Post written by Samuel Dasher, principal of Louisville Middle School in Louisville, Ga., and a member of ASCD's Emerging Leaders Class of 2007. This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.
I am one who believes that there is no "muddle in the middle." Middle schools have taken the brunt of the attack from critics of education for as long as they have been in existence. The reason for the criticism is that most critics (and people in general) really don't understand how a middle school child functions and, as a result, misunderstand the purpose and strategies that make middle schools work.
Middle school children are like no other students the average educator will come in contact with. (Is that a chorus of "Amens"?) They are a massive bundle of raging hormones pent up in bodies that are growing faster on average than they have since infancy, struggling to come to grips with the rigors and responsibilities of young adulthood. While all of this is going on, they are fighting for social independence and, at the same time, maintaining a death grip on their families. Middle school students can be summed up in one word: confusing. However, despite the daily challenges and frustrations of working with middle-graders, middle schools do work.
For a middle school to function efficiently and effectively, it needs to have several factors in place. I am not listing these elements as a specific recipe for success, but I believe that they certainly improve the possibility for the success of any school.
A Truly Dedicated Staff
I was told early in my career that the best middle school educators have a little bit of middle school student in them. I believed it then and swear by it now, with a slight modification: I believe it takes a certain kind of teacher to understand the middle school child. As a school administrator, it is my responsibility to make sure that I have a staff that is dedicated to understanding, working with, and ensuring the success of every child in their charge every day.
I have been blessed with a staff that goes above and beyond on their own initiative—calling students at home to go over homework, accepting my open-door policy for parents without complaint (and encouraging parents to attend classes), staying after school or coming in early to work one-on-one with struggling students, and the list goes on and on. I am very proud of the work the teachers do, and they, along with the parents, are the greatest reason for our success.
A great deal of what my staff does is intrinsically motivated and the result of hard work to change the professional climate of the school. Teachers have the support of other teachers and the school's administration, and there is extremely effective communication among all levels of school personnel. Teachers are also afforded the opportunity to see administrators model our expectations when we are invited into classes to teach and coteach. This support allows teachers to feel free to strive for higher standards through innovation and creativity, without fear of undue criticism. We do ask teachers to explain what they are doing, but in the questioning, we create a true professional learning culture within the school that benefits both educators and students.
My school also provides several types of rewards and fun activities for our staff. They can be rewarded with passes to skip certain duties, which administrators will then pick up for them. The administration often cooks for teachers, with appreciation lunches in the teachers lounge, and twice a year we have a cookout on an early-release day. Our teachers and students have also developed a healthy sense of competition, with each grade level striving to achieve higher levels of academic achievement across content areas. In addition, we have pep rallies and teacher–student basketball and dodgeball games. Remarkably, teachers consider these activities as much of a reward as students do.
I consistently tell my teachers that nothing comes from chaos except more chaos. With this idea in mind, when my leadership team and I accepted the challenge of turning around our school, discipline and the curriculum were top concerns.
For all their blossoming independence, middle school students (like anyone else) just want to know what is expected and what their boundaries are. They will test them, but they want to know how far they can go. Once those boundaries are set, all you need to do is enforce them. There will always be those who try to beat the system, but the overwhelming majority of students will stay within the set boundaries.
Freedom and Respect
These principles apply to both students and teachers. Middle school is a time of exploration as students begin to map out definite ideas and plans for their futures and develop their own unique identities. Students have to be allowed to feel like a part of their education and to make some decisions about what they will do in the future.
Giving students this limited freedom and deserved respect will go a long way toward helping them mature and showing them the same respect we expect as teachers. Teachers have to be respected and trusted as professionals to do what is in the best interest of the child within the confines of the curriculum, standards, and policy. Teachers who are given professional respect and freedom will often return results well beyond expectations.
There is no miracle cure for what may ail a middle school, but there is a plan: hard work.
When I arrived at my school, we were in our seventh year of "needs improvement," according to state mandates, and the climate of the school left a great deal to be desired. At the end of my fifth year as principal, our school can lay claim to the following: We have made AYP for three years in a row. We have watched discipline referrals fall to a fraction of the number they were the year before my assistant principals and I arrived. Teachers have become leaders and taken an active role in the successful operation of the school. And, most important, we have all watched young men and young ladies succeed academically and take the initiative to control their futures.
Middle schools can work, and many of them work extremely well; we just have to take the time as educational leaders to understand them.