Michael Gordon ran a middle school for 40 years. That's right, four DECADES. As principal, he got tough kids to soften and overprotective parents to loosen their grip. Under his watch, troublemakers fell into line and struggling teachers upped their game.
As I collect information for my book on parenting middle schoolers, I've been talking to dozens of experts. Gordon has a reputation as a legendary principal, so I called him from a local Starbucks armed with questions. I quickly set them aside and just listened. If middle school is a metaphor for life, then this man has accrued some serious wisdom. Here are 10 of his tips for running a school, parenting, managing uncertainty, and finding purpose.
Protect kids physically and emotionally.
On 9/11, Gordon had to make a snap decision. His students were in class when the planes hit. He decided to lock down the school, and he told his staff he didn't want anyone using their phones or listening to TV or radio. They were in Roslyn, not far from Manhattan, and many kids had parents who worked in the Twin Towers. "Parents called to tell me they were coming to pick up their kid, and I said, 'no, we're under lockdown and I'm protecting your child.'" Some of them were insistent. He told them that if they came, he'd have to call the police. He knew that as soon as some showed up, there'd be a ripple effect. The other kids would realize something was wrong and start to worry.
"The next day, a group of sixth and seventh graders said, "you lied to us," Gordon recalls. "I said 'I didn't lie to you, I wanted you to know your parents were alive and okay when you heard the news.'" One of the boys said, "he's right." He turned around and walked away, leaving the first kid standing there alone.
Enforce unpopular rules.
The most important thing in a middle school is that kids experience natural consequences, Gordon says. "Kids love consistency. Many parents will threaten their kid that they won't be able to go to a ball game or a party, but then they relent. I had a rule that kids couldn't have cell phones in school. Parents were texting during English to see if their kid wanted pizza for dinner," he says. The first time the child pulled out his phone, the teacher took it. The second time, the phone was given to Gordon, and parents had to come in to pick it up. If a student broke the rule a third time, the child's parents couldn't have the phone either.
I asked Gordon for clarification. "Wait, you kept the phone FOREVER?" I asked. Yes, that's exactly what he did. "That only happened three times, and then I never got a cell phone again," he notes. He adds that parents appreciated the fact that there was evenness in the school. His no-nonsense predictability left no room for craziness.
Be straightforward with underperformers, but don't be hurtful.
Gordon was straightforward with underperforming or malicious teachers. "You should be able to tell people they're not cutting it." Occasionally, teachers would lie to him. He'd always call them out. "They'd get indignant and say, 'are you calling me a liar?' I'd lean forward and say 'absolutely.' But I believe you tell people the truth nicely, not in a way that hurts," he says.
Gordon believes that leaders need to appreciate that people's lives are complicated and there's no need to be disrespectful. "Issues come up with staff members," he says. "They may be impacted by illness, death, or divorce. We're not always at our peak. Teachers may go through a time when they have two kids in college and they're nervous about money, and their behavior changes. I'd deal with them straightforwardly and with humanity and I'd get that back," he adds. "It can be like throwing cold water on them—they'd say, 'I didn't realize I was floating down the river.'"
Teachers also knew they'd have to answer to Gordon if they got mean. "They had to back away, apologize and fix it. If people say things that are hurtful and nasty, you have to call them on it and say it's unacceptable."
Go back to kindergarten.
Even as a principal, Gordon regularly returned to a feeder elementary school to teach kindergarten. He thinks it's critical that educators remember where their students started. "After a while, you begin to focus on the age level you work with, and you really have to understand where they are now compared to where they began," he says. He once observed a kindergarten teacher who said to the children, 'we're going to the buses now, so pack up your lunch boxes, put on your coat and go to the door.' When the 5-year-olds tried to put the coat on over their lunch boxes, they got confused and upset, Gordon recalls. "I said to her, 'look, it's all about sequence. Coats first, then get the lunch boxes.' When you get to middle school, it's more complex but it's also the same."
To that end, he's in favor of order and systems at school and calm studying environments at home. "Whether your kid is 10 or 14, if your house is chaotic, that's how they come to school. Organization is the only way they tie themselves to reality—otherwise they spin out of control and worry about what's coming next. And when I worry, I may do things to clown around because I'm not focused, like pull the girl's hair next to me."
Model what you expect.
The principal always should display the values of the school, Gordon says. He dealt with every student in a caring, respectful, responsive, and sensitive way, and he expected teachers and front office staff to do the same. "If you behave that way, they will too. You get back what you give," he says. "Everything is done by modeling. They're always watching and listening, and they'll do what you do, not what you say. If you win a child's heart, their head will follow." As he notes, you don't teach English, you teach children English. "You're always dealing with the kid first, and the tools you use are math," he explains.
Don't be intimidated by anyone.
Gordon didn't let parents rescue kids. If they brought in their child's lunches or homework, he turned them away. "They weren't strengthening them, they were weakening them," he explains. "I'd say, you have to understand that when you do that, it's about your need, not theirs."
When parents were anxious about their kids' social status, some got scared and pushy. "They may have wanted their child to be the most popular, but there can only be one most popular, and those kids are always striving. You just want your child to move toward the right friends as they change and mature," he says. And while you're helping them shift friend groups, he notes, teach them that talking in person softens a message. "When they text each other, if they're not skillful it can be like sticks in the eyes."
Parents who had a great deal of authority in their work lives would occasionally grow frustrated when Gordon said "no." "They'd say, 'I'm going to take it above you.' I'd say 'let me give you the telephone number.' You can't be afraid, can't be intimidated. I'd say, 'I'm sorry you feel that way."
If you want kids to make good decisions, they need to learn good values. Gordon tells parents to imprint their value system on the baby seal. "From the time they cry in the crib until they leave home, imprint all the values that have to do with caring, responsibility, and responsiveness," he recommends.
Next, deal with their peer group, which can either support or go against that baby seal imprint. If kids do nothing else, he says, they should stop and think for 10 seconds before acting or posting. Adults can remind them to pause and ask themselves, "is this something I would be comfortable sharing with my grandmother or my school principal?
Teach critical thinking.
At dinner with his own daughter, Gordon encouraged critical thinking. "I used to take a piece of paper, fold it in half and label the two sides positive and negative." He'd then say, 'okay, this girl has been bothering you at school, what can you do?' "She might say, 'I'd like to punch her in the mouth.'" He'd calmly follow up with questions. "Okay, what positives and negatives would come from that? That's inductive and deductive reasoning," he notes.
Understand that change is hard.
Gordon was always sensitive to the rising sixth graders who were making a major transition. "If I'm in elementary school and I've been skipping down the hall holding hands with my friend, and now I'm going to a building that's new to me, I'm going to be scared and excited," he says. He tried to set the stage for a smooth transition long before they arrived. "When elementary kids came for their older siblings' middle school shows, I'd keep everything in the building bright and open, not just the auditorium. I wanted the little kids who were not here yet to get comfortable," he says.
He adds that change is hard for adults too. "There's a season for everything. First a tricycle is acceptable, and then a bicycle, and then you suddenly need a minivan. And then one day they take the keys from you because you're bumping into everything."
Give troublemakers a sense of purpose.
Gordon had a group of twelve students who frequently got into trouble. "They were bright but always into something," he recalls. He created a technology squad and gave these kids responsibility for managing the expensive computerized lighting systems and sound systems in the auditorium. "They put on shows and did incredible things, and we bought them black outfits with Tech Squad written on them," he says. All of the kids learned technology skills.
At Gordon's last graduation at the middle school, the adult who was supposed to run the equipment called in sick. "This sixth grader, a tiny 11-year-old, stepped forward and said, 'don't worry Mr. Gordon, we've got your back.' Not a single thing was off, and it was the best graduation we ever had. His mother came in in tears and said, 'this kid who used to hate school now eats, sleeps, and dreams school.' If you want to give kids self-esteem, give them responsibility," he notes. Those kids were never reported to him for anything again.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. She is the author of
Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019).
Published February 2018.
Insights from and for principals
Exemplary middle schools focus on health and wellness. While this focus may be primarily on our students' wellness, we also need to focus on the wellness of our faculty and administrators.
It is a fact that, as teachers, we are under a lot of stress. I believe that morale is related to stress, and that the more stress in our lives, the lower our morale in the classroom. The lower our morale the less effective we are as teachers.
In an effort to learn how to deal with stress, I surveyed principals and asked how they deal with stress. In a survey of 47 middle school principals in North Carolina, I found "stress busters" that could help all of us. As a teacher I think that principals and teachers who manage their stress are more positive in their schools and enjoy their work more.
About half of the principals shared that balancing stress is a real challenge for them, so I don't want to give the impression that reducing stress is an easy fix. I do believe, however, that if we begin to look at balancing our lives and are intentional about reducing our stress, we will be better educators.
It is no secret that if we are not intentional about monitoring our stress, it will get away from us. No principal in this study shared that stress did not exist. Of the recommendations from principals the following categories emerged: exercise and other physical outlets, socialization, spiritual, humor, logistics, and learning to balance your professional and personal life. Let's think about them.
Exercise and Physical Outlets
The majority (36%) of the suggestions related to exercise, eating, and participating in physical hobbies. Most talked about individual exercise (zumba, gym, biking) and taking care of their physical needs by eating right. One said, "I play with my kids and dog at home and go to the gym."
The challenge for many principals is finding the time to do this. I hear this all the time, "I don't have time to exercise." I would argue that we don't take time to exercise.
I was at the gas station recently and read a sticker that said, "Do 10 toe touches." Ha, there I was stretching at the pump. One principal shared they get out and walk between school dismissal and the next athletic event. When I lived in South Carolina, one of my teammates started walking around the track after school for about 20 minutes. I joined her. It was a great way to "unwind" before continuing my responsibilities.
Many years ago, I heard a principal share that he walked a mile with his students every morning. I can think of a lot of students and teachers (including me) who could use a little exercise to start their day. I was teaching in Florida and a group of teachers worked out twice a week after school. In another school, the principal and several teachers walked the halls for 10 minutes after the last bell.
One of my colleagues shared that she and a friend started working out at the gym together. She said, "Working out with someone serves as a source of motivation to get to the gym," and that once she finishes she feels better. I find walking even 20 minutes is a good tool for reducing stress.
A second topic was about socializing. Andreyko (2010) surveyed principals to determine what caused or prevented burnout. In her study comments were made about the importance of socializing with family and friends. "Venting to my husband," "Take time to be with my family," and "Friends and family" all appear to help principals reduce stress. Our family and friends are usually the people who have helped us get through storms and who have celebrated successes. It is possible that these people are still our most trusted advocates.
During the first few weeks of school, I would come home on Fridays and want to collapse, never to be seen or heard from until Saturday morning. I was talking to a colleague in Texas who shared, "You have to go out on Friday." I have taken her advice, and while I only hiked about a mile with my dog and husband, I did feel better. Perhaps getting on a chat feature with a colleague who lives in another state could help. Making a play date with your colleague who has children so the two of you can have adult talk time. The dog park is also a great place to socialize. Community events often provide activities for children and adults, and local museums are places where friends can meet. Even if you take one Friday a month to do something with colleagues you can reduce your stress.
The third topic that was shared relates to spiritual balance. Kumar & Pragadeeswaran (2011) created a "spiritual quotient" that examined leaders with low, medium, and high levels of spirituality and compared this to their stress levels. They found leaders with high levels of spirituality had lower levels of stress. In this study, 16% of the principals shared they participated in yoga, prayer, quiet time, and "keeping the end in mind." One principal shared, "Several times a week I just sit on the front steps of the school by myself for five minutes and think about what we are doing right."
The notion of quiet time suggests that in our busiest hours, if we take time to stop, our mind has a chance to stop as well. There is a middle school "mindfulness" program that provides activities for students to practice the art of mindfulness. We know that the art of mindfulness can help us physically and intellectually. Taking time to reflect as a mindfulness activity, reflecting as part of journaling, or letter writing could provide us with insight into the good work we are doing and our vision of what can happen.
A fourth topic relates to how principals view their world. Fields (2011) studied teachers' views of principals to determine the impact of those with humor. What he found was teachers whose principals used humor viewed their leadership more positively, viewed their job satisfaction higher, and had higher levels of personal relationships than did teachers whose principals did not use humor. In this study, 11% of the comments related specifically to having a sense of humor, having a positive attitude, being able "to laugh at yourself," and enjoying the experience.
These are reminders that even when stress comes from many different angles, it is possible to relieve stress with humor and a positive attitude. Perhaps we find humor in books we read, movies we see, and with friends who make us laugh.
A fifth set of suggestions had to do with logistics (11%) and specifically leaving work at work. Grissom, Loeb, and Mitani (2015) conducted a survey of principals in a large school district and found how principals manage their time impacts school outcome and productivity. They described time management strategies that were effective including goal-setting, prioritization, and organization" (p. 775). Additionally, their research supports the notion that time management can reduce stress and reduce the tensions associated with work and family.
Time management has also been shown to decrease stress and increase job performance. I make lists every morning to manage my time and prioritize. I will stay at work as long as I need to, so that when I leave I do not "take it with me." When I go home I leave work-related situations at work. I do of course have to answer emails, but I leave the daily stressors at school. These principals who suggested this have figured out how to prioritize, code their day, and then leave it for tomorrow.
Finally, 16% of the comments were warnings about the difficulty of balancing the stress of being a principal. Some of the principals in this study suggest they have trouble balancing their work and personal lives. One shared, "When I learn this I'll let you know." Another revealed, "I don't. It is an area that I struggle to find balance. I sometimes sleep at my school and sleep five hours or less a night and often work seven days per week and holidays." And another, "I get up and go into work on weekends, or stay even later to get the job done at an A-level. That makes me feel good." "Any principal not working 60+ hour weeks is leaving things undone, but they're probably getting away with it." And, "I have learned over the first two years how to manage it a little more each day. As long as I can go to bed each night saying I did the right things that day in all situations for the right reasons then I can rest easily."
Reilly-Chammat (2008) surveyed principals in Rhode Island to determine "self-efficacy to lead school improvement and health behavior practices" (p. vii). In her study, she too found administrators "struggle to balance school improvement efforts and health practices" (p. 82). "The research clearly illustrated the necessity and value of achieving a balance in work and personal life as evidenced by this principal's quote: 'Frame of mind and physical health weigh in strongly—being in an overwhelming job that will never be complete requires a sound mind and body'" (p. 99).
Several of the principals find their balance inside the school "working with teachers, students, and staff." Another shared, "I engage with the kids constantly from teaching a daily class to being present in the building. The kids ground me in my work and bring me joy."
How do you manage your stress? If we know that our principals are under stress, does that give us more pause to empathize with their world? Does it encourage principals to reach out to one another to find ways to reduce their stress?
I believe principals realize how stressful teaching is. We need to work together to name stress, stressors, and tools for managing stress. If we look back at 30 years of research, we hear the same thing: "The most popular coping techniques used by school administrators are stress management techniques, e.g., keeping a realistic perspective, maintaining a positive attitude, following a good physical health programme, and engaging in activities that support intellectual, social, and spiritual growth" (Allison, 1987, p. 52). We have to take care of ourselves so we can take care of those we advocate for.
Andreyko, T. A. (2010). Principal leadership in the accountability era: Influence of expanding job responsibilities on functional work performance, stress management, and overall job satisfaction (Order No. 3447305). Available from ProQuest Central. (858078818). Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org
Fields, J. P. (2011). Perceptions of teachers: Effects of principals' uses of humor on teacher job satisfaction (Order No. 3462044). Available from ProQuest Central. (875797625). Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/docview/
Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Mitani, H. (2015). Principal time management skills. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(6), 773-793. Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/
Kumar, T., & Pragadeeswaran, S. (2011). Effects of occupational stress on spiritual quotient among executives. International Journal of Trade, Economics and Finance, 2(4), 288. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7763/IJTEF.2011.V2.119
Nancy Ruppert, Ed.D. is a professor at the University of North Carolina - Asheville, and president of the Board of Trustees of the Association for Middle Level Education.
Published February 2018.
Advocating for this important role in education
Myths come in all shapes and sizes, from UFOs in Roswell and Elvis in Vegas, to whether a tomato belongs in the fruit or vegetable section of a market. Yet, most unexplained phenomena are straightforward; you either agree or you don't. Why then when educators are asked to explain the role or purpose of teacher leaders is there such hesitancy, resistance, even confusion? Why does a school need teacher leaders? Doesn't the principal just tell everyone what to do?
Teacher leaders are often tasked with school-level responsibilities such as mentoring new hires, rolling out adopted curriculum, attending meeting after meeting after meeting, and stepping in as pseudo-administrators in a pinch. Additionally, the title may be used synonymously with curriculum coach, team leader, department head, grade level chair, role model, teacher-in-charge, or "Carrie-Catch-All." However, throughout the menagerie of descriptors and job titles the underlying assumption is that teacher leaders possess a multitude of talents and skills and will rise to a calling to best serve the school.
Whether a teacher has an extensive list of accomplishments and is eager to share with the next generation of educators, or a new staff member readily embraces opportunities to enhance a learning environment, teacher leaders provide foundational structures and supports at the school, district, and state levels. However, blurred lines still exist when perceptions of what a teacher leader is or what a teacher leader is not comes into play. Below are myths often associated with teacher leadership and clarifying points advocating for this pivotal role in education.
Myth 1: Teachers need permission to be leaders.
Educators are inquisitive and perpetual learners with a curiosity that drives the desire to seek out resources, best practices, and growth opportunities to share with others. It's second nature to learn together, which is why effective teachers will often transition seamlessly to effective leaders, modeling lifelong learning when given the chance. So how does it begin? Where does a teacher interested in pursuing leadership opportunities go for support and experience if not readily identified or aligned with traditional leadership routes? It's as simple as finding one's own homegrown interest.
Kellee Kelly (@khapa79) of Kea'au, Hawaii found her spark when she realized she could be a catalyst for change without a traditional title. Through the local teacher's union, she applied for a newly developed Teacher Leader Initiative program, which enables educators to spread their wings and take risks through a variety of avenues. According to Kelly, "You don't need permission. Apply for a grant, join one of the teacher leader groups represented, give testimony. Do what you feel is right for students!" Kelly took initiative without bucking a system or disrupting any line of authority. She simply stepped into roles that allowed her to grow as a professional and model for others what teacher leadership can look like.
Myth 2: Young, new teachers are not capable of leading.
Hierarchal structures often require a specified number of years served or dues paid before one is elevated to leadership status. Why is that? Does quantity really trump quality when it comes to effective practices? How can innovative and enthusiastic novices break down barriers or stigmas associated with being new? And, can young leaders be valued and respected in the same way as their veteran counterparts? Abrams and von Frank (2014) posed the question, "What do we do for [Millennials] since they are so much younger than those they will be leading?" to bridge the conversation gap between generations. And, how do we break down barriers or update beliefs hinged on outdated practices?
The mindset associated with experiential levels needs to change in order to reap the benefits from teacher leaders willing to step forward. Anya Nazaryan (@anya_nazaryan), a Teach for America (TFA) graduate and middle level teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate, found her voice and purpose while serving in a school on the Big Island of Hawaii. Encouraged by a supportive administrator, Nazaryan began dipping her toe into leadership waters by sharing success stories with peers and inviting others to join projects and events focused on student success. Additionally, by taking the initiative to revive AVID programming at her current school, she demonstrated commitment, determination, and investment for stakeholders involved. This bold step helped Nazaryan build credibility with her often older and more seasoned colleagues.
Myth 3: Teachers have to be ready to jump into a leadership position.
How are readiness levels for leaders determined? Does one need to include a laundry list of exemplars on a resume to be ready? Do higher-ups preview aptitude of leader wannabes through a crystal ball? Can an individual be ready to learn but not ready to lead, and how would we know? And, when do teachers determine if they are ready to take the leap into leadership?
Tracey Idica (@TraceyIdica) secondary teacher in Aiea, Hawaii, had never perceived the notion of teacher leadership when she looked into the National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) program. However, interested in expanding her craft while following the journey of colleagues pursuing the endorsement, Idica set her sights on growing as a learner, without realizing she was also flourishing as a peer leader. Once she obtained her own NBCT status, she was motivated to help others pursue the same opportunity within her school, district, and state. Idica's philosophy stems from key National Board Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.) propositions to guide her work: "Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience" and "Teachers are members of learning communities." Educators participating in the NBCT program fine-tune and hone their expertise while building capacity as teacher leaders in order to pay it forward to their ready-or-not colleagues.
Myth 4: Teachers need positional authority to impact change.
Position or status does not necessarily determine one's ability to impact change. Inspired by the work of Frederick Hess who encourages "cage-busting" teacher leaders to rethink the "there's-nothing-we-can-do" mindset, Hope Street Fellows begin with "'What do we want to do?' and then make it happen" (Hess, 2015). Kelly Miyamura (@HSG808), Honolulu, Hawaii and Michael Kline (@mkline999), Kilauea, Hawaii work within a community of teacher leaders who share effective actions employed by Hope Street Fellows in Hawaii. Initiatives include facilitating focus groups to collect data that inform decision making about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); administering a statewide survey to promote career readiness programming for K-12 classrooms; developing shared partnerships between teachers, administrators, and school-level stakeholders on all the islands; and leading opportunities to amplify teacher voice to inform education policy.
Teacher leadership is an exciting and expanding asset to the field of education. Opportunities for personal and professional growth have evolved from individual professional development courses to action research projects and community-based learning experiences. The question is no longer if teacher leadership should be an option for schools and districts, but how stakeholders will capitalize on the evolving roles of teacher leaders to promote student success. According to Jack Welch, "Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself; When you become a leader, success is about growing others." The mindset of teacher leaders models the same philosophy as lifelong learners invite peers to join in the process of growing, while impacting change within the profession.
Myths about any profession can hinder the growth and advancement of its members when perceptions are deeply ingrained. However, the landscape of education continues to evolve, and educators are recognized more for their innovation and contributions to the field today than for the apples on their desks of yesteryear. The Loch Ness monster may continue to elude onlookers, but one does not have to look far to see the impact teacher leaders are making in our schools now!
Abrams, J., & von Frank, V.A. (2014). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate & create community. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Cameli, S. (2016) What is a teacher leader? Retrieved from http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-is-teacher-leader.html
Hess, F.M. (2015). The cage busting feacher (pp. 14, 19). Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.). The five core propositions. Retrieved from http://boardcertifiedteachers.org/about-certification/five-core-propositions.
Welch, J. (n.d.) Jack Welch quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3770.Jack_Welch.
Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., an educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education, currently facilitates Na Kumu Alaka'i - Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) and publishes its blog: http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/. The TLA program is a member of the Hawaii Teacher Leader Network (HTLN): http://teacherleaders.wixsite.com/hawaii, which works to provide a variety of opportunities and supports for teacher leaders
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.
10 ways schools can improve workplace satisfaction
Maggie, a seventh grade English teacher, was intrigued by one of the items listed in her school auction catalogue. A family had donated a week at their vacation home in Arizona, and she raised her hand to make a bid. The principal was the auctioneer, and he addressed her in front of the crowd. "Maggie, how on earth can you afford that?" he asked. "You're a teacher!"
"It was total public humiliation," Maggie recalls. "I wanted to say, 'if you think that, then maybe you don't pay me enough.'" The principal's attitude was off-putting to her colleagues too, which was ironic considering the event was supposed to build community.
Workplace satisfaction is complex, especially at schools. Pay often is determined by pre-set scales rather than performance, and there are few opportunities for promotion. Leaders are challenged to find other ways to keep staff happy, often with few resources and limited time.
The Head of Sheridan School, Jessica Donovan, says she spends considerable time thinking about school climate issues. She spent her first month on the job interviewing every staff member. "It was very clear to me that there had been satisfaction issues in the past, and that the staff was nervous about the changes in leadership," she says.
Donovan believes strongly that schools should regularly assess staff satisfaction. She notes that school leaders can use many of the same metrics that publications such as Fortune Magazine rely on to determine whether companies should be on "best places to work" lists. These include work-life balance, autonomy, collegiality, opportunities for growth, and compensation. Relying on these variables can be tricky for schools, Donovan points out, because the education setting differs from the business world. "There's something incredibly fulfilling about working with children that's different than working in a company," she explains. "For people who love it, we really love it. There's something satisfying about helping kids become good people, and I don't know how you measure that."
Schools can take a deliberate approach to improving staff satisfaction and morale. Here are ten strategies that Sheridan has adopted:
- Give everyone a voice. Administer surveys and hold focus groups to come up with a cohesive vision that incorporates everyone's ideas. At Sheridan, any teacher can join the hiring team. Even if teachers aren't the decision-makers, they should feel that their voice matters. For this to work, they need to feel that honesty won't backfire. As eighth grade teacher Eileen Hughes explains, "We say this about kids too; in order to learn and grow, you need to feel like you're in a safe and supportive environment." Leaders need to actively solicit and welcome both positive and negative feedback.
- Make sure staff members feel "seen." If you get it right at the individual level, the climate will follow. Administrators need to ensure that teachers feel they care. They need to show interest in their projects and passions. Principals should never underestimate the importance of their presence (or the significance of their absence). In a non-evaluative way, they can stop by classrooms. "When I was a teacher," Donovan recalls, "I was nervous that my principal might not know that I'm a good teacher. He didn't visit me in the classroom while I was teaching, so how would he know? So I just pop into classrooms frequently." Administrators also can maintain an open door policy so teachers can stop by with questions or concerns. Staff can further this cause too. At Sheridan, one of our eighth-grade teachers leads a "Critical Friends" group, a program that enables teachers to observe and learn from each other.
- Don't ignore the small stuff. Whether administrators serve ice cream sundaes on a grading day, deliver a nice note after observing a lesson or bring in nurses to administer flu shots on site, small gestures hold meaning. I now refer to 2 pm as Diet Coke O'Clock because Sheridan offers free soda. It's a small perk that never fails to boost my mood.
- Get everyone on board. Improving school climate can't just fall on the principal. Donovan notes, "I feel the responsibility is 100% mine, but I can't improve the climate unless everyone else takes responsibility too." Workplace satisfaction committees can take a proactive approach to solving brewing problems. Sunshine committees can plan social events and acknowledge milestones such as birthdays. Staff can create a contract that explicitly states school values. Sheridan's staff contract addresses respect, speaking truth with kindness, valuing strengths and vulnerabilities, and celebrating growth. Along those lines, make it clear that meanness and bullying won't be tolerated.
- Offer self-directed, meaningful professional development. Give staff leeway to choose at least some of their continuing education opportunities, and then encourage them to share what they learn with colleagues. Help experienced staff members continue to grow and develop by working with new teachers or formally mentoring graduate students at local universities.
- Start from a place of trust. Treat staff like professionals, not clock punchers. Maintain an understanding that teachers will need to go to appointments or attend their own children's plays or conferences. Offer flexibility when it comes to leave time. Sheridan very intentionally has no time cards. "What I appreciate most about my work environment," says Melanie Auerbach, Sheridan's director of student support, "is that I know that everyone holds the same belief that family comes first, and as a community we work together to support each other when times are good and in times of need."
- Provide opportunities for creativity and autonomy. Have staff write their own curriculum or augment existing lesson plans if possible. Provide regular opportunities to discuss professional goals. Give staff a chance to request a move to a different grade or express other concerns before they have to sign their contracts.
- Honor and teach about diversity and differences. Don't assume this will happen on its own—it takes work. Sheridan holds SEED (seeking educational equity and diversity) groups for teachers to foster a more accepting environment, encourage self-discovery and improve interpersonal understanding. This is done in-house by trained teacher-facilitators. All new staff members also receive social justice training, which explores implicit bias and helps teachers be intentional both in and out of the classroom.
- Give transparent and regular evaluations. It's motivating when teachers set their own goals and clearly articulate the path they'd like to follow. Sheridan does this using a process called "Lines of Inquiry." Supervisors can monitor progress with regularly scheduled meetings. They also can provide formal observations at regular intervals. The majority of these visits should be announced, and teachers should know what their supervisors are evaluating.
- Offer teachers personal and classroom support. This can be done through mentoring or referral for confidential counseling. When teachers don't meet performance expectations, collaborate on an improvement plan and make sure they know the school wants them to do well. People go through hard times and are not always at their peak. "We're all in it to support the children," Auerbach says. "Identifying resources in the building, whether it's the learning specialist or the counselor, allows teachers to collaborate when they're feeling stuck or frustrated."
As for Maggie, her humiliation ended up being the tipping point for her school. A few days after the auction, she told her principal that his comment had hurt and embarrassed her. He immediately apologized and said he would never repeat the mistake. At a staff meeting, he took full responsibility and made it clear that he appreciated the feedback. "Strangely, that one terrible comment ended up opening the lines of communication and improving our school climate," Maggie says. "It forced us to talk about things more often, and we all ended up feeling better about work."
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. She is the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019).
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.
A positive school environment paves the way for leadership and learning
In the book, The Art of Happiness at Work, (Dalai Lama, Cutler, 2009) the obvious conclusion to happy versus unhappy is clearly stated: "Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life's daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people." Now, how do I get to that happy place?
Happy people outperform unhappy people. Climate and culture have a profound impact on teacher and student performance. Leadership has a profound impact on climate and culture. If the leadership possibilities are exponential, then so are the promises of happy people and success. Climate equals morale. Culture, on the other hand, is what you can get people to do. When people believe in themselves, they will achieve more than they thought possible.
Walk into any school for the first time. How should you feel? When you enter your building, do you get the WOW Factor, that distinctive appeal? You can feel the climate of an organization immediately. If it's positive, you will get that magical "Ta-Da" moment. It can be tangible and scream off the walls, or it can be that optimistic sensation that fills your heart.
As a lead learner, that positive feeling gets reinforced when a parent walks up to you at the end of Back to School Night and excitedly proclaims, "I'm so glad my daughter is here. All of the teachers said at one point in their presentations, I love my job." You want every parent and child to take this excitement with them on a daily basis.
Small gestures of positive climate and culture add up. Send a thank you note to a colleague, a parent, or a student. Make positive phone calls home. Greet your students. Know their names. Show up at events. Become a part of the community. Take a moment each day to make a connection or build a relationship through authentic conversation.
This can happen anywhere on campus: the cafeteria, at a student's locker, walking around the building before or after school, or asking teachers if they need anything. When you take the time to know something personal about the students and staff and faculty, you can make someone's day. It always sends the message, "I care about you."
Maybe it does not seem like much at first. Take an old trophy from the closet, use some masking tape to personalize a message, then present it to a teacher with fanfare in front of their students. This simple gesture paves miles of positivity. Leaders can provide that, at no cost, every single day with deliberate, caring actions. People who feel good about themselves will take the extra steps.
One year, the students, staff, and faculty started to paint the walls and the bathrooms with murals and quotes. It gave everyone ownership in the environment of the building. We even came up with a tile project where the students could leave a legacy of peace, hope, love, and acceptance. Wow! That really took off and connected not only the students but the community as well. No one could walk by the "Wall of Acceptance" without stopping to read the inscriptions and admire the artwork.
Uniting under a common theme for the year can be another meaningful way to promote a positive climate for everyone in the school. Under this year's theme of "Grit," students in each grade level are recognized monthly for displaying positive characteristics that are associated with grit. There are thousands of ways to celebrate students, staff, and faculty. When you take the time to carry them out, you promote connections that communicate expectations for everyone in a positive manner.
There is a strong correlation between gratitude and happiness. People with more gratitude are naturally happier. You can chalk it up to another common sense theory or a review of the literature will have you come away with the same conclusion. According to Harvard Health Publications (2016), by Harvard Medical School, positive psychology research indicates, "gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness."
One goal of any organization should be to develop more leaders. Organizations must stop perpetuating the "follower model." Providing students, staff, and faculty with a variety of opportunities to jump on board the "LeaderShip" is pivotal. Leadership cannot be shared and leaders cannot be developed without a "ship" to get on.
Seek out the advice of your staff and faculty, provide opportunities for leaders to explore their potential, and involve students in decision making. An environment rich with leadership pathways will find more stakeholders navigating their way from followership to leadership.
Dalai Lama, Cutler, H., The art of happiness at work (2009). Eastern Press, Norwalk.
Giving thanks can make you happier. http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/
giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier, downloaded November 21, 2016.
Rudnesky, F., 50 great things leaders do: let's get fired up! (2017). Jostens, Minneapolis.
Frank Rudnesky, Ed. D. is a retired principal and currently an author, speaker, and presenter.
Timothy Carroll, MA, is a middle school principal, presenter, and president of the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education.
Frank and Tim are presenting a concurrent session at AMLE2017: "Climate and Culture Steer the LeaderShip," Monday, November 6, 2:30-3:30p, Room 112A
Published October 2017.
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.