In 2015 I attended a leadership training with Tony Robbins. It was a rare experience that changed both my lens on leadership and my personal life. The four days of 10-14 hours per day were high energy and filled with personalized content. It was the most exhilarating and empowering leadership training I have ever experienced! In the training, Tony stated something that has stayed with me in respect to my leadership.
"Live life fully while you are here. Experience everything. Take care of yourself and your friends. Have fun, be crazy, be weird. Go out and screw up! You are going to anyway. So we might as well enjoy the process. Take the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Don't try to be perfect. Just be an excellent example of a human being."
This simple advice is perfect for middle school leaders. At times I feel leaders get so absorbed in the responsibilities of leading that we forget that middle school leadership is a journey, not a final destination. Thinking of it as a journey, we can reshape how we experience the various aspects of leadership.
When I was in Barcelona, Spain I had an experience that reminded me of this journey. It was my first time in Barcelona and I wanted to "experience everything" as Tony advised. One day I ventured to Montserrat, a magical mountain that's home to the Benedictine monastery and holds centuries of cultural and religious importance. As you head up the mountain, you choose your route to get to the top if you do not want to continue in a car. Option one is a cable car that loads up visitors and gets them to the top of the mountain for the breathtaking views that await in a very short amount of time. It's air-conditioned and a speedy trip to the top. Option 2 is known as the Monks path, and was used by Monks as they entered Montserrat by foot to climb to the monastery. It's a rough dirt path that winds uphill for hours.
These are two very different choices to the same destination. As I considered the choices, I reflected on the similarity to our leadership choices. At times as school leaders we have the choice to take a fast and easy route to reach our goals. The fast route can look enticing because it can boast quick results and have bells and whistles that make the option appealing. At the same time there are always options for school leaders that look like a great deal of uphill work to get to the goal. These options require more personalized work. What is the difference between the two choices? It is simple, the journey. If we look at the easiest and fastest path to reach our goals we may miss a beautiful journey where we can "learn from our mistakes" and "enjoy the process" as Tony Robbin's stated. Sometimes the journey is what makes our leadership stronger.
As I mirrored my choice at the base of Montserrat with the leadership journey, the choice became easy. The Monk's path was the only way to go. It would be hard work, but I began getting excited about all that I would experience along the way. Additionally, I thought how those who chose the cable car would not have the rich experience of taking the path that took time. I would still get to the breathtaking views at the top but I would have experienced a journey by the time I got there.
Leadership is about the journey. In the midst of state and federal mandates, accountability, testing, legislation suppressing our schools, and budget constraints, we as leaders can focus on the journey to grow and be our best selves. Take the pressure off of yourself for perfection and just enjoy the journey.
Nikki Woodson, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, AMLE author of
Is it Working in Your Middle School?, serves on the board
of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a
co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Are we asking our students to take risks that we as adults aren't willing to take?
Structure is utilized in the middle school experience to build a safe learning environment for our students. Students are placed on teams where they take classes with the same peer group, increasing their comfort level in contributing to classroom discussions. They eat lunch at the same table with these peers, where lunchroom conversations build a support network to help students navigate middle school.
Students return to classrooms after lunch to a world of procedures, including rules for entering and exiting the room, fire drills, and taking roll. Familiar routines allow students to find their place within an academic community and introduce the necessary organizational soft skills that will later drive professional and personal success. Familiarity within the school environment builds a launching pad that supports risk-taking and achievement, where students are expected to give presentations in front of the class, contribute to discussion, dream, and design the future.
On the flip side, teachers have routines as well. We sign in at the front desk daily and habitually reach for the morning cup of coffee. We stand in the hallway with other teachers on our team as students walk to class, where they will hear carefully crafted lessons plans on the subject we have been teaching for 5, 10, 17, or 28 years. We eat lunch in the cafeteria sitting by the same people, wearing the exact same identification badge as our colleagues. We too experience structure and routine to build a safe professional environment. But the question is, as teaching professionals, where is our risk-taking that should accompany this safety net we have so carefully woven?
Does the opportunity for risk occur once a month at a faculty meeting, when an administrator asks a question and the faculty hurriedly looks down before eye contact is made? Or maybe it's at the annual holiday party when we have the opportunity to sit next to the new teacher (but then we don't). Are we asking our students to take risks that we as adults aren't willing to take?
Innovation, creativity, and collaboration aren't only educational buzz words to encourage risk-taking to enhance student achievement … adults need them too.
At the school where I teach, I am lucky to be part of a staff that requires risk not only of its students, but also of its faculty. For instance, our principal decided to institute a club period on Wednesdays for all students to self select an activity they are interested in, where they would collaborate with other like-minded students across grade levels on student-driven projects. Teachers serve as facilitators and join groups they are interested in. On the first day we started this project, our principal mentioned on an announcement that she "knew there would need to be give and take, flexibility, and feedback from students and teachers after the first try." Perfection was not expected.
The next week a survey was sent to faculty and students about the experience. How did the openness about the risk taken by the administration impact the engagement and opportunity of the students and staff? In the words of one student on the survey, they mentioned that the new club period was "glittericously fantabulous." An English teacher is now singing karaoke alongside students in a grade she doesn't normally interact with, and a computer teacher is learning guitar. One faculty member described their experience as "refreshing and invigorating, allowing them to think more creatively about their traditional subject area."
Collaboration and innovation do not always appear on a school-wide scale; risk-taking can happen within an individual classroom as well. As a chorus teacher, I am used to teaching gender specific classes, as vocal development differs dramatically between males and females at the middle school level. Last year I wanted to combine my seventh and eighth grade men's chorus classes, so my younger students would have older peer vocal models to help them through the voice changing process. After approaching administration with the request, the response was that I could try to combine grade levels, but would have to find another teacher willing to deviate and teach an academic course at a time different from the rest of their team.
A reading teacher at the school volunteered to teach an all boys seventh grade reading class, where each student also sang in men's chorus. This was a definite risk on her part, and the students were told that the first nine weeks was a trial period to see how both students and faculty would acclimate. The teacher discovered that she could tailor reading material to appeal to the all male class, and she selected literature that mirrored similar themes utilized in chorus class.
The students formed strong peer and academic connections, which lead to increased retention with all but one student continuing to chorus the next year. In addition, at the end of the school year, the chorus reading class had the grade level's top lexile scores, with all students reading at proficient and advanced levels. The nine-week experiment morphed into a year-long class that proved mutually beneficial for both the chorus and reading classes.
Sure, not all risks turn out with the same stellar results. Consider the time I told my chorus classes we were going to perform Michael Jackson's "Thriller" at the concert, complete with full dance, vocals, a student band, fog machine, strobe light, and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. One week before the show we realized that if we attempted this at the concert we would fail miserably. So we stepped back and punted, turning the project into a music video that we could edit with effects and the students could share on social media. We took a risk and dreamed big, and didn't accomplish what we set out to do. However, the students still learned the content and were able to problem solve on how we could share their knowledge in a format in which they could be successful without setting off the school's fire alarm from using a smoke machine at a concert.
As we begin to settle into our usual routines this school year, it is so easy to continue down the path of the known. The safe and secure environment we have built is important to students and faculty. The most important thing, however, is that we use this community we have worked so hard to create to propel us ahead to where no school has gone before.
Christy Todd is director of choral activities at Rising Starr Middle School in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Published August 2017.
Educators' mindsets make it possible to move a philosophy forward
What is middle school philosophy and how does it compare with or differ from a middle school mindset? A philosophy can be summarized as a system of principles used to guide one's practices; whereas a mindset can be described as an attitude with intention. Based on those working definitions, how does each concept impact middle level learners and practitioners?
Educators working with adolescents often follow common philosophical beliefs that guide practice and programming. Examples include, but are not limited to: (1) establishing structures like teaming and advisory; (2) incorporating interdisciplinary units and flexible grouping opportunities; (3) building service learning and community partnerships; (4) providing multiple and alternative assessment avenues; and, (5) supporting character development of 10- to 15-year olds transitioning between elementary and high school experiences. And, while each area can be expanded on or arranged differently, the fact remains that committed stakeholders firmly believe in providing the most authentic and well-rounded learning opportunities for this unique clientele; it's the philosophy for why they do what they do.
So how does mindset differ? If an educator firmly believes in the philosophy then wouldn't his or her mindset be the same? Do the two work in tandem, or can one compromise the other? And can philosophies and mindsets change, or are they fixed once adopted?
As a beginning teacher in the early 1980s, I immediately embraced the tenets of middle school philosophy as endorsed by the Carnegie Foundation and NMSA (now AMLE). I couldn't imagine not teaching to the whole child or not addressing the cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and intellectual characteristics of the 11- and 12-year-olds I was charged with educating. And while I worked with other enthusiastic educators who also thrived in the middle level environment, it soon became clear our interpretation and implementation of each philosophical component differed from class to class and teacher to teacher. This is not to say one style was more effective or favored than another, but various mindsets—or attitudes with intention—were evident around campus. For example, advisory was a prominent fixture at the school, as students were grouped and assigned to staff in a 1:15 ratio arrangement that met each morning and three afternoons each week. The goal was to provide support for the sixth through eighth graders through a home base at school. Activities and character-based lessons were shared with staff, and norms were adopted to honor the time—all aligning with the philosophical belief that advisory is important for middle level learners. While the structure of advisory was standardized (time allotted, programming provided, agreements honored), each instructor brought a unique mindset to their adopted group of learners.
As a sixth grade advisor working with students new to the middle school and transitioning in from five feeder elementary schools, my attitude with intention was to focus on relationship and community building during the first quarter, and to slowly incorporate study skills, goal setting, and critical thinking as the year progressed. My colleagues on the eighth grade team, on the other hand, were committed to preparing their 13-year-olds for high school and career-readiness simulations through service learning opportunities. We all met with our students for the same amount of time weekly, used similar curricular resources, listened to the same guest speakers, participated in school-challenges equally, set-up student-led conferences during the same weeks, and put our advisory needs ahead of most other responsibilities, as a way of aligning our philosophical beliefs for young adolescents. However, based on each group of students, our mindsets and practices were intentional to the needs of the individuals at that time and place in their development.
As I progressed in my years as a middle level teacher and proponent of advisory, I inherited an eighth grade group one year. Feeling confident in my experience as an advisor and prepared to start the year off successfully, I was caught completely off-guard when the first couple of weeks of school were the worst advisory experiences I had had in my career! What was wrong? Not only was I a seasoned educator who mentored teachers new to middle school, I had presented advisory structures and samples at local conferences, and was co-writing our school's programming guide for advisory. But now I couldn't make things work with my current group of students—many who had been former students from my sixth grade advisory. I felt like a fraud!
It was during a team meeting that I reluctantly shared my frustration with peers by throwing my hands up in the air and exclaiming, "What is wrong with these kids this year? Nothing is working in advisory!" My teammates were empathetic and shared strategies they were using without pointing out the obvious: my mindset toward eighth graders was very different from my mindset at the time I worked with sixth graders. In some ways, I had assumed advisory would be a breeze since I knew the students and was able to inhale curriculum while exhaling best practices in my sleep. However, I was not honoring the eighth graders in their here-and-now; I was approaching this group just as I had when they were sixth graders and, in many ways, stunting their growth as individuals.
After a rather bumpy first quarter which included additional tirades in team meetings with incredibly patient peers, followed by humble restarts each week, I finally reevaluated my mindset toward these young adults. It took some time, but eventually I was able to shift my intentional attitude in order to support the eighth graders' needs, while also staying true to beliefs aligned with middle level philosophy.
Identifying a middle level philosophy is the easy part and often aligns with most teachers' ideology. It's the adoption of a mindset, which embodies said philosophy, that moves initiatives and vision forward. This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) is more than the title of a book or header for essential attributes and characteristics of young adolescents. It lays the foundation for philosophical discussions and mindset adoption by educators invested in the power of the middle level. Future steps therefore include conversations that pose the following questions: How should the philosophy be defined and attitudes of intention developed in order to make a difference at the middle level? Please share!
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., is an author and educational consultant. Check out her book,
Watching Students GLO : General Learner Outcomes Build Character, in the AMLE online store.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2017.
These elements of the middle school concept need attention and commitment
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.
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.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2017.
Four steps to build capacity for long-term innovation
Innovation has become a widely-used term in education with a variety of interpretations. Generally, innovation implies novelty and inventiveness that leads to improvement and thus, is considered a positive contribution to society. But in education we must be careful not to equate innovations with research-based practices, proven practices, or even best practices. This thinking is faulty and potentially dangerous. Instead, we must remember that innovations are something new, based on existing information or ideas, with the potential to be effective. Fortunately, we can increase our confidence in innovations by basing them on existing, high quality research. Therefore, large-scale education innovations should be developed purposefully and intentionally, using high-quality research as a guide, and eventually demonstrated as effective through careful data collection and analysis.
Classroom teachers innovate on a smaller scale regularly. They are driven to find efficient solutions to challenges everyday by improving lessons or their instructional delivery. While it is best to inform these instructional adaptations using existing research, these types of innovations do not necessarily require proof of effectiveness unless they are used on a regular basis with struggling or at-risk students.
But, larger district- or school-wide improvement efforts (for example, an initiative to improve attendance rates or an intervention for students struggling with math) must be (a) grounded in an existing, research-based approach, (b) adapted for use in the school’s context, and (c) carefully monitored to ensure the innovation is effective. Once demonstrated to be successful, it is then necessary to plan for sustained implementation over time so precious work and momentum is not lost.
Gardening is a perfect metaphor for innovation development. However, before we can harvest the fruits of our labor, we must build the capacity for innovation to grow. Just as gardens need sufficient rain, healthy soil, and strong roots to generate long lasting and recurring blooms, educational innovation will not succeed in the long term without systemic efforts and a solid grounding in research.
There are four steps educators can take to develop effective, long-term innovations; innovations that yield a perennial bloom versus those that quickly wither and die:
Enrich the Soil - Ground decisions in solid research.
Strong and responsible innovation lies at the intersection of creativity and research and can lead to improved student outcomes. Innovative educators should ground their work in the body of scientific evidence for effectiveness that already exists. This practice provides a strong foundation and increases confidence that the innovation will be effective. But, buyer beware—not all research and evidence are created equal.
Many products and programs claim to be research-based but are, in fact, not backed by rigorous studies. Educators must learn to be savvy consumers of research and ground innovations in only the highest quality research.
One highly recommended tool is the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). This free resource provides comprehensive research reviews of various programs and products in education. Educators can use the WWC online tools and filters to inform innovations and affirm important decisions.
Grounding creative solutions in solid research is also an ethical and fiduciary duty. As educators, we have a responsibility to a variety of stakeholders, including students, parents, and the community. Building our innovative solutions on solid evidence is a part of that responsibility. For example, matching research-based interventions with identified student needs is a responsible means of renewing and restoring their access to a successful education.
Plant Seeds and Nurture Growth - Achieve buy-in, implement faithfully, and ensure effectiveness.
When planting the seeds of innovation, it is important to establish buy-in from staff and stakeholders. Teachers will want to understand the basis for the innovation—its research-based roots—and why it is necessary. Teachers should have the opportunity to provide input on the development of the innovation (fitting it to the needs of students and context of the school) and regularly report on progress so problem solving can occur and “weeds” can be eliminated. Finally, responsibilities should be delegated to various grade levels, departments, or individuals so the seeds of innovation are cultivated as widely and deeply as possible.
Next, innovations and school improvement efforts must be supported by a school culture committed to using data to improve student outcomes. A critical piece of the innovation process is reflection and refinement, so a continuous examination of the data is vital. Sometimes even an experienced gardener ends up with a less than bumper crop, so it is important to ensure that the seeds we have planted are in fact taking root and blooming.
Innovation is part of the continuous cycle of improvement. It is an integral piece of finding solutions for all students to succeed. We need to dig deep into the data to identify those students with further needs and search again to find evidence of what may help them. Ask yourself:
- Have our innovations yielded the desired results?
- Have we accomplished our goals?
- What other areas still need to be addressed?
Stop and Smell the Roses - Celebrate your successes big and small.
When the flowers of innovation do bloom, it is equally important to enjoy them. This action further embeds the use of responsible, research-based innovation into the school culture. Celebrate all success, no matter how big or small. More times than not, change is gradual with subtle, but important, results. For example, slight modifications to the master schedule can have a major impact on the campus as a whole.
Recognize students, staff (including cafeteria, custodial, and maintenance staff), parents, and other stakeholders for their contributions to the school and its can do culture. Public recognition fuels pride in the school, builds connections, and serves as a motivator.
Strengthen the Root System - Plan for long-term implementation.
For effective innovation to have a lasting impact, we need to establish strong roots—that is, develop systems that promote sustainability of our most effective educational practices so they endure year after year. As Dr. Robert Balfanz pointed out during his keynote address at the AMLE2016 conference, much of the innovation in our schools is one person away from extinction—a beautiful, but simple flower without a developed root system. Many innovative practices that improve outcomes for students live and die with the tenure of one particular teacher or one particular principal. We need a way to codify these effective solutions and build them in system-wide. One free resource that does this is the Middle School Matters Field Guide. This document distills rigorous research conducted in the middle grades and organizes it into tangible principles, practices, and traits necessary for middle school success. Educators can select components relevant to their needs and work collaboratively to implement them within their school’s context.
Moreover, this stage presents a time to analyze progress on broader goals and plan for the next term, semester, or school year. For even when we have a vibrant garden in full bloom, there is always something new around the corner. It is at this time that the soil must be re-tilled, nutrients added, and weeds pulled to allow those flowers to bloom again.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
While innovation can improve outcomes and expand possibilities, it can be a double-edged sword. Too much change too quickly or unguided change can stunt growth. Repeated reforms and faddish programs that are constantly changing—seemingly for the sake of change itself—can bog down educators. This dynamic prevents educators from gaining traction and building momentum toward the sustained improvement they seek. However, innovation that is purposeful, grounded in solid research, contextualized to a school’s need, and eventually demonstrated effective is more likely to take root and produce long lasting solutions for our schools.
The garden of education affords many opportunities for innovation and renewal throughout the year. So, as you roll up your sleeves and start digging in the dirt, be sure to grab those research-sharpened tools. Happy gardening!
David C. Barrett, Ed.D., a former middle grades special education teacher and school counselor, is the assistant director of the Middle School Matters Institute: an initiative of the George W. Bush Institute in partnership with the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin.
Christy S. Murray, a former middle grades teacher, is the principal investigator and project director of the Middle School Matters Institute.
Veronica L. Miller, a former middle grades teacher, is a school support coach for the Middle School Matters Institute.
The ideas for this article were taken from the
Middle School Matters Field Guide available for free download at https://greatmiddleschools.org/.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2017.
There are striking parallels between the work of a middle school leader and a chef. Having done both jobs—though my role was more that of a cook—I can attest to these similarities with firsthand knowledge and confidence. Both positions work for and with stakeholders who can be difficult to please because they have different appetites, tastes, and expectations on any given day. Chefs and leaders also try to create innovative recipes to keep the menu fresh, even at the risk of upsetting their stakeholders and critics. It's clear: A chef in a restaurant and a leader in a middle school share comparable challenges.
In addition to their day-to-day trials and triumphs, chefs and successful middle school leaders also have characteristics in common. First, according to This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, effective middle grades leaders are "committed to and knowledgeable about this age group, educational research, and best practices" (p. 28). When meeting the needs of the young adolescents they serve, middle school leaders possess a passion for the work and determine a direction for achieving it. They are leaders and learners, pushing themselves and others to bring better strategies to the schoolhouse. Similarly, successful chefs are constant students and inventors, tweaking recipes and adding ingredients to bring better dishes to the table. Both chefs and middle school leaders realize that without innovation, progress and hunger shrivel on the vine.
Second, middle school leaders cannot be complacent and contented as they work for the students, teachers, staff, and families they serve. They must demonstrate "courage and collaboration" (p. 29). While leaders should be cautious with words, deeds, and decisions, careful shouldn't turn into fearful. Fear, while a natural emotion, can drive a leader backwards in their school improvement efforts. And while leaders should be able to make decisions independently, independence shouldn't turn into isolation. Successful middle school leaders collaborate with others to gain new insights and get valuable pushback on their own ideas.
All of this is also true with chefs. Culinary experimentation shouldn't be reckless and cause harm, but measured shouldn't turn into meekness. A chef must have the courage to carefully take bold steps forward to create new recipes and build new menus. And while a chef must be self-reliant, successful chefs recognize that other chefs and kitchen staff have perspectives, tastes, and sensibilities that they must tap into if meaningful change for a restaurant or menu is going to occur.
Finally, the lives of both chefs and middle school leaders are framed by "organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships" (p. 31). In the kitchen, much of the magic happens in the prep before the customers arrive. A structured kitchen fosters successful cooking and chefs.
For the successful school leader the conditions for success are the same. The middle school leader knows that the 16 characteristics are essential ingredients in the recipe for an outstanding school, but that leader also knows that the ingredients need consistent frameworks so they can be added, stirred in, and cultivated. That's why the master bell schedule is so important. Without a regular time for interdisciplinary teams to meet, an integrated curriculum is just another great idea in the cupboard. Without dedicated time for advisory, social-emotional learning is just an outstanding concept on the shelf. Like the kitchen, when a structure is absent in a school, the leader is scrambling (and it's not because they're making eggs).
Some questions to consider when thinking about courage, collaboration, and organization in your school:
- How do you and your school leaders demonstrate courage? What's the evidence?
- What does collaboration look like at your school? How does the leadership model foster that work?
- Does your master bell schedule need to be revised so the people, practices, and programs can cook and simmer more successfully?
- How do you align your chefs in the edu-kitchen so they can get what they need, measure what they want, and build relationships they must?
Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is principal at Heritage Middle School in Westerville, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2017.
We've all been there. It's an infamous juggle between what is right and what should be, or better yet what we know we should do for our students and what is supposed to match the status quo. It often takes years to see the results we hope to produce in the midst of measures that we struggle to assess. What we do as educators makes an impact; the principles we stand for in our school and classrooms matter to the students we lead daily.
It was a warm summer afternoon when the phone rang and the job was offered: assistant principal of Happy Valley Middle School. My mind had wandered for days after the interview, with thoughts rang-ing from skepticism to optimism. I entered the Ed.S. Program to get this job after all, but when and where the work would pay off was still up in the air. In a three-minute phone call I had received the news that the responsibility was mine and my role as an educator had changed.
Excitement and anxiety combined for a tumultuous feeling of the unknown. I was ready to make the move and couldn't feel more confident and prepared even though I had never stepped foot in the building. I was ready, and no one could convince me otherwise.
It didn't take long to figure out how much work there was to do. I buried myself in my new responsibilities and how I was going to make them my own. I filtered through every piece of the workload and wanted to make everything better than it had ever been before. I quickly made the job about me, and I wanted to send the message that I was serious and ready to make a difference. I knew everyone's first name, last name, role, room number, and their favorite gum flavor during the first staff meeting. Preparation was my mojo, and I was sure that if I had it all together I couldn't go wrong.
Just when things seemed to be falling into place, it all changed again.
In the same summer on a different afternoon another phone call came from the same familiar voice. There was no doubt this one had a different feeling about it. "We would like to offer you the job as principal of Happy Valley Middle School."
In a perfect world, I would have had three to five years of experience and an office with my family pic-tures gracing the walls. In reality, I was still in search of a desk and had just finished the first coat of fresh paint on my cinderblock surroundings. My role and responsibilities were changing again, and the first day of school was only a few days away. To be exact, it was Friday and school started on Monday.
I stood in the cafeteria at 5:30 on Monday morning while searching for the light switch and fumbling through a mob of keys to get into the main office. My wife had collected my best tie and jacket the night before so I could at least look the part. In less than two hours there would be 450 middle school students and 30 professional faculty members arriving at the building expecting to see someone else leading the school other than me.
Sitting at my second desk and second office for the summer gave me an unsettled feeling of the un-known, but the clock was ticking and sooner than later school would happen.
I'll never forget that day. I suddenly realized that even though I needed to be important, I didn't have to be. Even if I wanted to be, I couldn't. The longstanding principles of the teachers that were already there trumped the new principal, and without them it would have been a disaster. The blessings of a tremendous staff carried our school through a time when it arguably should have stumbled.
So here we are four years later, absorbing changes and improving old practices like everyone else. Our data rolls in and we make adjustments for each year based on what the data tells us. Student learning is our top priority, but there are plenty of roadblocks and juggling that goes along with it.
If I could have painted a picture of what my journey would have been it would be the farthest from my reality. The bottom line is that people matter, and the right team is a powerful thing. I was lucky to inherit a group of teachers that are in it for what matters most: student impact. Data will lead us, students will be our priority, and we will work for each other rather than against.
If you are a teacher reading this, realize your importance and how much of an impact you make not only on students in your classroom but on everyone around you. Principals are important people, but the business of learning happens under the watchful eye of teachers just like you. Just like at Happy Valley Middle School, our principles will for sure stand the test of time, even if the principal doesn't.
Jonathan Minton is principal of Happy Valley Middle School, Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Published May 2017.
Implementing Disney principles in middle schools.
From theme parks to movies, the Walt Disney Company is world-renowned for the high caliber of its customer experience. And, while many perceive how well they do what they do to be Disney "magic," it's not magic at all! Rather it is the result of two things: (1) Intentional, focused leadership, and (2) Systems architected to produce consistently positive experiences that take root in both your mind and heart. Having studied how Disney "does Disney," I'd like to highlight two distinct, yet related, insights relevant to architecting high-quality middle level education: The Importance of Values and Vision and The Art of Storytelling.
Values and Vision
At its core, Disney is more than a theme park, company, or brand. Rather, Disney is a promise. It promises the highest levels of entertainment, quality experience, and attention to detail. While many companies promise similar marks of excellence, the reason that Disney is so successful is that it fulfills this promise on a regular basis, day-in and day-out.
How does Disney consistently deliver such high level experiences? It does so by having a clearly defined set of values and visions that both guide and focus its decision-making.
Disney defines values as the central and unchanging reason for being; they are the North Star that allows one to chart every decision. Having values centers decision-making and allows for taking appropriately aligned risks. Because values are timeless, they must be vigorously protected from both external threat and insidious internal decay.
For example, in our school, we decided that "Our Core Values" (the reason our school exists) are to provide a safe, happy, and healthy learning environment. When we investigate a new idea, program, speaker, or assembly, we ask: "Does it make us a safer, happier, and healthier learning environment?" Using your values as a guide to explore innovation helps streamline operations and remain focused during the decision-making process.
Vision is how you operationalize your values in today's political, social, and financial realities. Vision requires forethought and conversation as well as planning and preparation to ensure that today's activities are aligned to and fully support your timeless values.
At the start of each academic year, we have the chance to reconvene, collaborate, and envision ways we might better align our practices with our values. During this process each spring, I meet with the building leadership team to discuss ways we might become a safer, happier, and healthier learning environment during the upcoming year.
For example, we have witnessed significant changes and challenges concerning the issue of safety over the past years. From cyberbullying to intruder threats, the timeless value of safety means something drastically new in today's reality. We discussed ways to keep students safe, and we considered a range of topics that included building access procedures and the curriculum. We needed to make changes to our vision of what it means to be safe in today's world to better align with our core value of safety.
The Art of Storytelling
From our youngest days, listening to stories is how we learned about the world, others, and ourselves. From fairy tales to nursery rhymes, stories are among our first teachers because good stories are great teachers. The reverse is true as well: great teachers are good storytellers because they have the ability to tell a story that captures a student's attention, heart, and imagination. Good stories told by great storytellers encourage you to wonder, consider multiple perspectives, and ask questions.
For Disney—and for us—great storytelling provides a valuable entity: engagement. If you can "hook" students, families, and a community with the story of your school, class, or lesson, they are captured by it and, in turn, want to become a part of telling and living that story.
The Walt Disney Company is in the business of storytelling, but how does it consistently tell great stories that become classics and engage millions of people? It accomplishes this by paying attention.
Disney has realized that every decision and every detail, no matter how small, tells a part of the story. They pay attention to every detail of every decision they make. They realize that people are continually watching, listening, and looking for cues about what is important, what is acceptable, and what is valued.
Think of the attention to detail, to cleanliness, and to customer service that is found in a Disney park. For the guests of Disney, cleanliness and customer service tell a story: you are valuable and important, and we are glad you are here!
What story are you telling? If a stranger were to walk into your classroom and look around, what would they learn about you and the students? How is the room arranged? What kinds of furniture are in the room? What is displayed on the walls? How is the seating arranged? Where do you situate yourself while teaching? By noticing these things, the stranger would likely be able to tell a lot about how you view yourself and your students. This is because each of these decisions tells a story.
If good education is good storytelling, then it is important that we look at the story we tell each and every day. Does the story you are telling align with your values and vision?
Disney has learned that telling a powerful story is the key to building engagement. By using clearly defined values and a relevant vision as the engine to drive your story, your words and actions remain aligned to your goals.
By focusing on the two core ideals of values and vision, your school can become a truly magical place as well!
Mark Mambretti is the principal at East Aurora Middle School in East Aurora, New York.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.
As a central office administrator, I valued time in schools talking informally with students. One year I went to a school every Tuesday to assist with student supervision while teachers met in professional groups. This was a wonderful time for me because I could sit with students and have informal conversations. Several groups of students got to know me well as I would consistently go over and speak to their groups.
During one particular morning I asked my typical questions such as, "How does it feel to be in your second year at the middle school?" and "What would make your eighth grade better?" or "Do you feel like you have enough supports to achieve?" One student stepped forward and boldly said, "Dr. W, if you really want to know what it's like to be a student you would have to be in my shoes for a day. Until then you really won't understand."
I left that conversation that day but the student's challenge stuck with me. As I began to reflect on the suggestion posed to me, I began to think that getting to know the experience of my students by being in their "shoes for a day" would be an interesting learning experience. What could I learn about the students' perspectives by experiencing school from their vantage points? Would I be able to decipher student voice about ways to improve schools by understanding school from their view? As my mind continued to wonder, I decided to act on the student's suggestion by shadowing a student for an entire school day.
As I began to share my idea with colleagues and mentors, I realized that our schools are experienced differently by our diverse student population. That expanded my idea to shadowing multiple students with diverse backgrounds for a day. Over the course of five weeks I scheduled one full day per week dedicated to shadowing a student for an entire day.
I wanted to follow students with these profiles: an average performing student, a gifted or high ability student, an English as a new language student, a student who struggles with appropriate behavior, and a student enrolled in the career center program. I asked the building principal to select students who fit these profiles and obtained parent permission to shadow the student. I wanted to experience the entire day with the student, including riding the bus, if that was the student's mode of transportation.
Once parent permission was obtained, I sent a letter to each teacher on the student's schedule. I wanted to inform them that I would be in their classrooms on the designated date and that I was assuming the role of a student. Teachers were given guidance to treat me like a student and that I was to fully participate in the class.
In addition, I would not intervene or provide instructional supports to students as I typically would during classroom visits. Teachers shared that they were excited about my experiment and they found it fascinating that I was so interested in students that I would actually take time out of my busy schedule to do this.
In my efforts to fit in as a student, I wore jeans and a school spirit t-shirt during my shadow days. I also wore a name tag that stated I was a student for the day and—for the first time in decades—I carried a backpack. I followed all student rules, which included turning off my cell phone and leaving it in my backpack. Observing this rule was a tough challenge!
The Hard Way Lessons: High Behavior Referral Student
One student I shadowed had many office referrals for inappropriate behavior on the bus. When I first met Jay (a pseudonym), his body language communicated that he was not thrilled about me shadowing him. After several uncomfortable minutes of me trying to connect, he turned to me and said, "Are you just going to report all this to my counselor?" I was stunned by his question, yet responded by saying that I did not even know his counselor and that I wanted to learn from him and his daily school experiences.
During his first period class, he soon began to act in opposition of teacher expectations. The teacher became frustrated, and we were sent to the office after Jay uttered an inappropriate verbal response. In the hallway, I asked him, "What do we do now?" He began to make faces at students in other classrooms as we walked toward the office.
It took us nearly 20 minutes to get to the office after playing in the hallway. No administrator was available when we arrived so I took the opportunity to try to engage him in conversation. Jay did not share much information, yet did make several remarks about how adults just don't care about him.
As the day progressed, I continued to ask him questions but changed my approach. Instead of asking him "why" questions I used "what" questions. These types of questions encouraged him to talk more. By lunch time he was helping me navigate through the lunch line and advised me where to sit.
His friends teased him by saying, "I bet you are on perfect behavior today with her." He replied, "Her has a name and it is Dr. W and she ain't here to make sure I'm good. She actually wants to see what school is like here from a student and I was the one chosen to show her." I sat down and quietly smiled inside as this was the first sign that he didn't despise this process.
We continued throughout the day and he began to make comments to me such as "I'm expected to be bad." He also began to ask me questions about what I do as an administrator and where I went to middle school.
Toward the end of the day, he leaned over to me in class and said, "Dr. W, can I tell you a secret?" My administrator hat immediately went on and I shared the standard line with him that I would have to share if he told me that he is going to hurt himself or someone else. He said, "No, Dr. W, ain't nothin like that. Nobody has ever asked me what I want to do, but I want to be a paleontologist." The teacher reprimanded his behavior because he was talking in class. We didn't get another chance to talk until the period was over and we were in the hallway.
When I asked him about his goal, he shared the job descriptions of paleontologists as well as the school requirements needed. I was amazed by his knowledge of the profession. We did make a connection that day because he was joking with me by the time we got to the bus to head home.
I followed up with Jay because he captured my heart and left me intrigued. We talked about his career goal and if his current path was going to get him there. After conversations and involving his guardian, we set up a plan for the entire grading period.
He set goals to improve his grades and reduce the number of times he was referred to the office for inappropriate behavior. We also talked about a reward for when he achieved his goals. He thought for several minutes, turned to look me in the eyes, and said, "If I meet these goals I want to meet a paleontologist. Make that happen Dr. W."
I had no idea how I was going to find a paleontologist in the city, but I knew I had to find one because the look in his eyes told me he was going to meet his goals. Jay worked hard during the grading period and met his goals, and I found a resident paleontologist. During fall break, Jay and I visited the paleontologist. It was a day he will always remember. At the end of the day, the paleontologist said to me, "I am not sure what the story is with this kid, but he is very bright."
This experience prompted me to shadow many students to continue my development as a leader and learner. The following are excerpt summaries of my learning from each experience.
Middle of the Road: Average Academic Student
- Average can mean you disappear academically, you are not the highest performing student and not the lowest needing extra support.
- Being an average student doesn't mean your social situation at school is also average.
- High performers get accolades and low performers get remediation supports.
- Average performing students still need to be pushed academically to stretch themselves.
High Flyer Lessons: High Academic Ability Student
- Expectation pressures to "be the best" can have harmful effects.
- High academic ability students may not have opportunities to express or enact ideas.
- While high academic ability students excel in some areas, there are also areas in which they need to develop.
- It is important to recognize students' dispositions and character, not just their academic abilities.
Alternative Pathway Lessons: Career Center Student
- They have found an interest and a passion in their career choice.
- Lessons incorporating hands-on learning in the career center need to be included in all classes because they encourage high levels of student engagement.
- Earning a certificate of completion and college credit serves as a source of motivation for successful course completion.
- Provide students with college information connected to their career paths.
Cultural Exchange Lessons: Level 1 ENL Student
- Shadowing a refugee student from Burma, who spoke little to no English, was a memorable experience. Indeed, I learned much from her during our time together.
- Social time with other students who speak their native language is very important.
- Place students who do not speak English in groups with peers who do speak English.
- Find ways to showcase and represent all of the students' cultures in the school buildings and classrooms.
- Food, similar to language, is a cultural difference.
- English language learners may not always understand what is being said, yet they are able to translate dispositions and attitudes of peers and staff members.
Nikki Woodson, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.
Many people have a misconception that administrators are the only definitive leaders in a school, and while they do hold degrees in leadership, they do not hold sole possession of the trait itself. Rather, in effective middle level schools, everyone is a leader. This is also true for successful restaurants. While there is either a licensed chef or head cook in the kitchen, an effective restaurant has sustained growth when the sous chefs, line cooks, dishwashers, servers, hostesses, and patrons are part of the process of advancement and change.
Similarly, when properly supported and encouraged, every teacher, student, parent or guardian, and stakeholder has the capacity to sharpen their leadership skills and acumen in order to contribute to the creation of a great school.
Relying on the perspectives of a few may make it easier and quicker to create solutions and take action, yet more thoughtful decisions and actions are likely to result when we involve all members of the school community.
How does your middle level school define leadership? How does it identify and support future leaders? How does it ensure that leaders are a reflection of the school's learning community?
In the critical middle grades, effective leadership is a dynamic endeavor built and experienced by a collaborative of people. That is why—according to This We Believe—an amazing middle level school is propelled by "a shared vision developed by all stakeholders [that] guides every decision" (p. 27).
For this particular characteristic, the culinary connection is grounded in food science. Laughlin and Miodownik (2012), scientists at University College London, found that food tastes different depending on the kind of utensil one uses. They revealed that eating with spoons made of different metals (e.g., silver, tin, copper, zinc) affects how people experience and taste food.
They contend this happens because every metal has an "electrode potential" that reacts uniquely in the mouth. This discovery amounts to some pretty tasty research, but how does it relate to our work in the critical middle level?
As a middle school teacher and administrator, I have worked in schools that had vision statements mounted on plaques in the main office and laminated on posters in the hallways. However, these documents were typically crafted by selected leaders for the school to give direction to students and stakeholders instead of being developed "by all."
There is a tremendous difference between a vision statement written for all and a vision statement developed by all. Just as Laughlin and Miodownik's finding that a utensil's metal affects the taste of food, a school's vision that is developed by all takes into consideration the ideas and educational palates of every stakeholder. Otherwise, we run the risk of merely posting laminated signs containing the ideals created by a few, which may leave an empty or bad taste in the mouths of many stakeholders. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table and a voice in the process of vision development.
Here are some questions to consider when developing, revising, or revisiting your school vision statement:
- Why are you revisiting your school's vision statement? What are the goals?
- How and when are you involving all stakeholders in the vision process?
- How will the vision process you use give equal access, voice, and weight to all stakeholders?
- How will the revised vision statement be celebrated in the entire learning community?
- Are there other school programs and initiatives that need their own vision statements?
Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is director of middle level services for AMLE.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.