Today’s middle school classrooms look very different
than they did 30 years ago. With a focus on the
whole child and a wider range of backgrounds and
experiences represented within the student body,
finding common ground can be daunting. Educators
across the nation are faced with pressures of high
stakes testing and merit pay, a more diverse population
of students, and a need for ongoing engagement and
motivation of learners who are used to immediate
gratification from technologies and entertainment.
When there are so many needs that must be met,
how does a campus provide a school culture that builds
trust, while fostering academic success? Here are five
core suggestions that can help lay the foundation for a
celebratory, supportive culture for any campus or district.
Relationships are at the center of any positive school
culture, and relationships start with respect. Students
need to know they are valued contributors to the
campus, and that the campus exists for their benefit.
For everyone to thrive, however, respect and clear
communication tools are key. Without knowing how
to approach someone’s space or respect property,
conflicts are bound to arise. Teaching communication
stems, using student-led disciplinary committees,
and ensuring student groups on campus can initiate
real change and help build buy-in so students know
that what they think matters. On the other hand a
hierarchal campus, in which students feel they are
only talked at, not understood, or not appreciated for
who they are or for the situations they deal with or the
belief systems they bring, will never yield harmony or
positive results. Instead, students feel fear, rebellion,
anger, and invisibility. When this tone is created, it is
hard to overcome, and learning will be the last thing
on your students’ minds. Forms of communication,
boundaries, and behaviors should be agreed upon
by all stakeholders, and learners should have an
opportunity to share in this decision-making process.
2. Mission, Vision, Purpose
Another strategy is to align all aspects of school
culture with student and adult learning. The middle
school philosophy is unique in that the student is
placed at the center of the model and all aspects
of the school day are designed specifically for
the middle school child. When school teams are
strategic planning, they should focus on how to align
the mission, vision, and purpose of the school to
everything else in the school.
At our middle school, we placed the mission, vision,
and purpose on all correspondence. Simply placing it
on correspondence would not make a difference but
referring back to it at all cost did make a difference.
We started meetings by discussing the mission, vision,
and purpose for our middle school. We discussed how
we saw our mission, vision, and purpose come to life
in the school each week. Although everyone was not
initially on board, this focus grounded and unified
everyone as it permeated everything we did.
We ensured that members of our community were
mission-aligned in several ways. One way was to ask strategic questions during the interview process for
hiring new teachers. The interviewees were asked
questions that evaluated their mission, vision, and
purpose alignment. After being hired, the teachers
were taught strategies that aligned with our mission,
vision, and purpose. Our purpose was to provide
a world-class experience for our middle school
students. To do this, we included opportunities for
students to examine critical issues beyond our city
and state. The teachers received training on how to
incorporate a global perspective without the school
having IB certification, but through simply asking
questions and thinking about our experiences from a
global experience. We discussed how the world was
connected and how what one country does impacts
another. These strategies were connected to our vision
of being world-class. So, in every class, students were
armed with a global, critical eye.
3. School-wide Cohesion
To keep our school cohesive, the team of teachers
created expectations we would use for the entire
school. We had school rules that were the same for
each classroom. This helped ensure students were
never surprised from classroom to classroom, and
enforcement became every teacher’s responsibility.
Reiterating campus mantras, theme songs, or chants
at every opportunity; promoting class competitions; and
celebrating campus wins—both small and large—can
help promote a sense of pride on campus and a sense
of continuity. Parents should be informed of campus
expectations and should be involved in decision making
when possible, and teachers should be willing to go
outside their comfort zone to bring energy and fun and
support campus initiatives.
An important part of campus-wide initiatives that
promotes campus culture is ensuring students and
teachers know the why. Why is this pep rally taking
place? Why is this a day we are taking time out of
instruction to embrace learning goals that have been
reached and to show students how much we appreciate
their hard work? Have we shared with learners why
they should be working so hard to reach their potential
or to aim for success? Motivation for middle school
students—who already deal with unique stressors—is
not a given, and we should embed these explanations
into our culture both inside and outside the classroom.
4. Face the Realities
All students and all campuses are not created the same.
Who are your students? What are their strengths?
What are their weaknesses? What technologies are
available to them? What does data tell you about their
needs? What does your city’s resources tell you about their needs? What do your own formal assessments
and relationship building exercises tell you about their
needs? What do parental visits or communications tell
you? What are the demographics? Where are they
academically, and where do you want them to be? What
are you doing in your development of your campus time,
resources, partnerships, and facilities to recognize
and address these things? And most of all, what are
you doing as you plan your lessons and curriculum
to realize these factors? Effective instruction meets
students where they are and provides them with tools
and strategies to equip them for their goals, both long
term and short term. School culture should be a safe
place for them to feel they can be successful as they
work to meet these expectations.
5. Never, Ever, Ever, Ever Give Up
This is perhaps the most important one! As teachers,
it is not okay for us to give up on students. Teaching
is all about helping learners gain content knowledge,
real world skills, confidence, and exposure to new
ideas that will help them become better people and
productive citizens. It is up to us to find creative
ways—given the challenges our students deal with
outside of our four walls—to help them do just that. No
matter how hard it is, we cannot give up. There is no
greater rule for a positive school culture.
Teachers need outlets and opportunity. Campuses
should work to make sure they have opportunities for
relevant professional development, shared planning,
and inspiring best practices.
We always keep trying. We always find a way. We
always stay positive. And we always remember why
we have chosen—or been called—to this profession. Do
what you can to engage with like-minded individuals,
find time to build up your morale and your energy, and
attack each day with the vigor our students deserve.
Remember, practice makes perfect! There is
no magic bullet for a campus that needs a shot of
positivity or transformation of its cultural foundation.
With dedication, and a commitment to these five
principals, your campus will be off to a great start!
Latasha Jones Adams, PH.D. is an assistant professor
of education/coordinator of the middle grades program at
Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia, and a former
English language arts middle school teacher and principal.
Amy Barrios, ED.D. is an associate professor of
curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University,
San Antonio, and a former secondary English language
arts teacher and instructional coach.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.