Strategies for laying a foundation for a strong school culture in middle schools
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!