Research to Practice: Servant Leaders Build Capacity in Middle Level Schools by Going the Extra Mile

Being an effective middle level school leader, or leader in any arena for that matter, requires the skill and temperament to adapt to changing conditions—the seasons, storms, and squalls of school life in the middle grades. Some changes are seasonal, such as the predictable ebbs and flows of the school year that include the opening and closing of school, scheduled testing, celebrations and ceremonies, and other regularly occurring calendar items. Some changes present like storms and bring unwanted or unanticipated obstacles, disruptions, and distractions. Effective leaders plan and prepare for storms, anticipating their arrival when they see clouds forming on the horizon or feel a change in the atmosphere. Squalls, on the other hand, can arise without any warning, requiring leaders to decisively and immediately respond in the moment. Successful middle level schools have the collective capacity to withstand the seasons, storms, and squalls they encounter, helping build capacity by going the extra mile for faculty and staff.

Going the Extra Mile during Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic was a sudden, unwelcome squall that delivered a sharp blow to the capacity of schools to serve students and support faculty and staff. In their recent Research in Middle Level Education Online article, Leadership Support in the Pandemic: Middle School Teacher Perceptions of Emergency Remote Teaching, Mullen and Badger (2023) described many ways administrators and teacher-leaders in one middle school provided support to teachers under the trying circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Supportive administrators tended to be good listeners, which helped mitigate some of the stress associated with the sudden switch to emergency remote teaching. Administrators were available to troubleshoot myriad problems, and they contacted caregivers when students did not attend online classes or complete assignments. Communicating with caregivers was a constant demand on teachers’ time, and supportive administrators helped manage incoming calls and e-mails. Finally, teachers reported that some administrators went so far as to assume instructional duties, such as preparing and delivering coursework, when a teacher’s ability to do so was stretched thin. By “going the extra mile” in these and other ways, the middle level school leaders in Mullen and Badger’s study built capacity among their teams to weather the uncertainties of the pandemic.

Servant Leaders Go the Extra Mile

Administrators who “go the extra mile” in the ways described by Mullen and Badger practice an approach to leadership called “servant leadership.” As Northouse (2019) noted, “Servant leadership emphasizes that leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them. Servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities” (p. 227). Some ways servant leaders go the extra mile to build capacity include developing and supporting faculty, scheduling time for faculty growth and well-being, and modeling the positive vision and values of the school.

Developing and Supporting Faculty

According to Mike Milak, assistant principal at Webb Bridge Middle School in Georgia, administrators build capacity by developing and supporting faculty:

We go the extra mile by creating or finding opportunities that align with teachers’ passions or professional goals. It could be clubs, finding leadership opportunities—things that not only build their own capacity as professionals, but also the collective capacity of the entire school. We also form cohorts of teachers with like goals so they can support one another on their professional journeys, and we send them to conferences that align with their goals and provide opportunities to lead professional learning engagements with our staff. We’re also very intentional about leveraging the strengths of partners like the PTA to build our capacity.

The supports and structures Mike described resonate with the responsive middle level school leadership practices related to faculty found in Rheaume et al.’s (2021) study published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, An Analysis of Responsive Middle Level School Leadership Practices: Revisiting the Developmentally Responsive Middle Level Leadership Model. Rheaume et al. described ways responsive leaders foster a collaborative culture, embrace shared leadership, and empower teachers to make decisions. By doing so, such leaders cultivate “collective capacity” that is a characteristic of effective school systems (Fullan, 2010).

The Gift of Time

Time and attention are the building blocks of strong human relationships (Sozomenau, n.d.), and servant leaders value the gift of time and find ways to flex the schedule to make it a priority in their schools (Perez, 2022). Dr. Edward Anderson, executive director of OnTrack Greenville and former principal of Tanglewood Middle School in South Carolina, carved out time during the school day to allow teachers room to grow and thrive:

When I was principal, we afforded teachers opportunities to lead by scheduling free periods for experienced “master” teachers to provide mentoring for novice teachers during the school day. We also created a “tap-in, tap-out” system and mindful spaces to support teachers’ mental health and wellness.

Tap-in/tap-out programs allow teachers to reach out to a colleague during the school day when they need support or to take a break from a stressful situation (Berger, 2018). Such programs are examples of trauma-informed strategies middle level leaders can implement to support faculty and staff well-being when storms and squalls arise (see also Crosby et al., 2020).

Be the Change

The quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. The idea is that personal change and social change are inextricably connected. Effective middle level leaders understand the truth to this philosophy, and they seek to consistently and visibly embody the values and vision of their schools. As award-winning principal and educational change leader Eric Sheninger (2022) asserted, “Modeling is one of the most powerful strategies to initiate and sustain change” (para. 4). Servant leaders “walk their talk” (Virtue, 2011); and with integrity, a sense of purpose, and an other-directed approach to leadership, they foster a culture of collaboration, mutual respect, and empowerment throughout the school.


When servant leaders go the extra mile for faculty and staff, they boost the capability of the school to successfully weather the seasons, storms, and squalls they encounter. In short, they build collective capacity (Fullan, 2010). As Bishop and Harrison (2021) suggested in The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, this happens when leaders “build a culture of collaboration that cultivates leadership skills in others, empowering others to make decisions and enact change. … By skillfully supporting shared leadership, [they] advance the leadership capacity in the school” (p. 49). Middle level school leaders who wish to serve their schools and build capacity should focus on developing and supporting faculty, scheduling time for faculty growth and well-being, and consistently modeling the vision and values of the school. To find the full studies by Mullen and Badger (2023) and Rheaume et al. (2021), readers can visit Research in Middle Level Education Online.

David C. Virtue is the Taft B. Botner Professor of Middle Grades Education at Western Carolina University and the editor of Research in Middle Level Education Online.

Edward Anderson is the executive director of OnTrack Greenville in South Carolina.

Mike Milak is an assistant principal at Webb Bridge Middle School in Georgia.