Leading from the Middle: Finding Your Place and Your People in the Middle Grades

In a recent episode of the Middle School Walk & Talk Podcast, Kevin Armstrong, middle school principal and incoming President of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), recounted a story from his career as a middle grades leader. After serving as a middle school assistant principal for four years, he received a call a few days before the new school year was to begin that he had been moved to a leadership role at the high school in anticipation of him eventually becoming the high school principal. “No one ever asked me,” he recalls, “I was backchanneling the entire time I was there trying to return to the middle school. I had to get back to my roots and my people.”

Why is it too often the perception that middle school is just a stepping stone, rather than its own, equally important calling? Despite the well-defined and unique nature of young adolescents, middle school leaders often find themselves as lonely advocates for a grade span that gets less investment than any other in our education system.

In celebration of Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, AMLE sat down with middle school administrators from around the world to better understand how they ended up in their current roles – and what might be done to encourage more aspiring educators to consider the middle level. This article is part of our #MLEM Leading from the Middle series.

“I stumbled upon it.”

“I always envisioned myself as a high school teacher,” says Chip Schuman, Principal of Mattawan Middle School in Mattawan, Michigan, “I don’t even know why.”

Now in his 17th year as a middle school principal, Chip’s story isn’t unique. Many middle school educators and leaders describe initially planning to spend their careers in the elementary or high school levels, then happening upon the middle grades by chance and finding it to be their true calling. That was the case for Todd Brist, Principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota and author of The Successful Middle School Advisory, who became a middle school principal after years as a high school teacher in order to be closer to family. After taking the role, he found himself at an AMLE conference trying to learn more about leading a middle school. “It was literally like a 2×4 to the head,” he recalls, “I realized that these kids are unique. They’re a different subset. That’s when I dove in headfirst and really started figuring out what it meant to work with young adolescents.”

Michael Gohde, Middle School Principal of the Seoul International School in Korea, is also among those who describe “stumbling” upon middle school. “They were having challenges in the middle school where I was teaching at that time, so I moved there and I loved it,” he says, “I realized there are not a lot of people who can do it, who are naturals and can live in that world. But for me, it just stuck and I found that I understood the kids. Why would you leave? The kids are so much fun.”

The same goes for Trishauna Pulos, Assistant Principal of Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido, California, who initially planned on teaching high school but fell in love with the middle when she ended up at a grades 6-12 school. “I’m really interested in the fact that I didn’t plan to be in middle school but landed there and have found myself really engaged with that level, more so than I ever thought I would be when I started out.”

Changing the narrative

What is it about the middle grades that seems to prevent some educators from considering it as a viable option, despite eventually finding that they connect with this age group? There is research that indicates that prospective educators’ personal experience in middle school may inform their preference. If they struggled during this time, socially or academically, they may feel they’ll be less able to relate to students of that age.

There’s also the reputation of middle school that one Chicago Tribune journalist described as “somewhere between root canal and jury duty.” A lack of understanding of the acute development tweens are experiencing can lead people to think kids are just disrespectful or naughty, says Mikaela O’Bryan, Principal of Bennett County Middle School in Martin, South Dakota. She thinks this perception might be improved if there was more public awareness of the opportunity this time presents, rather than the challenges. “It would really help if people understood the brain chemistry of a middle schooler,” she explains.

Middle level education is often overlooked in a systemic way, according to Dr. Kristie Smith, Assistant Professor of ELA Education and Middle Grades at Kennesaw State University. “There seems to be so much focus, energy, and material resource attention to elementary or early education, and then the attention jumps to secondary settings. In this way, the middle grades become invisible. This makes it difficult from the outset for candidates to be informed enough about middle level education to even consider it as a career choice.”

Indeed, 10-15 year-olds are experiencing the most rapid, significant changes of their lives other than infancy. These students are developing physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively as they discover new vistas, form relationships with peers and adults, and explore their developing identity. During this time, students construct the attitudes, values, and dispositions that will form who they become as adults. Unfortunately, the challenges that naturally come with such acute development overshadow the positives.

While fixing middle school’s “branding problem” may take time, the experiences of educators who did set out to work in the middle grades from the start may be instructive in encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.

Middle school leaders as the profession’s greatest advocates

For John Donecker, Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee, this started with his own 8th grade experience. “I had a history teacher I really loved,” John explains, “I was an average student, but because he built a relationship with me, I started to perform better. It was kind of in that moment that I started to think this was something fun that I could do in the future. I never got a chance to tell him because he passed away before I got into the profession, but he made a difference for me.”

That’s not so uncommon, according to Dr. Smith. “One of the primary factors that encourages young or beginning career educators to consider the middle grades is an excellent middle level teacher from their own P-12 student experience,” she says, “So many preservice candidates reflect with anecdotes about their time in the middle grades and about the impact, creativity and/or empathy of a middle level teacher from their learning journey.”

The encouragement to try the middle grades came later for Mike Hammond, Principal of Oliver W. Winch Middle School in South Glens Falls, New York, who had been experiencing success developing new courses in psychology for students at the high school. When an assistant principal role at the middle school opened, the principal at the time approached him with a pitch: Sure, you’ve had close to 300 kids sign up for your electives. But what if you could have this impact on 700 kids? He gave it a try and, now in his 2nd year as principal, is hooked. Mike remembers, “I was so amazed by what I’d been missing at middle school.”

Robert Caplinger Principal of Laveen Elementary School in Laveen, Arizona, initially wanted to be a high school English teacher before meeting with his own junior high school principal while job searching. “She really kind of convinced me that I was a middle school person,” he says, “I found my people and never ended up in high school.”

Gloridely Tavarez Vargas, a master’s student obtaining her degree in Middle Childhood Education at Otterbein University, believes this starts with creating a supportive environment for aspiring educators considering the middle grades. While she initially gravitated toward the middle grades because it resonated best with her personality, her student teaching experiences and active participation in AMLE further solidified her preference. “AMLE has played a crucial role in reaffirming my choice by fostering a supportive community where I feel valued and encouraged.”

Each of these stories highlights the impact that one conversation, one relationship, or one mentor can have on an educator’s career path choices. In celebration of Middle Level Education Month, perhaps consider a colleague, student teacher, or even middle school student you might inspire to consider middle level education with a boost of support or thoughtful mentorship. As Gloridely advises, “Despite the negativity surrounding teaching, it’s so important to spotlight the advantages of working with middle grades students. By highlighting both the strengths and challenges, we can provide a clearer understanding of the unique rewards and opportunities of teaching middle grades.”

The month of March is recognized as Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, a time to celebrate the wonderful things that happen each and every day in middle level education. Join us as a champion for young adolescent students.