Courageous Conversations for Cowards

Courageous Conversations for Cowards

Stop avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Put out an SOS.

This is the information generation. Information about everyone and everything is at our fingertips. New social media sites are created almost daily. Although it seems like we communicate all the time, more often than not, we communicate electronically, not person to person. Why is that?

One would assume that communication among staff members within a school is constant, but it isn't. Educators talk about students, other staff members, parents, and the administration (especially the administration), but they rarely share their own professional challenges with those around them. And when it comes to giving colleagues feedback to support their professional growth, even the most confident educators seem to avoid it at all costs. Why? What are we afraid of?

We are afraid of the reaction or response that the feedback may generate. Often, school and team leaders prefer to excuse or ignore the inadequate instructional skills of teachers rather than confront them. They tolerate negative interactions between their co-workers and the students in order to keep the peace on their team. They often are frustrated with the school administration for not "doing something or saying something."

Research shows that improved instruction leads to higher student achievement; therefore, it is imperative that school leaders—administrators, department chairpersons, and team leaders—not shy away from having "courageous conversations" to address challenges and stimulate the professional growth of staff members.

SOS for Leaders

It's been said that "Success comes when preparation meets opportunity." The opportunity already exists for courageous conversations. With a little preparation—an SOS strategy— even the most timid leaders can be successful. Here are some strategies to help you prepare fora courageous conversation.

Surround yourself with the facts.

  • Schedule meetings for times when you are rested and prepared.
  • If you are addressing a particular incident or issue, allow ample time for all parties to calm their emotions prior to sitting down together for a collaborative, problem-solving discussion.
  • Before the meeting gather information—data, dates, e-mails, notes, and artifacts.
  • Plan exactly what you are going to say.

Offer solutions.

  • At the beginning of the meeting, introduce everyone and explain why each person is there.
  • Reiterate the reason for the meeting and present the facts and information you gathered.
  • Present possible solutions.
  • Clearly state the non-negotiables.
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
  • Summarize the meeting, reviewing all solutions and agreements.
  • Include due dates and identify the person or persons responsible for next actions.

Stay calm.

  • If you have requested the meeting, remember that you have positional power. You are in control.
  • Don't give control away, but share it as needed.
  • Don't take negative behavior or negative reactions personally.

Test Your Courage

Here are three scenarios. Choose the best action based on the SOS model:

Scenario 1. A team leader consistently leaves 30 minutes before the duty day is over. When questioned by colleagues, he has stated that the last period of his day is his planning time, so it doesn't make a difference. He is well-respected in the school and often volunteers for extra duties such as lunch duty and after-school plays and sports events. However, everyone knows that he has been allowed to leave early for years, and some staff members resent the fact that he has been "getting away with it." The principal has asked you, the assistant principal, to talk to him about the importance of putting in a full day. What do you do?

  1. Meet him at the door as he's leaving and say, "Hey, where are you going?"
  2. Send him an e-mail stating his hours.
  3. Change his schedule to start 30 minutes earlier and alert him to the change via a memo to him.
  4. Schedule a meeting via e-mail and put "Duty Hours" in the subject line.

We chose D. In this case, it will be most beneficial to meet with this person face-to-face. Before the meeting, gather several days or weeks of information to document the time the team leader leaves.

Begin the meeting by acknowledging his contributions to the school and sharing that the staff respects him and appreciates his extra volunteer activities. Present the facts about his early departure, state the problem with his leaving 30 minutes before the official day is over, and ask him if he has a solution. If he agrees to stay until the end of the day, great! If he refuses, be prepared to offer a solution such as changing his start time or inform him that during the next semester or next school year he will have a class for the first and last period of the day.

Do not be surprised if the meeting appears to go well and the problem seems resolved, only to have the teacher go back to his early-release habit. In this case, send him another e-mail documenting what you had discussed and agreed upon and request another meeting. Again, begin by recognizing the positive contributions and end with whatever solutions you both agree upon. Stay calm and monitor his departure time. If he continues to leave early, move forward with a new solution.

Scenario 2. You are presenting student data during a staff meeting. During your presentation, a teacher raises her hand and questions the validity of the data you are sharing. She states, in front of the entire staff, that the data are wrong. How do you respond?

  1. Say, "Thank you for bringing that to my attention, what data are you questioning?"
  2. Invite the teacher to correct the data.
  3. Ignore the teacher.
  4. Say to the teacher, "Let's talk after the meeting."

We chose A. Sometimes you have to probe more before offering solutions. Ask the teacher specific questions about her data: where she got it, when, and how. Maintain control of the meeting by addressing her accusations immediately. If your facts are wrong, apologize right then and there and thank the teacher for the correction. If your data are correct, explain why and move on.

Stay calm. You have positional power and don't have to relinquish control to the teacher.

After the staff meeting, schedule a meeting with the teacher and give her a chance to state why she interrupted you. Review the proper procedure for addressing a mistake that isn't glaring and will not have an immediate impact on instruction. If a similar incident occurs again, document the interruption in the form of a memorandum.

Scenario 3. A parent contacts you and states that her child's teacher has entered only three grades and the marking period ends tomorrow. You pull up the online grade book and see that the parent is correct. You call the teacher in and share the parent's concerns. The teacher becomes upset, calling the parent a liar. When you show her the data, she says, "I'm out of here" and gets up to leave. What do you do?

  1. Call for security, open the door, and say "Go."
  2. Tell the teacher to calm down.
  3. Ask the teacher why she is reacting this way.
  4. Apologize to her and ask how you can help.

We chose C. Even if you are not a big fan of this teacher, she is a staff member and part of your school. By the same token, it's not your fault that she is upset, so don't apologize.

Start by thanking her for meeting with you and ask her why she is so upset, what made her think walking out was the best solution. Then, gather more information. Find out whether other assessments were given and, if so, whether the student completed those assessments. Determine why the grades weren't entered into the system. Then offer solutions to mitigate the problem. Document the meeting with a follow up e-mail. Review expectations and ask if anything else is needed.

Recipe for Success

The next time you must have a courageous conversation, think SOS: Surround yourself with the facts, Offer solutions, and Stay calm. You are having the conversation to improve student achievement. You have a lifeline. Use it.

Deborah R. Higdon is principal at Lakelands Park Middle School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Carrie L. Reed is assistant principal at Lakelands Park Middle School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2015.
Author: Deborah R. Higdon, Carrie L. Reed
Number of views (692)/Comments (0)/
Leading Learning at  the Middle Level

Leading Learning at the Middle Level

Understanding what makes the middle level different.

As a young child, I frequently made the trip with my parents from our home in Oregon's Willamette Valley to visit relatives in a small town in Washington State. I learned at an early age to recognize that we were almost to our destination when we passed a brewery in Tumwater, Washington, that at that time was well-known for its slogan, "It's the water."

I recall this slogan when someone asks me what makes the middle level different from elementary and high school. When working with this age group, we may occasionally wonder if it's what's in the water that makes the difference, but in actuality, "it's the students."

If you asked the man on the street whether someone who studied to be a high school physics teacher would be an effective primary school teacher, most likely, he'd shake his head and say "no." If pressed for an explanation, he'd probably respond that the teacher wouldn't understand how young children learn and would be too academic in his approach to teaching.

However, if you asked people if that same teacher could effectively teach middle level students, they likely would answer "yes." This puzzles me—clearly the general population does not understand the uniqueness of young adolescents.

The Difference in the Middle

While the foundational leadership skills needed may be similar across the grade levels, what makes the difference is the knowledge of young adolescent development and how educators use that knowledge to build a supportive culture that implements best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Regardless of job position or grade configuration, it is of utmost importance that those who work with middle grades students remember that an effective middle level school is neither a high school for younger students nor an elementary school for older ones. Schools must meet the specific needs of the students who are found at all points along the developmental continuum.

In 1963, William Alexander, considered one of the founders of the middle level movement, called for the introduction of schools for young adolescents that promoted learning by being more responsive to the developmental needs of the age group. Because this developmental piece was lacking in most junior high schools of the day, these schools focused on becoming more responsive to the students' social and emotional development; as a result, middle level schools gained a reputation for being "soft" on academic rigor.

The fact is, from the beginning, the middle level concept has advocated for high expectations and academic growth—accomplished in a supportive environment that uses strategies appropriate for this age level. In its call for schools that are developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable, AMLE's This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents clearly articulates and strongly advocates for middle level schools that are both academically excellent and developmentally appropriate. Many of the 16 characteristics support the notion that it's the students who make the difference. Characteristics include:

  • Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices.
  • Every student's academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate.

If you are unfamiliar with This We Believe, I urge you to get a copy ( and read it...multiple times!

Today's middle level schools face a great deal of pressure as they work to raise test scores, implement the Common Core State Standards, and comply with other federal, state, and local requirements. Sadly, too often this has swung the pendulum toward an emphasis on academic achievement with less attention given to the needs of the young adolescent. But it can't be an either/or proposition—if young adolescents are to be held to high expectations in meeting today's academic standards, decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school structure must capitalize on a clear understanding of their development.

How does this play out in a school? It begins by asking the question: "Does my school take into account the characteristics of young adolescents and can I find visible evidence that they are at the core of our school's practices and policies?" Here are a few general ideas to get you started analyzing your school's effectiveness at being academically challenging and developmentally appropriate.

Leading Physical Growth

Young adolescents are experiencing rapid, irregular physical growth that may cause poor motor coordination; are developing sexually; are experiencing mood swings and abrupt transitions from alertness/high energy to fatigue/lethargy; have increased nutritional demands but are making poor food choices; and need somewhat continuous movement as well as plenty of rest and sleep.

Therefore, it's important to

  • Incorporate movement into lessons.
  • Assure students they are not the "only one" experiencing physical difficulties.
  • Implement a comprehensive health and physical education program relevant to the specific needs and capabilities of young adolescents.
  • Ensure that all students can experience physical success in some manner.
  • Support and encourage adequate nutrition and hydration.

Leading Social Development

Young adolescents seek approval from peers; do not do well when backed into a corner; are self-conscious in social settings and worry about acceptance; can be argumentative "just because"; may demonstrate great social consciousness at times; may reject adult standards or viewpoints on social issues, follow social trends and fads; and demonstrate extremes of shyness or extroversion.

Middle level schools should

  • Provide appropriate school-based social activities.
  • Promote and model acceptance by adults and peers.
  • Help students find their place in the complex role society expects of them.
  • Allow students to teach and learn from one another.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work/interact with others from socially different walks of life.
  • Include community involvement and service learning in the curriculum.
  • Understand and respect students' need for social interaction.

Leading Emotional Growth

Young adolescents are experiencing chemical and hormonal changes that affect their emotions. They may overreact to seemingly minor issues; often look like adults but emotionally resemble children; are becoming increasingly aware of themselves, individually and in comparison to others; tend to be unrealistically self-critical and easily offended; need privacy; have an emerging (and sometimes inappropriate) sense of humor; and are basically hopeful.

It's important to

  • Analyze and respond effectively to the typical behaviors of the age group; decide if students are being "appropriately" inappropriate or defiant.
  • Be an attentive listener and an honest, available role model.
  • Be careful with sarcasm; students don't always see it as humor.
  • Help students feel skilled and competent.
  • Use praise and reinforcement judiciously and in appropriate ways (focus on the effort, not the outcome).
  • Create an environment of acceptance with students, families, and colleagues.

Leading Cognitive Growth

Young adolescents have a wide range of intellectual abilities; are curious in nature, especially about things that are of interest to them; are more willing to learn material if it seems useful and relevant; are more able to think abstractly; and are sometimes self-centered and have difficulty seeing another's viewpoints.

Therefore, it is important to

  • Present lessons that build from concrete to abstract.
  • Ask questions that require higher-level thinking (What if… How do you know… Why do you think… How did you arrive at that conclusion… Of what value is this to you?).
  • Encourage risk taking in a supported and safe environment.
  • Actively involve students in the lessons.
  • Be prepared for off-the-wall responses.

There is no question that young adolescents are challenging and often a contradiction in terms—confused and confident, awkward and articulate, passive and passionate—often within a short period of time. We must advocate for them to receive an education designed expressly for them, surrounded by adults who connect with them, challenge them, and care for them.

Asking the Tough Questions

Middle level students deserve teachers and principals who are not afraid to ask the tough questions: Is our curriculum challenging, integrative, and relevant? Do we use varied and appropriate teaching and learning strategies? Do our assessment and evaluation practices promote learning? Are we as a staff adequately prepared to work with young adolescents? What should we keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to better serve our students?

If you cannot find evidence that your school is continually making forward progress in each of these areas, you are doing your students a disservice—because the key to successfully educating middle grades students lies in believing that the answer to "what makes the middle level different?" can only be answered with "It's the students."

Patti Kinney, former middle school teacher and administrator and a past president of AMLE, is an education consultant based in Talent, Oregon.

Bring Patti Kinney to your school. Contact AMLE Director of Middle Level Services Dru Tomlin at for more information.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2015.
Author: Patti Kinney
Number of views (1261)/Comments (0)/
It Takes Strong Teacher Leadership

It Takes Strong Teacher Leadership

Have you ever heard any of these comments in your middle school?

  • Administration just doesn't have time to help all of us
  • There is so much to be done
  • I don't feel like I'm a part of the vision for my school
  • There isn't enough time in the day to get it all done
  • There has to be a better way
  • I really want more of a coach to improve my teaching
  • We have so many skilled teachers on staff who are underused
  • My middle school doesn't need to hire experts for professional development when we have such a skilled staff right here
  • I'm on initiative overload
  • All the things we're mandated to do feel like a distraction at times to our real work with kids
  • If only my administration knew first-hand what it's like everyday

Middle schools are busy with initiatives, programs, continuous improvement efforts, school improvement action plans, implementation of mandates from state and federal departments of education … and the list can go on and on. To pull off effective middle level education in the midst of all that is constantly going on requires strong teacher leadership.

Accountability and mandates have forced leaders in a corner where the primary time is spent on data analysis, reporting, and compliance monitoring. While accountability is important, middle grades leaders can take a hands-on approach that will allow valuable insight in the education system of the school. The right tools and supports for developing hands-on teacher leadership can take a middle school to the next level with student achievement.

We know that building level administration alone can't impact an entire school; therefore successful middle schools have strong teacher leadership supports in place. The real question is How do we do this?

1. Hands-on Leadership: Teacher leaders, department chairs, counselors, and administrators can take a hands-on approach to empower themselves and others. Sometimes we have to do things that may seem out of the box to be in touch with the culture and climate in our middle schools. These unconventional ways to become involved will lead to leadership insight that can guide decision making.

2. Developing Teacher Leaders: With most middle schools only having a few administrators it is not reasonable to think that the sole leadership responsibility can reside with principals and assistant principals. Teacher leaders are critical to the success of middle level education. Sadly, schools often lack a plan for developing leadership amongst teachers. This step is vital to a shared leadership approach that can permeate an entire school culture.

Empower your school with these two strategies to launch your climate for achievement and continuous improvement to the next level.

These concepts and more will be part of my featured session, "Hands-on Leadership & Developing Teacher Leaders at the Middle Level" at AMLE2015 where you walk away with hands-on leadership ideas and a plan to develop leaders in your school as well as join top middle level educators across the nation on October 15-17, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio.

See you in Columbus!

Dr. Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in the Indianapolis area—one of few districts nationwide to offer International Baccalaureate to all students in all schools. Previously, Dr. Woodson served as a teacher, special education program manager, assistant principal, principal, director of communications, director of staff development, director of continuous improvement, and assistant superintendent.


See Dr. Woodson at AMLE2015 in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a featured presenter on School Improvement Strategies and Developing Teacher Leaders.
View a webinar with Nikki Woodson: Making Assessment and Data Work in the Middle Level
Author: Nikki Woodson
Number of views (1745)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Leadership
Five Stepping Stones to School Success

Five Stepping Stones to School Success

Educators are empowered by developing common goals and language together

The room was getting hot. The matter at hand was even hotter. Seventeen of our schools had plummeted to the lowest performance level allowed by the state. In short, they were failing and we had to come up with a plan.

The tension in the room was palatable as we racked our brains over how to solve the problem. Morale among the 17 schools was lower than the academic performance of the schools. Teachers seemed to be hemorrhaging away from our district and we were left with a dire dilemma: how to improve the academic performance of our schools.

As I surveyed the room, which was full of district academic team members, 60 school principals and their leadership teams, as well as others, a thought came to my mind. I reflected on my years as a school principal and as a superintendent in a much smaller system and wondered if my previous experience in school and district turnaround would prove positive this time around. With no other idea to go on, I called the room to attention in hopes that what I led before would serve us well now.

I recalled the process I had followed several times before. I borrowed it from the biblical account of King David. Prior to becoming king, David was a shepherd that was assigned a monumental task of slaying a giant. David didn't use traditional methods as he fought the giant. Instead he chose five smooth stones from a nearby riverbed to defeat his enemy. I call them stepping stones because while he chose five and only needed one, each stone was a step in the right direction.

I asked the educators in the room to recall for me what they thought were the characteristics necessary to achieve academic success as a school community. I asked them to name five things that they either did or observed that made a successful school.

I handed out sticky notes and asked that they record their thoughts on them, first individually then in pairs. Next, I asked that once the two of them had narrowed their two 5-item lists into one list of five, find two others who have done the same and complete the process again. This continued until they had a group of four people with a list of five characteristics of highly successful schools.

I could feel us stepping our way toward a very solid plan. The room was full of lists of five characteristics created by the professionals in the room. I began to combine common characteristics and refine common terminology. There was a hum in the room and positive energy began to shift the mood and the outlook. Educators were feeling valued and empowered. This was going to work.

Fast forward one year. The state accountability rankings showed a sharp decrease in the number of schools labeled as low performing from 17 to 8 in one year. The results also reflected an increase in the number of high performing schools.

As a district, we were able to secure both our state and federal accountability in addition to a two percent increase in graduation rate. Small steps for our district but positive steps nonetheless.

Our stepping stones were guiding us in the right direction. What are they, you ask? What characteristics did we determine must be present in order for our schools and its scholars to be successful?

Stepping Stone 1: Student Academic Success

Each of the steps began with a critical question. For Stepping Stone 1 the question was, "How well are our scholars attaining the challenging academic standards?" The answers help establish our belief and value systems that monitor our behavior. We determined that in order for schools to be high performing then student academic success must occur. That means high performing schools have a clear and present focus on instructional strategies that are directly linked to student academic performance and achievement.

Stepping Stone 2: Effective Principal Leadership

The question this time was, "What are school administrators doing to ensure that teaching and learning are priorities in our classrooms?" This inquiry led us to a very important point; leaders in high performing schools promote and participate in establishing goals and expectations for everyone in the building. Additionally, building leaders plan, guide, coordinate, and evaluate professional learning for staff and students.

Stepping Stone 3: Effective Teaching

This discussion immediately stirred debate. The discussion was healthy and filled with flavor but it was the question that garnered the most attention: "What is happening in our classrooms, from bell to bell, week to week, and formative to summative assessment?" I articulated it another way, "What opportunities exist for the proper development, monitoring, review, and evaluation of both our approach to curriculum delivery and the building of teacher capacity? Teachers in high performing schools share strong content mastery, command of curricular resources, and an ability to overcome learning barriers.

Stepping Stone 4: Parent and Community Engagement

As we considered the critical question for this stone, I insisted on the term engagement versus involvement. The question emerged: "In what ways are parents and community members connected to and engaged in activities that support student learning?" High performing schools engage parents and community members in the meaningful work of building and enriching the curriculum as well as the supports for students and teachers.

Stepping Stone 5: Student and Adult Recognition

This is the question that guided us for stepping stone: "In what ways are the voices and accomplishments of students and teachers affirmed?" High performing schools make a strategic and concerted effort to regularly and effectively honor the work of both students and teachers. The work and contribution of both groups is valued and that value is demonstrated both tangibly and intrinsically.

What stepping stones would you and your colleagues identify to guide your school and students to success?

Cedrick Gray is superintendent of Jackson Public Schools (MS) and serves on the AMLE on-site cadre and on the faculty for the AMLE Leadership Institute.

See Dr. Gray present featured sessions at AMLE2015 in Columbus, Ohio this October on the topics of School Culture and Climate, Project Management for School Leaders, and Top School Leadership Characteristics.

Author: Cedrick Gray
Number of views (1797)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Leadership

The Courage It Takes

There’s a great story about General Westmoreland that reminds us what can happen if we are brave with each other. The general was reviewing a line of paratroopers and decided to talk to three of them.

"Son," he said to the first one, "Do you like to jump out of airplanes?"

The paratrooper grinned before responding enthusiastically, "Yes, sir! It’s an adrenaline rush, sir!"

The general nodded approval and moved to the next soldier. "Son, do you also like to jump out of airplanes?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," the soldier said. "I’ve dreamed of doing it all my life, sir. If you get the opportunity, you should try it some time. It’s like nothing else in this world!"

The general smiled and moved to the final soldier. "And how about you, son?" he asked. "Do you like to jump out of airplanes?"

The soldier saluted and responded so quickly and confidently that it took the general by surprise. "No, sir!"

The general paused, then stepped closer to the soldier and looked him in the eye. "Then why are you a member of this paratrooping division?" he asked.

Again, the soldier didn’t hesitate. "Because I like to hang with guys who do like to jump out of airplanes, sir!"

Courage is contagious. When those around us demonstrate courage, it’s easier for the rest of us to be brave. And if we are brave together, imagine what we can accomplish!

I first recognized the potential of this possibility when I was talking with a student of mine who was a member of a violent gang. We were talking about the increasing number of gangs in our community. During the conversation, he turned to me and said, "You know, Mr. W., gangs are only as strong as the town lets them be."

I was stunned. He was correct, but I had never considered the idea. Instead, I had been wallowing in troubled desperation over the growing violence among students. His comment spurred months of personal reflection, however. I wondered: What’s not working for these children who join gangs, and what leads them down such horrific road? In what kind of community do I want to raise my own children, and what am I going to do to create and maintain it?

I attended several inservice trainings and conferences on gangs and youth violence and found kindred spirits in the participants. With each conversation with these similar-minded people, dealing with the issues that drive students to gang affiliation, solutions on how to dissolve gangs in our town, and returning neighborhoods to healthy places to raise children seemed more and more possible. Today, things have improved, but we are not finished, and there’s no room to waver in our diligence.

Deciding What’s Important

The mindset needed to take on gangs and other issues in our schools is expressed compellingly by rock band manager James Hollingworth, a.k.a. Ambrose Redmoon, a paraplegic: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the belief that something else is more important than that fear." Reflecting on our everyday classroom practices with students and interactions with colleagues, what might we consider so important that it trumps our fears of rejection, embarrassment, breaking rules (hidden or not), or ruffling others’ feathers?

How about choosing a different novel if the one mandated by the English department isn’t working with a particular student?

How about risking embarrassment by confronting (in a constructive manner) a colleague who is doing something with students that takes a lot of class time and a lot of school resources but usually results in little or no student learning?

How about suggesting the school re-dedicate itself to teacher-advisory programs, including offering training for teachers and re-adjusting the master schedule to provide opportunities to conduct the advisories, even if a faction of faculty members don’t support it?

How about being a seasoned teacher who admits to colleagues that he doesn’t know how to teach a particular student and would like some assistance?

How about giving up the classroom we’ve had for years and taking the roving, classroom-teacher-with-a-cart position so that a new teacher can have your room and one less thing to worry about during her first years in the profession?

No one said courage was easy. Yet colleagues and mentors throughout our careers have bravely taken such risks. The least we can do, then, is dedicate ourselves to courageous acts of teaching and collegiality, even when we don’t feel like we’re up to the task.

Acts of Courage 

Courage in middle schools can’t be left to chance. If we are not at a point in our careers where we can be courageous, let’s do whatever we can to help others be courageous. Our current and future students depend on at least some of us swapping fear for potential right now.

Consider doing a common, yet wonderful staff development activity: Write your personal list of what you would do if you were truly brave. As you record your thoughts, remember that you don’t have to do the tasks alone, and in fact, you’ll be more successful by sharing the journey, if for nothing else than bravery’s contagious nature.

Here is one act of courage on my part—to put forth for educators’ scrutiny my own personal list of what I would do if I were brave. It’s dangerous for me to share this list because you may disagree with me, judge me, or refuse to read anything else I write.

Nevertheless, I shall not take the timid route when so much is at stake. After reading the list, I hope you’ll create your own list to rally your energy in the new school year. Here are just 9 of my many brave acts to take:

  1. Adjust the school’s master schedule to support best practices, not sacrifice best practices to support the master schedule.
  2. Make it easier to let ineffective and toxic teachers and principals go. Some folks have misidentified their strengths or misjudged the date of their retirement.
  3. Ask principals who demand next week’s lesson plans from all teachers to be submitted for review each Friday to present their principal plans for next week to teachers for their review each Friday. Before I’m misquoted, however, know that I fully support struggling teachers submitting their plans for review, professional learning communities exchanging plans for collegial review and coaching, and proven veterans submitting plans at least once a year so the principal knows what’s going on in his or her school.
  4. Help change teacher evaluation systems so that those principals with little or no teaching experience in a teacher’s subject or grade level do not do the majority of teacher evaluations for that teacher. To critique and evaluate teachers, we must be up-to-date on the subject being taught.
  5. Choose to teach the students no one else wants. They are the ones who bring out our true teaching colors, who most inspire our creativity and efforts. In our democracy, we teach all students, not just those easiest to teach. It’s a feather in our cap to be considered the answer to a problem.
  6. Revamp most of our country’s grading systems. They do not accurately portray what happens in standards-based, differentiated classrooms.
  7. Open teacher practices to public scrutiny. Brave educators must have frequent opportunity to publicly defend their thinking on educational issues, formally and informally, rather than living safely behind the closed classroom door. When we must articulate what we do, it becomes real and actionable, something we constantly reference, not an abstraction.
  8. Question No Child Left Behind and every other federal education mandate from any political party in power from now until we retire if we have concerns about it.
  9. Mandate all students and their teachers get residential, outdoor education experiences of a week or more every year, including ropes initiatives courses. Adults and students come back changed for the better, closer to who we really are, critical thinkers, and appreciative of learning and each other.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." For our students’ and communities’ sake, let’s take the opportunities in the school year ahead to dare greatly and be brave five minutes longer.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned About Teaching Along the Way, which this column is excerpted from, is available from

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2015.

Bring Rick Wormeli to your school. Contact AMLE Director of Middle Level Services Dru Tomlin at for more information.

Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (2920)/Comments (0)/
PD Cyber Café

PD Cyber Café

A challenge teachers face every school year is how to balance their want for professional growth without losing instruction time in the classroom. Often, teachers are left deciding whether to attend professional development workshops during the school day, or to pass on the professional development so their students do not lose a day of instructional time.

As school administrators and education leaders, we have to look for creative ways to provide professional development for faculty and staff that not only allows them to remain in the classroom, but is tailored to meet their needs. Resources such as AMLE webinars and online reading materials offer educators a plethora of professional development resources that can be accessed at their leisure. This allows educators to grow professionally and maximize time in their classroom while expanding their resources on pedagogy and educating the middle level learner.

An approach I have taken in my middle school is replacing our traditional monthly faculty meetings with PD faculty sessions. The information that I previously disseminated to faculty and staff during faculty meetings is now produced in a monthly newsletter, The Faculty Focus, which is emailed to each staff member. The designated after-school monthly meeting times are now strictly dedicated to providing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.

Teachers are encouraged to take full advantage of their AMLE membership and participate in after school webinars, join Twitter discussions, or collaborate with colleagues to discuss an article they’ve read in a recent edition of AMLE Magazine.

One fun and creative professional development workshop we held in our middle school recently was a "PD Cyber Café." By using the AMLE library of recorded webinars, I was able to provide my faculty and staff professional development that was individualized to their interest. A "menu" was created that listed ten recommended "dishes" to choose from. These "dishes" were ten of the recorded webinars from the AMLE website that I felt my staff would be most interested in.

If a staff member was interested in another option, they could select an "al a carte" item from the entire AMLE library of webinars. As teachers entered the school’s media center at the end of the school day, they grabbed a laptop, gathered at a table, selected their item from the menu, and engaged in professional development through AMLE recorded webinars.

Of course, what would a cyber café be without coffee? Coffee and light refreshments were available for staff to enjoy while taking part in their professional development.

Teachers who were interested in viewing the same webinar gathered together at tables and engaged in discussion during and after the session. Others who preferred a more private session added headphones to their laptop. When the PD session ended, teachers were provided a certificate of professional development based on the webinar they viewed.

Rather than take 45 minutes to an hour of my teachers’ time at the end of the school day to disseminate information about upcoming dates, policies, and student issues, this information was included in the newsletter. Instead, this time after school provided teachers with the opportunity for personalized professional development thanks to the AMLE library of recorded webinars. Teachers left the media center that afternoon with coffee and PD certificates in their hands and smiles on their faces. They were able to engage in excellent professional development without sacrificing instructional time from their classes.

All AMLE members have access to more than 35 recorded webinars at 

James A. Brown is principal of Grover Cleveland Middle School in Caldwell, New Jersey.

Author: James Brown
Number of views (2867)/Comments (0)/
Building School Community by Empowering Students

Building School Community by Empowering Students

The disruptive behavior of some students can be a top concern of middle school teachers, administrators, and parents in many schools. While time is spent considering approaches to decreasing behavioral incidents, important goals also include focusing on increasing attendance and creating a productive learning environment for students. Here are some ideas to consider as you create a school culture that engages all students as positive, productive members of the community.

Building Community in Your School
I think we can all agree that a strong sense of community within a school is important—but how do we go about effectively building community? First, we need to understand that a strong community is created by weaving bonds of understanding and caring among individuals.

The Center for Teen Empowerment has developed an interactive methodology that functions to build deep levels of communication and trust among groups of children, teens, and adults. Any school can incorporate this approach by making the commitment to work skillfully throughout the school year to engage students in activities that help them learn each other’s names, share information about their backgrounds, and talk about their hopes and dreams. The result is a school where students have the context they need to see each other as human beings who deserve respect.

Involving Student Leadership
The best way to achieve this result is to recruit and engage a broad range of students to work as partners with faculty in facilitating these community-building activities. By “a broad range of students,” I mean that the leadership group should include students who are most likely to be involved in negative behaviors as well as students who would more typically be tapped for leadership positions.

Integrating students who are having difficulty with those who are experiencing more success allows those who are doing well to influence those who are not. It also gives the leadership group the credibility needed to positively influence the school culture across the board.

What Might It Look Like?
Picture an assembly with students and teachers speaking about their lives and talking about their hopes for the coming year. Maybe there’s a skit with role reversals—students act as teachers and teachers act as students. Perhaps there is a student speak-out, where audience members are asked to comment.

Then students return to classrooms or break into small groups where they spend a period engaged in interactive exercises that help them learn names, speak in pairs about their lives, brainstorm issues they face, and set goals for the year.

The Payoff
Of course, none of this is easy, but neither is teaching math, science, or English! In fact, teachers go through years of training and spend countless hours of in-school, after-school, and out-of-school time doing everything they can to help students learn. But when it comes to the essential component of building community in the school, though we agree that it’s important, we usually dedicate little or no resources to making it happen.

In our 23 years of experience at the Center for Teen Empowerment, we have repeatedly seen the major payoff for all elements of the school when community-building strategies, propelled by student leadership, are implemented. It’s an investment that is well worth the effort.

Stanley Pollack is the founder and executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, which works in Boston and Somerville, MA, and in Rochester, NY, and he is the author of Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Interactive Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action.

Author: Stanley Pollack
Number of views (5791)/Comments (8)/
Would You Like to Make a Statement?

Would You Like to Make a Statement?

What should school leaders do when a reporter is at their door?

“Hi, this is Larry Jones from XYZ paper and I would like to ask you a few questions about allegations of bullying by teachers at your school.”

“Good morning. This is Sarah Brown from station ABC. What can you tell me about the decline in your students’ standardized test scores last year?”

If you are a school administrator and you haven’t already been approached by a reporter from the local media, you very well could be. And while your first reaction to media questions—regardless of the topic—may be to mutter “no comment” and move on, the first rule of thumb when dealing with reporters is never to say “no comment.”

So what should you do when a reporter comes calling? Be prepared long before you get the call or hear the knock on the door.

First Things First

The first key to dealing effectively with the media is establishing a solid relationship. If you’re there for them in bad times, they’ll be there for you in good times.

Early in the school year, invite newspaper, television, and radio reporters to meet with you. Discuss your education philosophy, your school vision and goals, advances in the curriculum. Remember, they are not educators, so explain acronyms and give them an overview of education budgets, contracts, and the negotiation process. The more they understand, the less likely they will be to misquote or skewer you with adversarial copy.

That’s not to say they won’t report negative information. Their expectations are quite different from yours. They have a story to tell. But if you have a good relationship, they’ll be more willing to hear your side first.

Key Messaging

Before you agree to any interviews, ask the reporters who they are, whom they represent, the topic of the interview, how much time they expect the interview to take, and who else is being contacted about the topic. Remember that you are in charge of the interview and you may terminate the interview (in a professional manner) should it go outside the boundaries you set—yes, the boundaries you set.

So, what do you say? Practice by anticipating questions, preparing your answers (but not memorizing them), having key facts readily available, and using key messages. Key messages are like mission statements: short, to the point, and reflecting positively on your district or school. Even in a tense situation, weave these messages into your statements.

For example, let’s say your key message is your school’s commitment to supporting the community through high-quality education. A reporter asks you, “Can you confirm that you are cutting four teachers from next year’s budget?”

Here’s your key message: “We are currently investigating ways to reduce our budget; however, please remember that we are committed to promoting a high quality of life in our community by educating our children—that’s our priority.”

You’re On

With the basics in mind, let’s look at several scenarios and some tips for making every interview a success.

Tip #1: Have a good administrative assistant. When I worked in a K–12 district, I was blessed to have an administrative assistant who recognized reporters’ voices when they called. When they asked to speak to me, she said without hesitation: “I’m sorry, she’s not in her office right now. Can I tell her what this is about?” Almost every reporter shared the reason for the call, providing me ample time to prepare my response or check with other experts in our district.

Tip #2: Clear your desk. When preparing for a telephone interview, clear your desk. If you have papers and calendars in front of you and a cell phone that’s buzzing with a text from your spouse, you’re not paying attention to the interview and may say something you didn’t mean to say.

If you are conducting a face-to-face interview in your office, in addition to clearing off your desk, close emails and documents on your computer screen. That letter, memo, or email open on the computer behind you should be for your eyes only.

Tip #3: Don’t be pressured by silence. That’s some reporters’ secret weapon—getting interviewees to talk through the “pregnant pause.” The reporter hopes you will find the silence uncomfortable and will fill it with information you hadn’t intended to disclose. Answer the question and say no more! As you wind down the interview, summarize and restate your points.

Tip #4: Don’t ever speak off the record. Journalists are supposed to respect the privacy of an off-the-record remark, but remember that they want the news, they want to lead over other media, and they may use whatever you say—on and off the record.

Tip #5: Relax and maintain composure. When doing a telephone interview, sit up straight and put both feet flat on the floor. Why? When you sit up straight, your voice is stronger and you sound more in command. And that’s what you want to do: be in command of the interview.

For a stand-up interview, keep your hands out of your pockets and don’t cross your arms in front of you. Instead, place your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers. This will not only make your posture better, but it will also give you a hidden outlet for nervousness or anger.

Tip #6. Have a crisis communication plan. Each of you will be involved with a crisis situation at some time in your career, and the last thing on your mind should be dealing with the media. Your district administration should designate someone to be the spokesperson. This person will be trained to deal with the media effectively. If, however, you do find yourself facing the media:

  • Keep your messages simple, direct, and don’t speculate.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But follow that up with, “but I’ll find out and get the answer to you by.”

By following these tips, you will be on your way to a much better relationship with the members of your press and you’ll know just want to say.

Kelly McBride is an assistant professor of public relations at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the former director of communications for a K–12 school district in Pennsylvania.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2014.
Author: Kelly McBride
Number of views (1120)/Comments (2)/
Topics: Leadership
Looking Back to Move Forward

Looking Back to Move Forward

As I reflect on my 25-year career as a middle level administrator, one of the high points was the creation of an alternative learning environment for a group of seventh grade students. Realizing a growth bubble was heading towards the middle school, a partnership between the school district and a state-operated farm museum became a reality that offered a school-within-a-school opportunity for almost 30 students while reducing class size in the traditional middle school.

Modeled after the long successful Radnor (PA) Watershed program, the brainchild of Mark Springer, the program got off to a flying start as three dynamic middle school teachers were chosen to staff the program. The first year of the program was very successful, as evidenced by the quantity of interested students requiring that participants be selected by lottery. Spending a bit less than fifty percent of their instructional time off campus was clearly a draw for non-traditional learners. (For more about this program, read "Capturing the Obvious," Principal Leadership, May 2003).

As the program headed towards the mid-point of the year, plans were generated to allow the group of students to remain together in their eighth grade year under the umbrella of a second non-traditional program that would operate as an outdoor environmental program.

Despite the hoopla surrounding the implementation of these two new and exciting initiatives, within three years of their inception, and with a change in the school’s administration, both programs were eliminated. Another team was added to the instructional organization of the school to absorb the number of students who were previously served by the two initiatives. Unlike the long running Radnor program, these programs were essentially decommissioned and the teachers reassigned.

A post mortem of these programs may afford principals who think out-of-the-box some insight as they contemplate taking the road less traveled in their attempts to create non-traditional learning environments for their students.

Change is inevitable
Regardless of an organization’s structure, there are no assurances that its culture will remain constant as school and district personnel, policies, and philosophies go through the natural evolutionary process. Demographic shifts, emphasis on state-wide assessments and related benchmarks along with a community's perception of what programs reflect best educational practices are factors that impact the longevity of a program or course of study.

Nothing is as simple as it appears
From the time an idea is conceived until it realizes fruition the journey is not simple. To think otherwise is unrealistic and will prevent the concept from taking flight. The hurdles encountered are usually cleared with the involvement of many individuals at various levels within the organization.

Finances fuel the engine of change
Unless substantially underwritten by outside funding sources, programs thought to be non-essential will be short-lived. In today’s cash strapped economy, school boards, administrators, and teachers are expected to do more with less. Programs that remotely smack of elitism or are non-traditional in design and structure are at greatest risk for being eliminated.

Let go of ownership
Once developed and operational, a program's ownership becomes that of the school or district. Despite the investment of time, energy, and ego, a school’s program is not personal property. Embracing this thinking is healthy for all stakeholders in the development process.

Stay clear of naysayers
The inherent risk of creating a start-up program is not usually embraced by negative people. Rather than seeing the beauty of implementing a new program, there are some who, quietly or not, sit on the sidelines waiting for failure to take place. In designing a new program, involve people who have positive energy and can serve as resources or go-to people along the creative pathway.

Moving forward
Individuals who are capable of affecting change through innovative program design are usually risk takers who are highly motivated. Remaining creative and productive often means repeating the creative process of defining a need and determining how to best address it. After a program has been developed and instituted there are usually a string of other needs waiting to be addressed by out-of-the box thinkers. Allow the process to begin anew by earmarking a specific need and designing an appropriate response to it. Repeating the creative process, while sometimes tedious is invigorating and gratifying.

The process of being retrospective and analyzing the success or failure of a program is an opportunity for self-exploration and discovery. Take time to be reflective both individually and with your school or program team. This reflection time will help you identify concepts and ideas and formulate strategies and plans to address those concerns that will impact the educational environment and ultimately the students you serve.

Robert Ruder, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and author, and has been a middle grades administrator and advocate for more than 25 years. E-mail:

Author: Robert Ruder
Number of views (5400)/Comments (0)/
Topics: Leadership
The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?

The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?

We want students to remember the positive lessons we teach.

Middle grades educators spend almost all their time and energy dealing with what is taught, the content that is presented in classrooms and courses. This is understandable, given the great attention placed on cognitive learning/academic achievement.

But the school is so much more than a physical facility in which teachers present lessons; it is a laboratory of living where ongoing practices and relationships educate. Educators should stop every now and then to consider the lessons the school may be teaching via its programs, policies, rules, and regulations—by its way of life. When doing so, they may be surprised—and chagrined.

A discouraging percentage of what is taught explicitly in the formal curriculum is forgotten in a matter of months. This is a recognized and accepted reality. But the lessons that the school teaches implicitly remain, because they become internalized, subtly but certainly, as students over time live under the school's tutelage.

William Heard Kilpatrick, often considered America's greatest teacher, claimed, "We learn what we live, and we learn it to the degree that we live it." And noted educator Eliot Eisner wisely reminded us that "Schools teach much more—and much less—than they intend to teach."

Much of the "more" that the school unintentionally teaches is positive, and an entire article or two might well be given over to acknowledging and elaborating on the significant, life-changing lessons individual teachers transmit just by being in relationships with students. Indeed, when all is said and done, the influence that the teacher as a person has on the attitudes, values, and behavior of a student may be the most certain and significant "take-away" from a year spent in that teacher's classroom.

The Hidden Curriculum

Fortunately, even though newspaper stories about education seem to be concerned exclusively with reporting on the cognitive side of an education as indicated by test scores—as if that were all a real education was about—most parents do recognize and appreciate the impact that a teacher has on a student apart from the formal cognitive lessons.

However, a good many of the lessons unintentionally taught by the school run completely counter to a school's stated objectives and to the middle school philosophy. It is those undesirable lessons, part of the hidden curriculum, that a faculty needs to recognize, think about, and then consider a way to down-play or counter. Many of these lessons evolve from long-standing practices that are deeply ingrained in our culture and cannot be altered immediately or easily. However, by being conscious of these undesirable lessons being taught, teachers can help students understand the background of practices and gain a needed perspective.

For example, consider the undesirable lessons inherent in most schools' grading systems. Doesn't our uniform, single-standard grading scale run counter to our purported goal of helping all students build a positive self-concept? What conclusion can some students come to when time after time they are expected to excel where all their prior school experiences have demonstrated they cannot possibly place in the top group?

What does the heavy emphasis on grades lead students to conclude about the goal of education? When you stop and think about it, you must recognize that a school via its grading practices actually teaches some kids that they are dumb!

Although it certainly isn't a school's intention, ability grouping practices inevitably teach some undesirable lessons. They teach that some kids are worth more than others. When some students are identified as "gifted," and dealt with in special ways, all other students automatically become "non-gifted"—a label we don't want to place on students who are in the process of becoming.

Consider also a school's typical discipline code and policy. Isn't it based on negative assumptions about the nature of young adolescents? Doesn't it specify consequences for assumed misbehavior rather than confirm positive expectations? Does it often encourage kids to learn ways to beat the system? Do students learn, regrettably, that adults don't trust them?

Food for Thought

In almost all middle schools, we must face the unfortunate truth that lessons that conflict with the school's commitment to providing the best developmentally responsive education possible for all students are inadvertently being taught. The ways we manage, sort, label, instruct, and assess students convey messages. We know that during these malleable early adolescent years, youth are developing the self-concepts and personal standards, values, and attitudes that will direct their behavior in the years ahead, so it does seem most important that the undesirable lessons the school teaches should be faced and educators should take actions to counter them.

Think about it. Consider taking time in team meetings and faculty sessions to tackle this important issue.

John H. Lounsbury is a long-time middle level advocate and dean emeritus of the John H. Lounsbury College of Education at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia.He is a featured presenter at AMLE2014.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2014
Author: John H. Lounsbury
Number of views (5069)/Comments (6)/

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