Leading from the Middle: The Unique Skillset of the Middle School Leader

Strong leadership is essential to a successful middle school. This statement may seem obvious, but a leader who possesses the unique skillset to lead from the middle can be easy to take for granted. In fact, decades of research tell us that middle grades leadership is so essential that it’s included as the third pillar of characteristics of a Successful Middle School. But what makes a middle school leader successful? How does the role differ from its elementary or high school counterparts?

In celebration of Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, AMLE sat down with middle school administrators from around the world to learn more about what it takes to effectively lead a middle grades school. This article is part of our #MLEM Leading from the Middle series.

A true love for this stage of life

While research tells us that successful middle school leaders possess a deep understanding of the middle schoolers with whom they work and the society in which they live, many of the principals we spoke to said it goes beyond that. “It’s a true love and passion for this stage of life that kids are in,” says Chip Schuman, Principal of Mattawan Middle School in Mattawan, Michigan, “It’s not something you kind of like. You either love it or you don’t.” That means accepting middle schoolers for where they are at developmentally, which may change rapidly as the student grows. While a time of immense opportunity, it certainly comes with its challenges. Cedrick Gray, author of The Successful Middle School Leader explains that this requires school leaders “to see beyond what you see in front of you some days. You need to see in them what they can’t see in themselves.”

In addition to a fondness for the age group, a critical understanding of the developmental phase of young adolescence can’t be overstated. During early adolescence, youth experience significant changes and rapid growth. In fact, other than infancy, it is the greatest period of change in the human lifespan. These developmental milestones themselves are still changing, as puberty starts, on average, two years earlier than for today’s adults and stretches through high school. At the same time, youth face new obstacles to navigate like social media.

“You have to understand the cognitive, physical, and social development of the middle level learner and to be flexible and adaptable to those needs,” says Todd Brist, Principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota and author of The Successful Middle School Advisory.  “For so long we’ve tried to treat middle schoolers as big elementary kids or little high schoolers. They have their own unique developmental milestones. I’ll tell teachers, ‘I know it’s frustrating that you’ve had to give this instruction 14 times. But it’s not a normal neuropathway for a young adolescent.’ It is something that must be consciously taught. And maybe it’s 9 times and 9 different ways to get there.”

The executive functioning and social and emotional components of the middle school education turn out to be as, if not more, important than the academics. Dave Shaffer, Principal of River Bend Middle School in Potomac Falls, Virginia, recalled a humorous example of this concept in action. “Early in my career I became a 6th grade dean and my office overlooked the locker bay. The 6th graders also had another locker room for physical education. I remember one day, the first week of school, I look out into the bay and I see this 11-year-old boy look around and start taking his shirt off. I run out there and say, ‘What are you doing? How can I help you?’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Well, I have PE and I think I’m supposed to change in the locker room.’ He was just in the wrong locker room. In elementary school, everywhere they went there was a teacher and a single file line. Now they’re in a massive building trying to figure out all of these structures and routines. It’s a reminder of how much we have to support kids.”

A different level of relationship building

Beyond recognizing typical developmental characteristics of this age group, school leaders must be responsive to the incredible variability that exists as each child progresses through puberty at their own pace. This means acquiring a deep grasp of the varied identities youth possess, how those identities intersect, and how those identities may influence students’ experiences and opportunities. The only way to do so effectively is with a different level of relationship building, says Trishauna Pulos, Assistant Principal of Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido, California. “There’s still so much potential and growth that they haven’t tapped into yet. It’s exciting to be in a place where they’re still discovering that.”

Potential and growth also means that middle schoolers will naturally make mistakes along the way. There needs to be space for them to make those mistakes while still feeling a sense of belonging at school. “It’s a lot of patience,” says Mike Hammond, Principal of Oliver W. Winch Middle School in South Glens Falls, New York, “Sometimes when a 7th grader tells you they don’t know why they did something, they truly don’t know why they did something.”

This propensity for challenging adult authority as they seek independence is a hallmark of the young adolescent developmental phase. They may experience intense fluctuation in emotions and behaviors. Steven Hauk, Principal of West Hollow Middle School in Melville, New York, knows this comes with the territory of working with adolescents. “Most of what kids do at this age is not malicious. They’re impulsive and don’t always understand their actions,” he says, “As a result, it’s important to emphasize to faculty that each day is a new opportunity.”

“My goal is to start every day fresh,” Mikaela O’Bryan, Principal of Bennett County Middle School in Martin, South Dakota, explains, “I work on that with my staff too. Whatever you experienced with a student yesterday, it may be completely different today. We need to recognize and to empathize with that, and not hold that against them.”

To focus on the challenges inherent with this age group would be to neglect the truly wonderful developmental milestones that are simultaneously occurring as middle schoolers seek to find their own individuality, uniqueness, and autonomy. They’re developing their interests and passions as they benefit from an enhanced capacity for critical thinking. Young adolescents are also developing a deeper and more nuanced awareness of social injustices. Robert Caplinger, Principal of Laveen Elementary School in Laveen, Arizona, loves this facet of his middle school students. “A middle school student has a very strong sense of justice. Middle school kids question you and have an opinion. Sometimes they think they know more than you do, and sometimes they do know more than you do. That’s a joyful part of being a middle school leader. You get to engage them in these conversations and teach and inform.”

A focus on relationships doesn’t mean a neglect for academics and the responsibility middle school leaders have in preparing students to be successful in high school and beyond. Kenneth Nance, Principal of Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, believes there’s a balance to be struck. “In middle school we’re heavy on relationship building, because the kids won’t work with people they don’t like,” he explains, “but the importance of aligning proper pedagogy with those relationships sometimes gets lost.”

An eye toward transitions

While the successful middle school leader endeavors to give kids a true middle school experience, to do so means recognizing its place between elementary and high school. “I think a big thing people don’t always realize is the transition,” says Dave Shaffer, “Half of our school year is preparing for next school year. We’re considering our rising 6th graders and what they’re doing at the elementary level. And then there’s our feeder high school. That transition is so critical for our middle school kids. I feel like it goes by so fast. You get the kids, you learn who they are and their families, and then they’re leaving us.”

But there are key advantages to being in the middle, too, according to Michael Gohde, Middle School Principal of the Seoul International School in Korea. “You have a unique opportunity to spur change. You see what’s happening in the elementary school and the high school,” he says, “A little change in the middle school can lead to a bigger change in high school, or you might suggest things to elementary school. You have to understand that you’re not alone. You have to be part of a team.”

Having that impact, though, often means the middle school leaders are constant advocates for young adolescents within the district or community. “A big part of my job is continuously educating others so they understand what these students need and how we can support them best,” says Chip Schuman, “It’s been a big challenge especially during tough economic times.” Mikaela O’Bryan agrees, adding that advocacy would be benefitted “if we get high school principals to realize how much better high school is if the middle school is successful.”

Culture trumps strategy all day long

Ultimately, one of the biggest impacts of the middle school leader is the culture they foster within the building. A middle school’s policies and practices significantly impact school culture, programming, instruction, improvement efforts, and family and community engagement. “People get so fixated on strategy, but culture trumps strategy all day long,” says Paul Destino, Principal of Mayfield Middle School in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, “When you promote a building that focuses on kids, the staff will follow your lead.”

Katie Johnson, Principal of Belmont Ridge Middle School in Leesburg, Virginia, believes this starts with hiring the right team. “You need to make sure you’re hiring and training staff to understand the whole child. We are not the farm team for the high school.” It’s the reason first question she asks every candidate is, “Why do you want to work in a middle school?”

This requires middle grades educators possess a personality that genuinely enjoys working with young adolescents. “You can’t take yourself too seriously,” says Michael Gohde, “The more humor and empathy you can bring, the better for kids.” This atmosphere, it follows, draws a certain type of person to the middle level. “The people are weirder and funky,” Michael explains, “I wouldn’t change that.”

What kids want versus what we think they should have

Putting it all together, middle school leaders themselves must be models of this philosophy within their buildings. That can mean being vulnerable and sometimes giving kids what they want, versus what we think they should have.

For Kenneth Nance, this means sharing his talent for rapping with students. “I’m at a Title I community school with a large ELL population. There are a lot of things my kids are dealing with on a daily basis. I try to do things they like. I rap for them out in the halls. I leverage that not as a grown man trying to be young. I do it to distract them from their reality and to build a different reality with them.” He wasn’t so sure the strategy would work when he first started it nine years ago. “I thought the kids would think it was dumb. I figured I’d make a fool out of myself for them. But the kids actually loved it and they wanted more and more. Over time, I realized the hallways were quieter, kids were getting to class, and I was pushing out a better human product.” He remembers asking his own tween son for his advice before trying it out. His son responded, “if my principal rapped for me, I’d never want to miss school. But I’m also glad you’re not my principal because that would be embarrassing.”

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.