Lessons from the A-Team

Not long ago, I was fortunate to spend some time with a group of very dedicated middle grades educators at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Summer Educators Institute. As the week progressed, we had many discussions about what is best for middle grades students. We spent time discussing the importance of Middle Level Education Month and our plans to recognize the students not only during March, but each and every day. These conversations ultimately led to discussions about the harsh reality of the budgetary challenges all schools face today.

It didn’t matter which of the New England states my colleagues worked in, everyone had or knew of a school that was losing the ability to create and sustain teams because of budget restrictions. I’d like to devote this column to addressing the need to celebrate the Month of the Young Adolescent year-round and fighting to keep teaming alive and well in our schools.

Recognizing Students

Young adolescents should be celebrated every day. However, October is a good time to highlight the uniqueness of young adolescents across the country and recognize the unique abilities and talents of the young adolescents in your school. Here are some suggestions:

  • Recognize MOYA in the school community. Send home information in your newsletters and provide information on your websites. Mention MOYA on school signs and inside the building on bulletin boards. Develop a plan to include the entire school community in recognizing the importance of the month.
  • Allow students to reflect on being a young adolescent. MOYA is a perfect time to encourage students to be introspective. Involve school counselors in discussions with students about early adolescence. Give students an opportunity to create projects that allow them to write stories or poems, create artwork, or keep a journal. This month is a perfect opportunity to have students look inside themselves

We each need to be a voice for young adolescents. We need to remember that each of us is an advocate for the needs of each student, and we must do whatever we can to be that voice when the students are unable to be their own voice.

This month especially, we should be tireless advocates for our students. Perhaps some days we lose sight of the fact that we are gifted with the opportunity to work with the most rewarding group of students.

Saving Teaming

Effective teaming is one of the most powerful best practices for middle grades schools. Effective teams have consistent team planning time, focus on student needs, set clear procedures and expectations, have a “team space,” are together for multiple years, and integrate curriculum across disciplines. Team planning time is critical to successful teaming because if it doesn’t happen, it is difficult for team members to communicate and be accountable to each other.

One constant source of frustration for my colleagues is the pressure to eliminate middle grades programming due to budget constraints. However, we must be the advocates these children need by fighting to keep alive the very essence of middle grades education. The benefits of having effective middle level teams far outweigh the money that can be saved by eliminating teaming.

As we all know, working together as a team, we can accomplish more than as individuals. In the 1980s, The A-Team was a popular TV show among young adolescents; a movie based on the television program was released in 2010. The show centered on a former military team on the run after being framed for “a crime they didn’t commit.” Each week, the team was thrust into the middle of another seemingly impossible task.

The A-Team was a team, but they certainly had challenges to overcome. For example, they didn’t always agree on the same course of action for a mission, they didn’t always get along with each other, and they openly aired their conflicts. However, the A-Team had some characteristics that helped them succeed.

  1. They had a defined leader in John “Hannibal” Smith. Although he was sometimes unorthodox, he listened to each team member’s input, and he helped the team form consensus.
  2. Each team member had unique strengths. One was a pilot, able to fly any mode of transportation; another was a mechanical genius with brute strength. Although their strengths were different, it was easy to see that the team would have been incomplete if any member were missing.
  3. Perhaps most important, the team was always ready to respond to new difficulties that arose in the middle of the plan. When the inevitable problem occurred, they focused on the overall goal of the mission.

In the world of TV, the plot was simple: a problem occurred, a plan was devised, something went haywire, and the team adjusted and overcame. As repetitive as the plot was, this formula is similar to what effective middle level teams do every day—and that’s why team planning time is so important.

Early in my teaching career, I was part of an effective team of teachers at Monticello Middle School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. One powerful example of the importance of daily team planning time came to light when a student arrived at school out of sorts. Because we had team planning time each day, we all had an opportunity to discuss his actions, express our concern, and talk to him. We learned that his father had been arrested the night before and he had no idea what was going to happen when he got home. He was tired, frustrated, and scared.

Had we not had time to discuss the situation, this young man probably would have had difficulty getting through the day without getting himself into trouble. Instead, we were able to contact the principal and work with the principal and the student to alleviate his concerns and provide him with the support he needed to get through the day and prepare for the challenges that were to come.

Another example of an effective use of team planning time is the ability to make instruction relevant. A school in Western Ohio described how during the Vancouver Olympics games, the staff members were able to incorporate events that took place the night before into their classes the next day—because they met for planning time the first period each day. The teachers were able to use that time to determine how the prior day’s Olympic events were best incorporated into their classes.

These are just two examples of the positive outcomes that result when middle level educators work together as a powerful team. Neither of these would have happened without common planning time. As Hannibal would say on The A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Take Some Time

Take some time this month to recognize your staff and students in special ways. And if your teaming structure is in danger, take a minute to jot down some of the reasons teaming is so critical to the success of our young adolescents—then share those reasons with the district staff and the community.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012