Middle school kids are a different breed. If you aren't motivating them, they are not learning. In fact, they are probably tearing something up if motivation isn't in the picture. During my years as a middle school principal, I figured out that building a school culture with character education, fun, and a sense of belonging was key to improving student achievement.
The year before I arrived at a junior high of 510 students, teachers sent students 5,090 times to the office for disciplinary infractions. Discipline was handled in three different ways: kick the kid out, let the kid sit on the bench outside the office and go to their next class with no consequence, or paddle them. The school board was very adamant that this building culture change.
The very first day of classes, I had teachers direct kids off of the buses and straight into the gym or cafeteria. In the past, the children had congregated inside the circle drive around the flagpole and horsed around, or they went straight into the hallways to yell, fight, and cause a general nuisance. At the first bell, I walked out and, without a microphone, addressed the student body that had grown to more than 550 over the summer. I made several key points about what the building would be like under my leadership:
- Learning was our primary purpose for being at school. Students didn't have the right to keep someone else from learning.
- Disciplinary infractions would be dealt with quickly and according to the handbook.
- Having fun is an important part of education as long as the rules are followed.
- Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. I would always treat them respectfully and I expected the same in return.
The superintendent had come over to see how my first day was going and heard my speech. Afterwards, he pulled me aside and said, "I watched the kids as you spoke to see their reactions. One of the boys sitting at the top in the corner said, 'Holy ***, this year is going to be different.'" We had obviously created a different tone in the building from the beginning.
The real fun had yet to begin. I had taken the "hecklers bench" out from in front of the office so teachers couldn't just send kids out of their rooms, without a referral, to be watched by the building secretary until the period was over. A group of them had come to my office wanting to know what they were supposed to do with kids who didn't want to be in their classes. I said they would have to use good classroom management skills to keep kids engaged or write a referral for me to deal with them. I added that I would be monitoring the number of referrals coming out of each room so I could see who needed help with classroom management.
Discipline quickly became counseling sessions where I tried to get at the root cause of a student's behavior. Instead of signing a referral and sending a kid straight to our newly formed in-school suspension (ISS) room, I spent some time getting to know the student and then together we called the parent to discuss the behavior—this ensured a different story about the infraction was not told at home. Teachers began complaining that I was making kids feel good and not just "whipping them." However, our ISS was full of productive students and our out-of-school suspension numbers almost disappeared.
Having been a Pep Club sponsor when I was an art teacher, I renamed our first pep rally the "MAP Rally" after our high-stakes state achievement test, the Missouri Assessment Program. A teacher introduced the opening act of our MAP Rally as Guns-n-Roses and the assistant principal, two teachers, and myself came out dressed up and lip syncing as members of the band. The kids went crazy seeing their principal dressed in a kilt and catcher's guard. This simple act of having fun and rewarding students' hard work paid off for the rest of my three years as the building principal.
We worked hard for three years on character, instructional practices, and grading. We adopted a Zeros Aren't Permitted (ZAP) program. I became Advanced Certified in Character Education through Characterplus. My leadership team developed a character education implementation plan. The high school began to contact us to see what we were doing that was changing the character of the students we were sending them each year. Achievement scores began to rise and disciplinary infractions referred to the office dropped by at least 50 percent each year.
Because the culture of the building was changing so significantly, the junior high stopped being the catch basin for the teachers other buildings didn't want. Seventy five percent of the teaching staff turned over in three years and were replaced with teachers more in tune with helping kids learn rather than teaching them a lesson. The leadership team began to take responsibility for the culture in the building and began to ask me to take care of responsibilities in the office and let them take care of the building.
By the time I left, disciplinary infractions had decreased 88 percent and attendance was up about 2 percent. Student achievement in math had increased 20 percent and communication arts by 10 percent. I made a point of being in each classroom twice a day and kids either ignored me because they were used to seeing me so much, or they wanted me to see what they were working on.
Years later at an ASCD conference, I would learn that we were educating the whole child. We wanted them to be healthy, both emotionally and physically. Students needed to feel safe not only with their peers, but also with the faculty. Their minds needed to be engaged and not just occupied. Teachers need to provide meaningful, sincere support and not just a take-it-or-leave-it approach. Finally, kids need to be challenged. During my final MAP Rally, I showed them data from other area schools in math and communication arts. I asked them to close their eyes and picture their favorite teacher: "How you do on this assessment reflects on how that teacher has affected your life," I told them. "Go do your very best this week for that teacher." I then spent the rest of the morning wandering the hallways during breaks between testing sessions. Kids kept coming up, pride shining in their eyes, to tell me they had answered every question and to reassure me they had done their very best. Because I cared about them, they cared about me and what I thought.
Education in the United States would change overnight if every kid thought the adults in the school cared about them. Telling them is important. Showing them gets results.
Kevin Goddard has served as a superintendent for seven years, the last three in Sarcoxie, Missouri, a high-poverty school district. He looks for emerging teacher leaders who apply whole child practices in their classrooms. He is currently working with several potential principals-to-be who will be greatly missed in the classroom, but welcomed by schools lucky enough to hire them. Connect with Goddard on Twitter @kevintgoddard.