R in Effect: The ABCs of Middle Level Education

I’m Seeing Red! How About You?

So here’s the first R word that’s on my mind for the world of Middle Level Education. Red. Recently, I’ve taken to wearing red shoes—to AMLE, at workshops, to schools, at the AMLE annual conference. With suits. With dress shirts and ties. Yes, it’s true. At the ends of my dress pants are my red Pumas. And when I’m dressed that way, in addition to noticing turned heads and quizzical glances, I also occasionally field the question, “Hey, Dru. Why the red shoes?”

First and foremost, I am a firm believer in discarding firm beliefs—especially those that hold us back. So the red shoes represent change and how change happens. Many folks discuss how to change education to make things better for students, for the profession, and for themselves as professional educators and advocates. In my mind and heart, educational changes and revolutions happen through evolutionary steps forward. Sometimes it can begin with a simple change in shoes. Clothing is a text that can be read. When you look at someone’s shoes, for instance, you analyze the soul of that person through their sole. So I wear red shoes to disrupt and to give people something interesting to read that pushes them beyond their comfort zones. That’s why many of our young adolescents make the clothing choices that they do, as well. They are trying to communicate through the text of their fashion about themselves, about their angst, about their fluctuating identities.

But how exactly do the red shoes reflect middle level education? Standing out and stepping out in an unconventional way mirrors what young adolescents are going through. They are trying to fit in while also trying to find their individual identity. They are changing more rapidly cognitively and physically than any other time in their lives (except for birth to three years). Thus, they do things, say things, laugh at things, and try things that stand out and make us scratch our heads in wonder—what were you thinking? Sometimes, their decisions just happen like a sudden pair of red shoes. How do we respond when that happens? Do we invite the red in or do we shut it out?

The shoes also mirror what we should be doing instructionally as teachers and as leaders—to do the expected and the unexpected. That’s why I wear mine with dress clothes. As the son of a United States Marine, I appreciate and respect a sense of decorum and formality; you’ve got to show up from the floor up. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to push back against the fencelines—even our own—to inspire others to push back, as well. To break cycles of dependence. Cycles of defeatism. Cycles of devaluation. Cycles of declination. The red shoes remind me to question what I’m doing to serve middle level education. Am I just showing up and doing the same old thing? Or am I stepping up and going in a new direction?

The red shoes are also the counternarrative to the conventional story: that we need to conform to the traditional forms of teaching, of learning, of leading. For our students, if we model a red-shoe mentality and spirit, it will inspire them to try something new, too. Too often our students feel like they are minor characters in the story of school. They don’t see themselves as major characters building a powerful plotline—rich with protagonists, antagonists, rising actions, challenges, triumphs, and more—working towards a critical learning goal. Somewhere, they learned that they cannot actively affect the learning community. They were taught that they are merely grade getters, parroting automatons, teacher pleasers, or test takers. They were shown through time that education’s rewards are found in grades, scores, and complicity. Anyone who understands and values young adolescents (and those who teach and lead them) knows that they are so much more than that. They are leaders in bloom. They are questioners in blossoming confidence. They are creators in flux. They are activists in training. So the red shoes help remind me that we have an obligation to defy definition. To declare new statements. To rattle ourselves and our students free from definitions that crowd and confine.

We are different, so do one thing different –like wearing red shoes. It can be a step towards creating a new story for our students, ourselves and middle level education. So how will you step up and step forward with sole?