We Are Family: Comprehensive Leadership in Middle Schools

The middle school concept lends itself to the notion of family. With any family, giving roles and responsibility to each family member increases the family’s connection and productivity. This article will discuss leadership and learning strategies I have used in various middle schools to create comprehensive leadership programs that promote culture and family. There are strategies discussed for enhancing teaching and learning with peer coaches and mentors, empowering teachers for instructional leadership, decreasing resistance and anxiety for new instructional practices, and modeling how to lead one’s own learning within the context of a pandemic, distance learning, and racial/social inequity.

Peer Coaches and Mentors

Peer coaches and mentors are important members of the family that enhance teacher learning. Their role is important in the school because they provide leadership to the teacher leaders in the school. They are role models that share their experiences as they coach and mentor teachers. In developing teachers into leaders they can build relationships, show not tell, and provide parallel experiences.

Before mentors and coaches can lead teacher leaders, they must build relationships with the teachers they will support. Just like we train middle school teachers to build relationships with students, these leaders must build relationships. Relationship building can start with using these four steps:

  1. Find commonalities and build upon them.
  2. Trust that people are bringing their best selves to the relationship.
  3. Find the good in experiences and note positivity.
  4. Be trustworthy.

Coaches and mentors lead by example through modeling the leadership skills they would like the teachers to have. Mentees need strategies modeled to them in a teaching-learning environment, but also need strategies implemented side-by-side. For this strategy, it has worked well to have a mentee and mentor plan a lesson together then teach the lesson together. After teaching the lesson together, the pair can debrief to determine next steps. The key to using this strategy is to have the mentor show and demonstrate the strategies they are teaching their mentees. This support begins with more targeted, differentiated support and ends with mentors coaching with less direct support.

This type of targeted support can be given in a face-to-face or virtual environment. Virtually, the pair could plan together using online platforms for coediting shared documents. The planning can happen synchronously or asynchronously. When the pair teaches together, they can share screens and share host responsibilities. This relationship can even be valuable to students as they work with differentiated groups/pods/channels in the online classroom. The virtual environment could mimic the face-to-face environment with the proper planning and attention to the virtual needs of all stakeholders.

Empowering Teachers for Instructional Leadership

Principals can expand instructional leadership by empowering teacher leaders in many ways. In my middle school we implemented two programs that allowed my teachers to use their skills to become teacher leaders: Teachers Tell All and Research Roundtable.

Teachers Tell All sessions are designed for teachers to share classroom challenges with a small cohort of teachers to receive feedback and support on possible solutions. The protocol for the sessions includes small groups of three or four in which each teacher takes 5 minutes to describe one challenge and gets feedback for 10 minutes. At the conclusion of the session, teachers should have strategies to use in their classrooms. This could be a standalone event, an event with several sessions in which the teacher provides feedback on using the suggested strategies, or it can be followed up by the Research Roundtable.

During Research Roundtable, teachers use action research to display findings from their own classrooms. Teachers select a challenge to investigate, collect data on possible solutions, then share the findings around a roundtable of their peers. This event is a powerful way for teachers to demonstrate the leadership skills they use within their classrooms. During professional development sessions with coaches, teachers first select a challenge based on conversations they have had in the Teachers Tell All sessions to connect the various learning experiences. Schools could also implement these programs independent of each other.

Both programs can be the training ground for how teachers will have controversial conversations in their classrooms. Middle grades students need opportunities to discuss the societal context to analyze and better understand how they fit in the world. For example, if the classroom teacher wanted to discuss police brutality or racial/social inequity, the protocols for the Teacher Tell All or the Research Roundtable could provide concrete strategies for how to approach courageous, controversial conversations with students.

Decreasing Resistance and Anxiety

New ideas for classroom instructional practices may bring resistance and anxiety. Three strategies I have used when implementing a new program in my middle school are leveraging relationships, holding morning meetings, and using data. After using these strategies, the entire school was on board with the new program, even if they were initially resistant and anxious.

Building relationships is an extremely effective strategy. We use it to connect with students in the classroom, and to connect with adults in a mentorship situation. When making connections, you find commonality by talking and asking questions. After you find commonality, you leverage what you have in common and go back to that in conversations. Remembering what is important to your mentee and mentioning that in conversations works well to decrease resistance. In a virtual situation, it may be more difficult to build relationships, but one-on-one meetings can still happen with virtual strategies. I have used scavenger hunts in which we find items in our home to share something about ourselves, such as a favorite item that gives us joy. These types of scavenger hunts work well to build community and relationships that can decrease resistance and anxiety.

Morning meetings are a strategy that many teachers use to build culture and to address social-emotional learning in their classrooms. This same strategy can be used to build leadership capacity to counteract resistance and anxiety in schools. Morning meetings can be structured or unstructured but generally allow attendees time to self-reflect and share feelings with others. If the school has several structured programs, the morning meeting could be one strategy used for those who prefer a less structured experience. My middle school has used morning meetings to discuss issues like police brutality and action. The students use a timed portion at the beginning of advisory period or homeroom to discuss hot topics and what students can do about them. These meetings allow teachers to be leaders in their classrooms and to guide students towards being leaders in their communities.

Using data to demonstrate effectiveness of new strategies is paramount. Reluctant staff members don’t want to read data from a national survey or a context that is different from your current population. Instead, use data that reflects your school’s context. Even better, use data from your school after the new instructional strategies have been implemented. When some staff members weren’t fully invested, I used the data we collected to note how the new instructional strategies/program was working. I used their peers and even their own data when it was available. In one example, we implemented a program to reduce suspensions. After two months of implementing this new program with fidelity, suspensions for all demographics decreased. I used this data to praise my teachers, but also to ease resistance and anxiety. By the end of the year, all teachers were on board and less anxious about the changes. This was due in part to leveraging relationships, implementing morning meetings, and analyzing the impact of data.

Leading One’s Own Learning

Adults in the school should model for students the importance of leading their own learning. This can be done in several ways inside the classroom, schoolwide, and in the community. The three strategies that help educators model leading one’s own learning are classroom conferences, school-wide summits, and community classrooms.

Classroom conferences allow teachers and students alike the opportunity to demonstrate their learning. Think of this strategy as more than presentations completed by students, rather a class-wide learning experience in which each member of the classroom reflects on their learning and strategizes about their growth. Each member of the class, including the teacher, chooses a learning goal and a path to achieve this goal. They research how to reach their goal. With many middle schools having hybrid or 100% virtual instruction, this strategy could be helpful as each class has a whole-group meeting and small breakout rooms (like in a professional conference) where students could share their learning goals and gains.

School-wide summits are organized activities in which staff can model to students how they lead their own learning. Adults can give interactive presentations where they model to students how they plan, organize, and evaluate their own learning. The logistics of how your school sets up school-wide summits will be based on your context, but the content of modeling one’s own learning will come from adults in the school who reflect on their process for learning while modeling to students how they can do this. The school-wide summits take the classroom conferences to the next level as students are able to make connections amongst school staff. This also allows students the opportunity to learn more about their preference for learning and how to master their own learning goals given their own learning styles.

The next phase of adults modeling to students how they take ownership in their own learning is the community classroom. In the community classroom, the school invites community members into the school to become learners along with the staff and students on various topics. After attending the community classrooms, adults can debrief these experiences with students in advisory periods. Students get the opportunity to learn with the adults in their schools while the community is brought into the school creating an extended family.

Schools are places where leaders are developed and learning is realized. The adults in the schools should model their learning for the students in the school. There are several ways that schools can accomplish this given the social context of a pandemic and virtual learning among racial and social inequities. This article provided several strategies for schools to enhance leadership both at the student level and at the adult level. These strategies can be used to create a culture of learning and a family within your middle school.

LaTasha Adams, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of education and middle grades coordinator at Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia. She is also a former middle grades teacher and principal.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.