps. The key to
using this strategy is to have the mentor show and
demonstrate the strategies they are teaching their
mentees. This support begins with more targeted,
differentiated support and ends with mentors
coaching with less direct support.
This type of targeted support can be given in a
face-to-face or virtual environment. Virtually, the pair
could plan together using online platforms for coediting
shared documents. The planning can happen
synchronously or asynchronously. When the pair
teaches together, they can share screens and share
host responsibilities. This relationship can even be
valuable to students as they work with differentiated
groups/pods/channels in the online classroom. The
virtual environment could mimic the face-to-face
environment with the proper planning and attention to
the virtual needs of all stakeholders.
Empowering Teachers for Instructional
Principals can expand instructional leadership by
empowering teacher leaders in many ways. In my middle
school we implemented two programs that allowed my
teachers to use their skills to become teacher leaders:
Teachers Tell All and Research Roundtable.
Teachers Tell All sessions are designed for teachers
to share classroom challenges with a small cohort of
teachers to receive feedback and support on possible
solutions. The protocol for the sessions includes
small groups of three or four in which each teacher
takes 5 minutes to describe one challenge and gets
feedback for 10 minutes. At the conclusion of the
session, teachers should have strategies to use in their
classrooms. This could be a standalone event, an event
with several sessions in which the teacher provides
feedback on using the suggested strategies, or it can
be followed up by the Research Roundtable.
During Research Roundtable, teachers use
action research to display findings from their own
classrooms. Teachers select a challenge to investigate,
collect data on possible solutions, then share the
findings around a roundtable of their peers. This event
is a powerful way for teachers to demonstrate the
leadership skills they use within their classrooms.
During professional development sessions with
coaches, teachers first select a challenge based on
conversations they have had in the Teachers Tell All
sessions to connect the various learning experiences.
Schools could also implement these programs
independent of each other.
Both programs can be the training ground for
how teachers will have controversial conversations
in their classrooms. Middle grades students need
opportunities to discuss the societal context to analyze
and better understand how they fit in the world. For
example, if the classroom teacher wanted to discuss
police brutality or racial/social inequity, the protocols
for the Teacher Tell All or the Research Roundtable
could provide concrete strategies for how to approach
courageous, controversial conversations with students.
Decreasing Resistance and Anxiety
New ideas for classroom instructional practices may
bring resistance and anxiety. Three strategies I
have used when implementing a new program in my
middle school are leveraging relationships, holding
morning meetings, and using data. After using these
strategies, the entire school was on board with the
new program, even if they were initially resistant and
Building relationships is an extremely effective
strategy. We use it to connect with students in the
classroom, and to connect with adults in a mentorship
situation. When making connections, you find
commonality by talking and asking questions. After
you find commonality, you leverage what you have
in common and go back to that in conversations.
Remembering what is important to your mentee
and mentioning that in conversations works well to
decrease resistance. In a virtual situation, it may be
more difficult to build relationships, but one-on-one
meetings can still happen with virtual strategies. I
have used scavenger hunts in which we find items in
our home to share something about ourselves, such
as a favorite item that gives us joy. These types of
scavenger hunts work well to build community and
relationships that can decrease resistance and anxiety.
Morning meetings are a strategy that many
teachers use to build culture and to address social-emotional learning in their classrooms. This same
strategy can be used to build leadership capacity
to counteract resistance and anxiety in schools.
Morning meetings can be structured or unstructured
but generally allow attendees time to self-reflect
and share feelings with others. If the school has
several structured programs, the morning meeting
could be one strategy used for those who prefer a
less structured experience. My middle school has
used morning meetings to discuss issues like police
brutality and action. The students use a timed portion
at the beginning of advisory period or homeroom to
discuss hot topics and what students can do about
them. These meetings allow teachers to be leaders in
their classrooms and to guide students towards being
leaders in their communities.
Using data to demonstrate effectiveness of new
strategies is paramount. Reluctant staff members
don’t want to read data from a national survey or a
context that is different from your current population.
Instead, use data that reflects your school’s context.
Even better, use data from your school after the new
instructional strategies have been implemented.
When some staff members weren’t fully invested,
I used the data we collected to note how the new
instructional strategies/program was working. I
used their peers and even their own data when it
was available. In one example, we implemented a
program to reduce suspensions. After two months
of implementing this new program with fidelity,
suspensions for all demographics decreased. I used
this data to praise my teachers, but also to ease
resistance and anxiety. By the end of the year, all
teachers were on board and less anxious about
the changes. This was due in part to leveraging
relationships, implementing morning meetings, and
analyzing the impact of data.
Leading One's Own Learning
Adults in the school should model for students the
importance of leading their own learning. This can
be done in several ways inside the classroom, schoolwide,
and in the community. The three strategies that
help educators model leading one’s own learning are
classroom conferences, school-wide summits, and
Classroom conferences allow teachers and students
alike the opportunity to demonstrate their learning.
Think of this strategy as more than presentations
completed by students, rather a class-wide learning
experience in which each member of the classroom
reflects on their learning and strategizes about their growth. Each member of the class, including the
teacher, chooses a learning goal and a path to achieve
this goal. They research how to reach their goal. With
many middle schools having hybrid or 100% virtual
instruction, this strategy could be helpful as each class
has a whole-group meeting and small breakout rooms
(like in a professional conference) where students could
share their learning goals and gains.
School-wide summits are organized activities in
which staff can model to students how they lead
their own learning. Adults can give interactive
presentations where they model to students how
they plan, organize, and evaluate their own learning.
The logistics of how your school sets up school-wide
summits will be based on your context, but the
content of modeling one’s own learning will come
from adults in the school who reflect on their process
for learning while modeling to students how they can
do this. The school-wide summits take the classroom
conferences to the next level as students are able to
make connections amongst school staff. This also
allows students the opportunity to learn more about
their preference for learning and how to master their
own learning goals given their own learning styles.
The next phase of adults modeling to students
how they take ownership in their own learning is the
community classroom. In the community classroom,
the school invites community members into the school
to become learners along with the staff and students
on various topics. After attending the community
classrooms, adults can debrief these experiences
with students in advisory periods. Students get the
opportunity to learn with the adults in their schools
while the community is brought into the school
creating an extended family.
Schools are places where leaders are developed
and learning is realized. The adults in the schools
should model their learning for the students in
the school. There are several ways that schools
can accomplish this given the social context of a
pandemic and virtual learning among racial and social
inequities. This article provided several strategies
for schools to enhance leadership both at the student
level and at the adult level. These strategies can
be used to create a culture of learning and a family
within your middle school.
LaTasha Adams, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of
education and middle grades coordinator at Clayton State
University, Morrow, Georgia. She is also a former middle
grades teacher and principal.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2020.