Making it Work, Making it Meaningful

These elements of the middle school concept need attention and commitment

By: James Davis


We have heard it talked about for years and years. The middle school concept was implemented in the early 1990s when I was a teacher in an urban middle school. Traditionally, teachers worked in departments and there were no teams. When the middle school concept was first batted around as a possibility, I can remember many teachers talking about how uncomfortable they were about the changes that were forthcoming. Some of my teammates could not envision what this "middle school concept" would look and feel like. I can still recall the level of excitement that I felt, as the middle school philosophy was beginning and the momentum was growing!

With a CliffsNotes format in mind, the middle school concept focuses on teams of teachers working with the same students for the core classes. These small interdisciplinary teams build a sense of community between the students and the teachers. Many studies have been completed on the growth and development of the middle school student, asserting that middle schoolers are in a unique age of growth and development. Students in this age span need different kinds of instruction that involve high levels of meaningful collaboration and engagement. The middle school concept offers these instructional practices along with improved relationships between teachers and students. Since middle schools are based on teams, teachers are able to monitor the progress of their students more closely and work with team teachers to develop strategies to help all students on the team. Teaming allows students to establish strong connections with their teachers and move forward academically. Small team configurations also help build strong parent-teacher relationships, which are vital to student achievement.

Over the past several years, many policymakers and the public have questioned the success of the middle school. Any true middle school teacher knows the middle school philosophy works and makes a positive and significant difference in the lives of the students we serve. For the middle school philosophy to be successful, middle schools must be dedicated to implementing all aspects of the middle school concept. Review the following items linked to the middle school concept; assess yourself, your team, your school, your district; assess yourself again later; and most importantly, use the items below to serve as a purposeful springboard to do things differently, to do things better, and to create goal-oriented action steps!

High Academic Expectations

Students perform better in schools that have high expectations. This includes expectations for academics, behavior, and relationships. This is one of those areas that everyone "says" and everyone agrees on, but it's easier said than done. Reflect, assess, and not only work to hold yourself accountable as you move toward true, higher expectations, but begin critical conversations with fellow educators and the students you serve. Often, we inadvertently leave students out of this dialogue. Include them, talk about it, and then hold them accountable.

Student Teams

Configure grades 6–8 in small interdisciplinary teams to build connections between students and teachers. Creating teams can, in theory, be the easy part. It is the connections that we have to continue to focus on. I heard a teacher say once, "I don't have time to focus on connections." I quickly replied, with an intended double negative, "You don't have time NOT to focus on connections." Making time for connections will yield great results! With the connections you can build via your student teams, the relationship component will positively impact your classroom management, your classroom instruction, and your networking with teammates and parents. It's a win-win-win!

Common Planning Time for Team Teachers

Common planning time gives teachers the ability to plan interdisciplinary units of study and gain a deeper knowledge of their students' abilities. This common time also allows teachers to be together during parent conferences and support service meetings. However, our plates get fuller and fuller. At times, we step away from the true meaning of common planning and find ourselves rationalizing to ourselves as we use the time for emails, phone calls, grading papers, or taking a quick break. If you want to get to a higher level of success—however you define it—and you want to get there in the quickest way possible, use your common planning time for effective planning and collaboration about the things that matter most: student successes, student struggles, engaging instruction, and growth!

Support Services for All Students

The team structure helps teachers know their students better and identify their needs. This support, whether academic, behavioral, or social-emotional, can be provided in a formal and consistent way when provided in the team concept. This is one of those areas where I have suggested for years that we "rally the troops." Teachers naturally work on academic support and, for the most part, teachers want to do well with behavioral support. However, the social and emotional piece of the puzzle can often be out of our realm of teaching unless we work to make it a substantive part of our day and our actions. Again, when it comes to social and emotional support, know your resources and rally the troops. Include school counselors, mentors, coaches, administrators, nurses, psychologists, community supports, school volunteers, and others who can help you find the perfect game plan, leading to success with academics, behavior, and social-emotional needs.

Transition from Elementary to High School

We have all been involved with excellent transition programs as we receive students from elementary school and then years later send them off to high school. We know that transition camps can be beneficial, we listen to what students say they worry about, and then we make good things happen for our students. However, as you continue to reflect, assess, and create new action steps, make transitions more than just a week at the beginning of sixth grade and a week at the end of eighth grade. Not only should you focus on transitions in and out of middle school, but also focus on transitions from semester-to-semester and year-to-year. In addition, know that transitions can be a yearlong effort, not isolated events at the beginning or end of an academic term. Focus on student relationships and work to make transitions smooth, exciting, and differentiated based on the population you serve.

Professional Development for Staff

The needs of middle school students are different from elementary students and high school students. The teaching strategies for this age group focus on significant collaboration and authentic engagement. Teachers need to be offered appropriate professional development that focuses on the middle school and its unique needs. As you plan and implement professional development, think outside the box and offer teachers a voice in what is delivered. Allow them to appropriately choose the time—before school, after school, on workdays, during PLCs, online. Allow them to appropriately choose the format—whole group, small group, by content area, by grade level, or online. And allow them to appropriately choose from a multitude of useful topics. Incorporating their voice will yield more constructive results.

Solid Relationships with Parents

Involve parents in the education of their children. This is such a common sense statement, yet when we review certain processes, procedures, and practices, we see that we inadvertently leave parents out of the equation at times. When parents are involved, students typically perform better. The team approach gives teachers a wonderful opportunity to build those solid relationships with their students' parents. Common planning time also allows a set time each day for conferences with parents. Consider where you are with parent relationships, regardless of whether this is a strength or struggle, and then determine ways you can effectively kick it up a notch.

The middle school concept has been around since the mid-1960s, and it's still going strong. In the field, we see this philosophy working for students and teachers every day. To successfully maximize the middle school philosophy on your campus, educators and schools must commit to incorporating all of the aspects bulleted above, reflecting on and assessing their practices regularly, and creating new goals and benchmarks. Middle school students and teachers will benefit from these practices when implemented with fidelity.


James Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator at Coastal Carolina University, in Conway, South Carolina, where he works within the educational leadership department. He has been named both teacher of the year and principal of the year.
Jdavis9@coastal.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.

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