Creating Belonging in the Middle Grades, No Matter the School Setting
When Laurie Barron became Superintendent of Evergreen School District in Montana, she knew it’d be different than the previous two decades she’d spent as a teacher and school leader in the suburbs of Atlanta. “We do not ride horses and buggies to school,” Barron said, dispelling certain myths of rural education, “In fact, being in Kalispell, one of the larger population centers in the area, many Montanans would consider us urban, whereas we’re definitely rural by U.S. standards.”
Despite the many differences across the school settings where she’s worked, the one thing that isn’t so different is the middle school kids. Jessica McGuire and Phyllis Fagell sat down with Barron to learn more about her work on school belonging and the opportunities and challenges that come with working in a rural district. Listen to their discussion on the Middle School Walk and Talk podcast or enjoy the written recap here.
“On the one hand you would think it’s easier because it’s smaller,” says Barron, “It’s easy to make sure there’s an adult for every kid.” It’s the disparity in resources, however, that presents challenges. For example, rural schools may struggle to provide the electives offered in a larger district. Additionally, teachers often teach multiple grades or subject areas. “More people have to do more things. It becomes challenging to build relationships if I’m teaching every 5th and 6th grader in the building.” As an example, she pointed to PLCs in larger schools where a teacher has the opportunity to share ideas or gain new strategies from a colleague down the hall. That’s just not always possible in rural schools.
According to Barron, one of the keys to overcoming this challenge is embedded professional development supported at the district level. “You lose some of the collaboration that comes with teaming,” she explained, “It can get lonely and isolating for a teacher. We put a really high emphasis on supporting our teachers visiting classrooms in other districts and giving teachers time to work together.”
Another way she’s found to support teachers is by encouraging administrators to conduct regular classroom visits. “Our expectation of principals is you’re in every class every week.” They’re not formal observations, she says, “But you’re visible as a support and seeing what’s going on. You’re helping yourself and your staff grow. You’re pointing out ways to expand their classroom practices, because they don’t have that network.”
Despite the difference between rural versus suburban or urban settings, Barron doesn’t see a big difference in the kids. “Young adolescents everywhere have this need to belong,” she says, “I don’t care where they are, many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to be noticed. For better or worse.”
Social media has played a big role in how kids are seeking out that belonging. As a result, it’s imperative that educators prioritize belonging when kids are at school. “Teachers need to find ways to help kids belong outside of fake affirmations from social media,” advises Barron, “It’s about really understanding their interests and how we can make class relevant to them.”
An important part of this is authentically valuing what students value. “To me, everything should be equal,” explains Barron, “Otherwise don’t have it. That’s everything from football, to math and English, to consumer sciences, to custodial services. What are we saying if we’re implying that certain roles, teachers, or classes are more important than others? The idea that we would take something that a kid is so passionate about, say, for example, football practice, and tell them my class is more important…By whose standards?”
That doesn’t mean we can’t help kids prioritize. Instead, it’s about using their values as an avenue to help them come to value things that might not be as inherently important to them. This includes creating space for the social component of middle school. Barron shared an example of a visit she made to a middle school chorus class in her district. “The kids were a little bit antsy, clearly not respecting the lesson. The teacher was trying to get control. I’m standing there wondering whether I should leave so as not to make it worse when the teacher says, ‘Everybody stop! You have 60 seconds to talk about anything you want to that doesn’t relate to this class. Go!’ Then, 60 seconds later, he yells, ‘Stop! Ok we’re on line 3, pickup, ready…’ And the singing began and continued through the end of the period. It was the most brilliant use of 60 seconds I’ve ever seen in a classroom in my career. That teacher got back 20 minutes for that 60 seconds.”
When thinking about fostering belonging in her district, Barron relies heavily on the student research she conducted when writing Middle School: A Place to belong and Become. “One thing we heard over and over from kids was, ‘Don’t let us choose our groups.’” She explains that the social pressure and fear of exclusion can be consuming for kids, especially young adolescents. “If they’re changing classes every 60 minutes, then every hour that kid is stressing about where they’re sitting or if they’re going to get picked.” That’s not to mention the most anxiety-inducing periods where the time is completely unstructured – lunch and recess. When kids feel left out or excluded at school, they’re just not going to care about the math test – no matter how good the teacher’s instruction is.
Barron advises that teachers and school leaders can be intentional about inclusion throughout the day. This includes assigning seats, rotating groups, and incorporating classroom activities that help kids get to know each other. “If they know each other, they’re more likely to see each other as human beings.”
You can listen to AMLE’s Middle School Walk & Talk Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Stitcher. Laurie Barron is the author of Middle School: A Place to Belong & Become and We Belong: 50 Strategies to Create Community and Revolutionize Classroom Management. You can catch Laurie live this summer at the Institute for Middle Level Leadership in San Diego and New Orleans.