Mulch in the Middle Grades!

Leadership Lessons to Help Middle Schools Blossom and Grow

It’s finally spring—and time for blossoming, growing, flourishing, and mulch. That’s right, mulch.

For anyone unaware of the joys of mulch, mulch comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and you can buy it in large bags or even have it delivered in one large heap to your home. Regardless of its character or mode of delivery, mulch is a special item that reminds me of leadership in the critical middle grades.

So here are key mulch facts and school-based implications:

1. Mulch can keep weeds from growing. One of the key reasons why people put down mulch is to stamp down weeds that want to rise up through the soil and steal nutrients from other plants. Mulch acts like a thick, stifling blanket that cuts off their access to sunlight, air, etc. If you don’t do that, weeds can grow and overtake your glorious spring flowers just as they are beginning to blossom. What’s the leadership connection? Being an effective middle grades leader means that you know where potentially negative issues are growing, and you know how to handle them. You don’t wait for them to go away on their own—because if you do, their roots will spread out and snuff out the positive growth you and your faculty are trying to accomplish. Strong leaders go to the issue, get their hands in the dirt and deal with those weedy issues. And that means getting your hands in the mulch, spreading down a healthy layer of positivity, consistency, and urgency, and checking in on the health of your other flowers. Mulch can’t be spread from the front office!

2. Mulch can beautify your garden. In addition to helping with weed issues, putting down mulch is also a great way to refresh your flower beds, garden plots, and other spaces in the great outdoors. It’s a way to communicate to the world, “Hey! That’s not just fresh mulch! We’ve got pride over here in this yard!” So what’s the leadership connection? Putting down mulch is like spreading fresh, positive communication, and an effective middle grades leader needs to know when and where to get it out there for the school, community, and world to see. Highlighting great instructional practices. Giving shout outs to exceptional volunteers. Spotlighting outstanding student successes. This kind of work is especially essential during the spring, after those long winter months have taken their toll, and the end of the school year is just beyond reach. Therefore, as a strong middle grades leader, you can’t wait for others to spread that spirit-lifting mulch. That mulch should be in your hands!

3. Mulch can cover up unseen issues. One cautionary note about mulch and how some folks use it. Mulch has been utilized by some people to hide garden blemishes, uncut roots, holes, etc. Instead of fixing the problem, they simply throw a big chunk of mulch on it, so it isn’t visible to someone walking by. It gives the illusion that everything is fine—until someone trips on that root or cracks an ankle in that hole. So what’s the leadership connection? The mulch of leadership can stave back negative forces and it can promote and spread positivity, but it should not be used to cover up real issues. As aforementioned, when a middle level leader sees a potentially troubling issue, he pr she needs to get out there and spread the mulch from an ethic of care and an ethic of pragmatism—not an ethic of avoidance. Strong leaders tend to issues because they genuinely care about how they might impact students, teachers, and other stakeholders. And they also tend to issues because they understand how those issues can affect the pragmatics and logistics of the school. Hence, as a middle grades leader, you need to spread that mulch with passion and purpose!

4. Mulch can catch on fire. While this aspect seems implausible, I’ve seen it happen firsthand. In Georgia, humongous mulch mountains often sit by the highway, waiting for people to order piles of it for their homes. And in Hotlanta (where temperatures are, well, hot), those giant mulch piles can literally smoke and catch on fire—because the temperature gets so hot that the mulch itself combusts! To prevent this from happening, the company has to regularly cultivate and stir the mulch up, so all that hot air can get out. It’s true! So again, what’s the leadership connection? First, a strong middle grades leader never lets mulch sit around and smolder. In other words, he or she seeks out opportunities to spread the positivity—instead of hoarding the mulch or waiting for someone else to do it. Second, an effective leader also knows when and how to cultivate the mulch to make sure it doesn’t get too settled or stale or fiery! Leaders can find themselves dealing with far more incendiary issues if they become complacent or reluctant to spread that leadership mulch!

So as you tend to your school house this Spring, spread that mulch with commitment in your hands, growth in your mind, and care in your heart—and watch your educational garden grow!