Leading from the Middle

Leading from the Middle

How the Institute for Middle Level Leadership shaped my perspective on what it means to be a school leader

In the summer of 2019, before the pandemic hit and the world went topsy-turvy, I was given the opportunity to attend AMLE’s Institute for Middle Level Leadership. I was already a member and had previously attended the annual conference, but this was my first chance to take part in the event focused on school administrators.

Although still a teacher, my principal believed in, and wanted to foster, my enthusiastic spirit and leadership potential. I’ve always been passionate about ensuring that all students have access to high quality teachers who love being in the classroom. We have great kids and wonderful teachers who are subject experts in their respective fields. I hoped that, with the lessons I learned at the conference, I could bring back strategies and techniques that would help us realize our full potential.

Now, two years later, I am transitioning into my first administrator role as our new Director of Student Affairs. I have the dauting task of helping to meet the social and emotional needs of our students, and also plan do my best to ensure that our school’s new mission statement – a promise to be a just and anti-racist campus – holds true for every member of our community.

I’m attending the Institute for Middle Level Leadership again to prepare for my new role. As I look forward to experiencing the Institute in my new capacity, I began to reflect on my experience two summers ago. Two moments from the Institute stood out that have helped me realize that any successful school, regardless of its student body or location, runs on great educational leaders who care about the people and students with whom they work. The fellow leaders I met never stopped adapting and innovating to give their staff the support they needed to do their best possible work. These moments recalled two fundamental questions that are even more relevant post-pandemic to the future of education:

  • How do we keep people? and
  • How much is too much?

Question #1: How do we keep people?

Out of all the sessions that I attended at the conference, one of the most illuminating focused on teacher retention. Across the country, principals are struggling with how to attract and retain qualified, professional teachers. Conversations took on a variety of perspectives. One principal believed that better benefits would pull teachers from neighboring districts into hers. Another thought that paying teachers to obtain higher education degrees would encourage staff to stay and become better trained and more qualified. Regardless of the proposed tactic, one truth remained glaringly obvious – educators deserve a tremendous amount of respect for the jobs we do every day. We know how thin we stretch ourselves, sometimes putting aside our home lives for the sake of our students, spending our salaries to ensure that classrooms are decorated to be welcoming and that bookshelves are filled. It is incredible how much of ourselves we give to this calling. We are superheroes.

I think many of us hoped the pandemic would change education for the better. Would the efforts of teachers be better recognized? Would more parents join the fight for higher salaries and improved funding?  Teaching was already a stressful job. That has only intensified over the past year as we were asked to adapt to an ever-changing array of circumstances that none of us were trained to handle.

Moving into this new role as a school leader, our teachers will now look to me for advice on building a positive culture and community. I truly hope that my experiences in the classroom will help shape the guidance I’m able to provide them. I hope that I, along with the other members of my administrative team, can build a community that inspires teachers to stay and allows them to grow personally and professionally. I look forward to learning how I can promote and contribute to a culture that encourages teachers to show up, every day, ready and prepared to take on the challenges we know they are going to face.

Question #2: How much is too much? #DoingTheMost

One of my favorite moments from the Institute was a dinner session where we were divided up into teams. We spent part of that evening playing trivia and other “Minute to Win It” games.

I came to the conference alone, so immediately went into panic mode about who my group would be and if anyone would choose me as their partner. Luckily, groups were randomly assigned, so my irrational fears of being “the last kid chosen” quickly faded.

Now, when I say that I’m competitive, I mean I am HYPER competitive. However, I am training myself to temper this sometimes, “less than pretty” side. Not everyone shares my love of healthy competition and this, of course, is what I was expecting when I met my randomly assigned group for the first time. You can imagine my shock when my new teammates immediately jumped into strategizing how our team would take home the coveted first place prize at the end of the night. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, right? These are AMLE leaders, middle school leaders, of course they would want to be the best!

Every team wanted to win that night and put forth their best efforts. Sadly, we lost in the final round during a game that involved Oreos being hilariously stuck to teammates faces. But our competitors were incredible and I still proudly wear my second place T-shirt.

Ultimately, after the adrenaline rush subsided, I realized that we adults are not unlike the kids we see and interact with every day. We panic at the thought of not being included, we enjoy being on a team of like-minded individuals, and we love the recognition that is given when we feel like we tried really hard. The question is, how can we ensure that our kids feel like they are a part of our school team? Whether they are ultra-competitive like me or quiet and shy, everyone deserves to belong. How can we ensure that everyone finds their place?

My time at the Institute taught me this: be true to yourself, find your vision, and support everyone in building a community that makes that vision a reality. The vision might not always stay the same. It will change over time, and sometimes it will take work to get others on board. It has to be something that is inclusive, which respects and empathizes with the community in which you work. I would assume my school is similar to all of yours in that it was hit hard by the pandemic; in fact, we were all hit hard by the catastrophe that was the year 2020. If this year taught us anything, it is that we should treat one another with grace and compassion. None of us are perfect; school leaders make mistakes just as easily as our students do. Only through educating ourselves, and openly reflecting on our mistakes, can we grow into the best versions of ourselves. The resources and collegiality offered through experiences like the Institute are a start. The rest is up to us.

Stay strong out there fellow leaders and remember: it is all about the kids!