Middle School Gets a Bad Rap. It’s Time to Flip the Script.

“Bless your heart.”

“I’m so sorry!”


If you’re a middle grades educator, it’s likely you’ve heard one of these reactions when you tell someone your profession. It’s not uncommon for people to recount negative memories from their own time as a middle schooler or bemoan, “kids these days.” Even though 10–15-year-olds are experiencing the most rapid and significant changes of their lives other than infancy, middle school remains typecast as a time to simply endure or to “get through.” Popularized in movies and television for its awkwardness, we often forget the incredible opportunity that these years represent.

Why is that?

In celebration of Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, AMLE sat down with middle school administrators from around the world to better understand why middle school sometimes comes with a negative connotation – and what we can do about it. This article is part of our #MLEM Leading from the Middle series.

Bad memories

Several of the middle school leaders we spoke to identified parents’ own experiences as middle schoolers as a source of the negativity that sometimes surrounds this age group. Mike Hammond, Principal of Oliver W. Winch Middle School in South Glens Falls, New York, explains, “It’s the same reason why public education sometimes gets that bad rap. Everyone experienced it. They’ll remember, ‘Oh, my middle school experience was XYZ.’ They carry that with them and project it on their children.” It’s true that humans often remember negative or traumatic experiences over positive ones. Therefore, perhaps it’s natural that during a time of such dynamic change as puberty our negative memories or experiences may be overrepresented compared to other stages of life. We might not remember the positives, or that there were a lot of people during that time that cared about us,” says Mike, “We remember the big things. And usually those are the ones that caused heartache or were embarrassing.”

Luckily, middle school leaders have developed ways to combat the past overtaking present opportunity. John Donecker, Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee, knows parents will come into their child’s adolescent years with certain preconceived notions. “That’s very understandable,” John says, “but at the same time we want their child to have their own experience.” He believes that requires building trust with parents and showing them regularly through your actions and communications that their child is known and loved.

Another “secret weapon” deployed by Paul Destino, Principal of Mayfield Middle School in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, is one he thinks we sometimes forget when dealing with all the challenges of adolescence: fun. “We’ve all been middle school students ourselves. You’re trying to figure out how to navigate life. It’s really hard to manage that,” he says, “I think most of us can look back and remember that was tough, but it was also a heck of a lot of fun. I believe in creating a school where learning should be fun. You’re going to see a lot of fun taking place in our school. But you’ll also see engagement and learning.”

Other school leaders say research-based middle grades structures and best practices have helped them combat old stereotypes. Mark Orszula, Principal of Lakeview Junior High School in Downers Grove, Illinois, says he doesn’t really see that negative connotation at his school and credits their use of teaming structures. At Lakeview, teacher teams have the opportunity to meet at least three times a week to talk about students. “That’s huge,” he says, “The way they wrap their arms around and support our students. It’s absolutely amazing to me. Kids have a whole team behind them making sure they’re prepared when they go to high school.”

For structures like advisory and teaming to be impactful, middle school leaders recognize that the faculty they bring into the building are critical. Hiring is a process they take extremely seriously at Mattawan Middle School, explains principal Chip Schuman. “I want to learn where their heart is,” says Chip, “It takes a special personality to embrace kids where they are developmentally. Collaboration is not a choice. It’s an expectation.”

No longer young but not yet old

Learning to “figure out” and navigate life is actually a hallmark of the young adolescent developmental phase. During this time, tweens are developing the ability to imagine the future and think abstractly. They begin making decisions based less on impulse and more on goals. Of all age groups, middle schoolers are the most receptive to positive change following a career exploration intervention – more so than even high school students. Linda Roth, the Executive Director of Community School in Roanoke, Virginia, describes this time as a “trying on of a lot of personalities.” That means they need space for learning. “They’re going to say silly things and get into arguments with people and not realize what they’re saying,” she explains. That “messiness” of adolescence and propensity to make mistakes along the way is part of the beauty of getting to work with this age group, says Michael Gohde, Middle School Principal of the Seoul International School in Korea, “there’s an incredible responsibility in middle school. You can create lasting change.”

Unfortunately, a lack of understanding has led instead to negative stereotypes of middle schoolers. Mikaela O’Bryan, Principal of Bennett County Middle School in Martin, South Dakota, believes more education for parents and the community about the brain chemistry of a middle schooler would help, including that each kid is going through puberty at different times and paces. “Their bodies are changing, their brains are changing,” she explains, “People look at that and freak out. They think these kids are disrespectful or naughty. Whereas we realize it’s not that way.”

Part of that public awareness includes amplifying the positives. Todd Brist, Principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota and author of The Successful Middle School Advisory, says he sees daily examples of his students flipping the script on the narrative of young adolescence. “If I walk into the lunchroom and see a mess, several kids will jump in to clean it up. The empathy and compassion they show are not what get talked about in the media or even in the staff room,” Todd says, “We’re always talking about the negative things. That’s not even getting to the grand things. We do a food drive at Thanksgiving and the Salvation Army literally depends on our school because we have such a good turnout from our kids. And then there’s the individual things kids are doing. Those are the norm, the negative things are the exception.”

Creating more positive moments

While public awareness and recognition of the importance and opportunity of the middle grade years will take time, middle school leaders are constantly at work finding ways to create more positive moments for kids. For Trishauna Pulos, Assistant Principal of Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido, California, that means giving students opportunities to share their growth and success. She offers an open invitation for kids to ask her for a positive phone call home. No matter the success they want to share, she’ll sit down with them and call mom and dad, or even coaches and grandparents. She tries to schedule them for Friday afternoons to set the family up for a great weekend. “When a kid seeks you out to share a success, that’s when you know you’re making an impact,” she says, “They know that there’s an adult on their side who is interested in knowing about their progress.”

Cedrick Gray, author of The Successful Middle School Leader, believes there’s an opportunity here for middle school leaders to encourage faculty to flip the script on the middle school experience. If you had a less than desirable experience as a middle school student, then now is the time to dive in and make the experience of your scholars better than what you experienced,” he advises, “We need folks who are not only willing but able to make experiences better than when we were coming up.”

Kula Gaugen-Haili, Middle School Principal at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus in Honolulu, Hawai’i, draws on his own experience as a middle schooler. Having worked with incarcerated youth before becoming a middle school administrator, he knows the power of an adult showing that they care. “I see things from the bottom up instead of the top down,” he explains, “I think my lens helps when working with kids that are going through issues. I went through it as a kid too.” He believes middle school is a critical time for setting kids on the right path, “it’s one of the most applicable times of life to give them a core understanding of themselves. If I’ve done my job right, they head to high school knowing what they want.” Even as an administrator, Kula stays connected with students by leading an advisory class. Kula recalls a particular student who struggled during her time at school but is now a Harvard graduate and enrolled at Yale Law School. She recently sent him an email that simply said, You cared. Thank you. “I had a little part of it,” he says, “All it took was me showing a little care and hope.”

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.