There are many great middle school leaders that I have been fortunate to work with and get to know through my PLN. I have listened to them, shared ideas and gained many new strategies/ideas. I am grateful for our connections and I owe so much of my success to their support. As I reflect upon their work, while they have many differences they also have shared qualities as well. One characteristic they all shared is the great leaders recognize “it’s about others, not about themselves.”
You can call this servant leadership or simply refer to how they focus on others much more than themselves. Great leaders understand that to help drive a successful school, it always comes back to people and how can you influence their behavior, actions and beliefs. This means connecting with them, supporting their work and activities and finding ways to help them grow. This approach is the same mindset for students, staff and parents. This mindset puts a premium on making school a place that people enjoy coming to and celebrating the work together. They create a school culture that is demonstrated by healthy, positive relationships led by strong teacher leaders that empower students to be the difference. This only occurs because the leaders recognize the importance of developing other leaders and that only occurs with a focused vision on supporting and developing others. As Jimmy Casas shares, “In the end, your legacy won’t be about your success. It will be about your significance and the impact you made on every student, every day, and whether you were willing to do whatever it took to inspire them to be more than they ever thought possible.”
I look forward to hearing from you about your thoughts regarding the one common characteristic of middle level leaders. Comment below or reach out to me at email@example.com
Successful teachers are those that build strong relationships, personalize learning, use effective strategies and help kids learn at high levels. How this is achieved will look different depending on many factors such as the grade level, building needs and school community. However, the one common characteristic that is shared by these great teaches is their “Focus or intentionality”.
This focus or intentional work allows teachers to maximize their interactions with others, be efficient with time and supports the right work. They operate from an understanding of their core beliefs and how it supports their “why”. Teachers must make so many decisions within a day, so this focus is what allows someone over time to continue to grow as a teacher leader and impact others. It starts with connecting with others, building relationships through trust, using researched based practices but then also reflecting and growing as an educator. This only happens from a focus on getting better each day.
I would encourage each of us to consider “what is your focus” or how do you spend your time? This answer will tell you how you are maximizing the limited # of opportunities that exist to help others strive for excellence.
As you strive to learn and stretch yourself as a leader, I would be curious on what you view is the common characteristic of all GREAT middle school educators. Reach out to me with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
For every great leader, a mentor pushed that person into their current reality. I have recognized that is is vital for growth to have a “go to person”. However, when I asked myself that question I recognized that is has been many people and those experiences that I would define as my “go to people.” So not 1 individual person but rather different people over time from a varied of experiences. When we think of “who is you go to person”, my core beliefs and decision making practices developed from a combination of experiences and individuals. This has been pivotal in my development and from my perspective; here is why a group of mentors is so essential:
Learning from others increase greater capacity for growth Leadership is influence upon others. You must find time to consistently learn latest strategies, reflect and challenge the status quo. You can learn in isolation, but you have greater capacity for growth when you have multiple people with different perspectives and experiences to learn.
It Provide multiple opportunities for reflection Having an extensive PLN provides a platform where you get feedback from others. They can share different strategies that you can consider for next steps.
Growth is not automatic but connecting with others becomes intentional practices. Leaders have very busy lives filled with a variety of tasks, but when you have “go to people,” it provides daily practices and time set aside to reflect and challenge your thinking. Growth is what separates those who are successful and those who are not. It takes time to grow and when you have a PLN pushing you, then you will develop over time as a leader.
Having a “go to person or people” is critical in any person’s development as it provides capacity for growth, reflection and intentional part of your work.
This blog post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country. They collectively learn from each other daily as they connect through social media and Voxer to share challenges, listen, share and learn from each other to continually grow in the best interest to push their school community forward. These passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.
The prompt for this blog is “The 2019-20 school year started over the past month across the country. What are some “essentials” for middle school educators, teachers or leaders, at the beginning of the school year?”
Here are the responses from these middle school leaders
Donald Gately. Middle School Principal, Long Island
For me, it’s important to do something new every year. There is a truism that we needn’t do new things just for the sake of doing them. To keep things fresh, I need to always be trying new things, at least that’s how it works for me personally. This is actually my 18th year as a middle school principal, I know this because my second day as a brand-new principal was September 11, 2001, it was a tragic and challenging start to my career. This year, inspired by one of my colleagues, Anthony Ciuffo, we implemented with our staff an initiative we’re calling “Learning-Edge Buddies”. Here’s how it works: At our first faculty meeting, each member of our staff responded on paper to the following prompts: What are you going to try for the first time this year or what are you trying to get better at? What’s your plan? What are some things you’re going to do differently? Next, each member of the staff crumpled up the paper into a “snowball” and tossed it at someone across the room; pick up the snowball and throw it again. Everyone picks up a snowball. That is your learning-edge buddy. Your role is to be a cheerleader and supporter for your colleague / new friend as they travel on a learning journey this year. A simple and elegant idea that so far is working beautifully. So many of our teachers have commented that their learning-edge buddy drops them little notes, maybe a small treat, an e-mail, a pat on the back, just to keep each other on track and accountable to somebody besides ourselves. I’m excited by this initiative. Wondering what we will do next year!
Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York
Remember being 13? Who among us, given the opportunity, would actually choose to return to this…dare I say, unique time of life?
These questions stick in my mind every September, facing a new school year, lying at the core of my approach with new (and returning) students, families, and staff. Whether for the first time, or a second or even third decade in middle school, September is the time to re-evaluate our memories and perceptions of life in middle school, to reset our perspectives.
Middle School is amazing. Minute to minute, day by day, and month by month, there is this indescribable energy permeating every square inch of space of the building. As adults charged with finding ways to guide, steer, and sometimes harness this energy, a willingness to accept this challenge represents a key to success with adolescents. Catch the lightning in a bottle, and celebrate when you do.
Middle School is complicated. Personal identity, evolving friendships, and puberty. While these are some of the “typical” struggles associated with adolescence, coupled with real-world issues, this makes middle school tough to understand, leaving kids (and even sometimes adults) to wonder, “Am I the only one who…?”
September presents a chance for renewal, a rebirth of sorts. Provided the chance to, not necessarily walk in our own shoes again, but to walk alongside a 13 year-old, that’s where the magic is, the privilege of Middle School. And that’s for us adults as much as the 13 year-olds who we serve.
Chris Legleiter – Middle School Principal, Leawood, KS
The school year is an extremely busy setting but also provides great opportunities for educators to positively influence and impact others. The middle level is unique as kids are striving to grow as learners, develop independence and find their social place among peers. Educators that thrive at the middle level use the following “essentials” within their work:
Foster Effective Relationships – This is the most important factor in a successful classroom and school. It’s all about the people and how do we support and encourage each other.
Effective Instructional Leadership – Both teachers and administrators are instructional leaders, and a primary goal must be student learning. We must always learn new strategies to enhance our work.
Focus on Growth – The School year is long but does move by quickly. All educators must focus on getting better at their craft thru learning new practices, become connected with other educators, reflect upon the work and adjust as needed.
Develop Others – The best schools exist because of its people. They also have a collective efficacy that “we are all in it together “for kids. We must build others up and focus on “being the best for the team, not the best on the team.”
Show your passion – All educators go into teaching because they want to make a difference. We must let others see our enthusiasm, energy and positivity. Those things are contagious and it’s great when kids see the adults having fun in their roles as it creates a “community”.
The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching is hard as everyday matters but it is great because every day matters as we can impact kids. Be You and Be the Difference.
LaQuita Outlaw – Middle School Principal, Long Island
You spent the summer thinking about all the different things you would try to be better this year than you were the year before. Your desire to inspire students is at its peak. Before the feeling passes, find a way to harness the excitement that you have at this very moment. Grab a pencil (or a pen – whatever your preference) and record the fine details of what makes you smile. The children’s genuine admiration as they look at you when you speak. The way their eyes follow your every moment as you introduce a new topic, or even the surprise in their eyes when you show them something they’ve never heard before. Think about the conversations they’re having with their peers around the task you’ve given them, or the work that they’ve produced, which far supersedes anything you ever imagined. It’s these moments that will carry you through the difficult times of the year.
Use the list that you generated to the sheer joy that brought you into education. There are an endless number of ways to capture, or reignite, the beginning of the year bliss. Here are some to consider:
Take a picture that sits on your desk as a reminder of the moment that brought you joy.
Celebrate children! A note home to the child’s family, or a certificate that celebrates an accomplishment will bring you back to why you do what you do
Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
What Are Your Hopes and Dreams
Each year I look forward to connecting with students, parents and staff when they return to school in the fall. I ask students “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams” and listen carefully to their responses. This question can become a “coaching” conversation by asking several follow up questions helping each student think about their future. The real power behind the question comes when 8th grade mentors have a conversation with incoming 6th graders about their hopes and dreams. This is not only a mentoring connection, but an opportunity for growth.
Parents can play a significant role by carrying out the discussion at home, driving to soccer practice or out for a meal together. Middle school is a great time for parents to engage in the “Hopes and Dreams” conversation with their child. Teachers can promote this at Open House in the fall by posting a welcome on their SMART board stating “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams.” The visual allows for a great conversation starter.
I would encourage you to continue the discussion by asking your staff what their hopes and dreams are for the upcoming year. Ask staff to share their thoughts at a staff meeting before school starts. This allows an opportunity for risk taking and builds school culture at the same time. We are never too old to have hopes and dreams for the new school year.
Jay Posick- Merton Intermediate School, Merton, WI
The beginning of the school year is when we need to focus on the 3 R’s-
Relationships with students
Relationships with staff
Relationships with family.
Most of the interactions we have before the school year starts are with our staff. It’s important to provide our staff time with one another and it’s also important to spend time with our staff. It doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, all professional development. It’s time to talk about our expectations for our students and for one another.
Once the students are in the building, it’s important to connect with students as much as you can. Greet them when they arrive. Connect with them in the halls. Eat with them at lunch. Play with them at recess. Learn with them in classrooms. And say good-bye to them as they leave for the day.
Building relationships starts with the first email you send, either at the end of the summer or as the school year gets started. We have used flipgrid to have our staff share a brief video. Open House and Family Information Nights also bring families into our schools.
Relationships are developed over time in 15-30 second increments. Make the 3R’s a priority for the start of the school year and there’s a great chance it will be your best school year ever.
Ted Huff – Educational Consultant / Retired Middle School Principal O’Fallon, MO
As educators, it is essential to remember what it was like to be a middle school student. Picture yourself back in 8th grade. Two essential questions ring true: First, Will I be accepted? And second, Can I do the work? If we empower our students to confidently answer both questions with a resounding “Yes”, then our students will be prepared to have a successful year.
Building positive professional relationships with our students begins with the first days of school.Dedicating the first few days of school to relationship building, academic work won’t begin until the first full week of school. During Character Connection Class (our academic lab) teachers and students work together to foster a collaborative and accepting community through a variety of them building activities. This is continues throughout the rest of the school year. During the “academic” and elective classes, the teachers also focus on class relationships. Here they share the importance of getting to know their students before jumping into curriculum work.
So goes the first week of school, so goes your school year. Start off on the correct foot by building a foundation based on relationships.
Laura Jennaro – Christian Education Leadership Academy (K-8) , Pewaukee, WI
I love the start of a new school year! With it brings an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a positive approach. We educators, are the luckiest people on earth; we get to inspire youth everyday. While blessed by this endeavor, we also accept great responsibility. It is essential for educators, to embrace this responsibility in the following three ways: show up, be curious about your people, and lead by example.
SHOW UP When I show up, I am present and engaged in the moment. I am not multitasking; I do not have my phone out; I am listening; I am interacting. I am curious. I seek to learn with and from you. In what ways can we show up?
BE CURIOUS Stories connect us. I enjoy learning the stories of my people, be it staff, students, parents. Commonalities create an invisible bridge over which relationships are developed. How do you learn other’s stories?
LEAD BY EXAMPLE It is not enough to talk the talk, we must walk the talk. Model what is expected in all that you say and do. Inspire others with your actions.
Setting the tone for a new school year is essential, and not always easy. Remember to give yourself grace as you embrace this new school year and the opportunities it provides!
Leaders work extremely hard to serve others, but it is also important they take the time to learn themselves and connect with other like minded educators. I look forward to hearing from you how you reflect and grow as a leader from reading these blog posts from amazing leaders. Comment below or reach out to me at email@example.com
As we roll into September, all schools are into the thick of the year. The days and weeks get busy, but as leaders, we must find ways to bring the enthusiasm, focus and energy every day that we did on the first day. The first day is always special, but so are the other 179 school days as well. We must continually have a vision for our growth as well as the school community and the staff we support. This is achieved by remembering the school year “is a marathon, not a sprint”. The following attributes will help educators find success, growth and support others over the course of the year just like running a marathon takes intentional focus and practice:
When things get really busy ….
Each school inevitably gets very busy with the day-to-day operations of the school. With all of this work, the question becomes “how do we make it through the busiest times” as there are many demands upon an already busy schedule.
From my perspective, the most effective way is to “focus on the things that I can control”. As a leader, we must prioritize our work and know what must be done now and what can wait (and what may not get done and that is ok). This prioritization allows leaders to focus on things that can make a difference in school…..supporting its people.
When we think of “focusing on things we can control” that specifically includes the following:
Put others first and focus on the best in people
Empower others to help make a difference
Celebrate the successes of our work and embrace our failures
Trust the people you work with….you hired them for a good reason – they are leaders too.
Communicate often with short, clear messaging
Make decisions on what is best for kids
2. Big Picture – things to keep in mind over course of the year
It is not easy, but I have learned not to get caught up in the never-ending workload, stress, external demands upon our time and frustrations that dominate our thoughts. Yes, hard work is needed and there are times I get frustrated. However, I choose to focus on different thoughts that allow me to focus on students, continue to make positive connections with staff, challenge the status quo to make the school better. The following are important and allow me to grow and influence others over time:
Mindset – As a leader, you must be comfortable with criticism that others will launch at you. The key is to focus on your “mindset” and continue to be positive and challenge the status quo as it relates to building your school’s culture and moving it forward for students. This starts with leaders focusing on their growth.
Reflection – Find some moments and analyze what has worked and what has not worked. This reflection will re-energize your mind/body and allow you to remember “your why” as you realize that there are so many more positives than negatives that occur during the school year.
Seize the Moment – View challenges that do arise as opportunities to grow and make a positive impact in that situation. As educators, we went into teaching and working with kids to make a difference. The true difference is not made when things are easy but rather when there is a difficult situation. Working through the difficult situations provides greater insight into your work and stimulates ideas about what is working and what needs to be adjusted.
Serve – Lead – Inspire: As a leader, we must transfer our passion, optimism and beliefs to those we work with. It is so important to show your team how much you care, even more so during challenging times. Smile – have fun- show kindness and positivity you want in your school.
Be the Model – As Jon Gordon shared in his book “The Energy Bus”, it is important to fuel your ride with positive energy; so in other words, leaders are responsible for creating the positive, fun and welcoming environment that so many educators seek. A person’s enthusiasm attracts more leaders and energizes them to perform their best for students.
3. Most important to remember despite setback and successes
Over the course of the year, there are many twists and turns to the school and working with others. We must remember that it is all about people and developing a positive and supporting culture. It is important to find value in each staff member and ways they can contribute to our culture. I believe that single greatest indicator about the health of a school is the quality of the relationships of the people within it – that describes culture. Here are the keys to remember to build that culture:
Create relationships – It is not the quantity of interactions with staff members that create the relationship but rather the quality of those interactions. As Susan Scott wrote in her book “Fierce Conversations”, “The conversation is the relationship.”
Leaders set the tone – Model the behaviors that what we want in the building. Be vulnerable and be willing to take risks. If we don’t, why should others. In the same instance, when schools get busy then people will be stressed. Leaders must “Be the thermostat not the thermometer” by being consistent, calm and purposeful with our work.
Communication is the key – It is always best to have Face/face interactions and if not possible then a phone call. Leaders are purposeful with their communication, are consistent with their practices and are timely in their delivery.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding your view of how leaders can be successful over the long school year. Comment below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
As another school year starts up, our workload and plates will be busy. Before we know it, the end of the school year will be here. The pace of our work is that busy but it is also that important. As a leader, we must be intentional on our growth so that we are growing within our position and profession during the year. It is our moral imperative to strive for excellence for our students and staff. Nevertheless, the question comes up “how do we grow as leaders during the school year” when things are that busy?
As I think about my own growth as a leader and the learned experiences others have shared, the following practices provide for growth during busy times and I hope they bring value to you and your growth:
Be Intentional – In order to grow you must first make it a priority. In other words, you must make a commitment to take part in consistent activities that allow you to grow as a leader. The amount of this work may vary from person to person due to varying factors, but the key is that it is on the forefront of your mind. It may be daily for some, but on a weekly basis for others. However, for leaders they place a high priority on their growth and always are hungry to learn from others. The intentionality comes where leaders put down on paper their goals and action steps to get there. I encourage leaders to think about how they can grow both within their position but also within their profession. The goals on a written document serve as the reminder and sets the course for the work.
Find time to reflect – Reflection may be the most important aspect of growth for a leader. We learn by doing but it is most impactful when we reflect upon the work we tried to implement. The following reflective questions from George Couros and Connected Principals resonate for me as I think about leading major initiatives or as I reflect on a consistent basis:
What did I do well?
Where do I need to grow?
What things will I challenge myself next?
How will all of these answers impact learners we serve?
How am I developing others and finding ways for them to lead and grow?
How am I building sustainable change within the organization?
Find ways to move your school forward by the work of your staff – As David Geurin shares; “it is critical that we are future driven and instill in our school the methods to develop the skills in our learners so they can be successful”. To achieve this work, we must gather feedback from all stakeholders including students, staff and parents. Leading the conversation on how we can be future driven propels not only the school forward, but also the role of the leader and our impact with others. From my perspective, this includes:
Embracing an open culture where you lead with vulnerability.
Narrow the focus of your school.
Challenge each other to think about past practicesand can it be innovated.
Focus on strengths of staff and school community.
Find ways to develop others – The team is always stronger than an individual, so as a leader if we want to grow then we must invest first in ourselves, but then also in our staff. The work where we serve others to develop as learners first and then leaders actually moves our impact to a much higher level. Great schools exist because of teacher leaders. These teacher leaders are empowered by their leaders to be the change – so it is not about the leader but about how the leader can get everyone to understand it is the collective efficacy that is so important. Leaders set the sail and then the teacher leaders (students and parents too) can help drive the innovative practices.
Continually build the culture – The most important aspect that impacts the school is its culture. As Jon Gordon reminds us, leaders must always build their culture and it is achieved through the simplest but most impactful ways. Building culture should always be a priority for leaders and when leaders make relationships/connections the top priority, and then they are growing with their impact and influence they have upon others. Take time and analyze how you can better:
Be Demanding without being demeaning – it is a fine line of growing staff thru “balance of pressure and support” but staff need to know you have their back as it relates to trying new innovative ideas and it is okay to fail forward.
Unite the team – The greatest schools have the best cultures so as each school year begins with new staff – what ways will you unite the new folks with your existing staff to create a team vs a group of individuals?
Connect with the individual – The most important thing leaders can do is find time to get to know their staff and value their contributions. In this day and age, staff need to know they are valued for their work and feel if they are part of something special.
Stay true to your core beliefs – The amount of decisions that leaders face daily can be overwhelming upon school leaders. This includes instructional decisions, building facilities, staff professional learning, discipline and staff issues. While the intentions of every leader is to get better, it is too easy to be caught up in the amount of work and then forget to focus on growth. Leaders understand that at times, management is a necessary part of leadership. However, the efficiency of a leader will never be as important as the effectiveness of a leader. The individual leader must use core beliefs so they remain focused on the right work and consistently use this as a guide to their decisions, communication and priorities.
I look forward to hearing from you about your thoughts on ways you grow as a leader during the busy school year. Comment below or reach out to me at email@example.com
As our school year approached, we welcomed back our teachers with great plans of professional development, engaging activities and time spent connecting as a staff. This sounds familiar to many leaders as they plan the welcome back day for staff. This was our plan for August as well. However, hours before our entire district teaching staff returned, we had a very challenging situation occur that would greatly impact the entire district. A malicious malware virus impacted the district’s computer system shutting down the computer operating system affecting student schedules, HVAC, operating systems and much more.
You can imagine the shock that we all felt as we learned that information – weeks of hard work and planning were lost. In addition, the uncertainty of how we would move forward with the beginning of school a few days away became very real and apparent. Over the course of days, our district provided an intentional plan of “putting the pieces back together” that would allow us to start school on time with schedules for students completed. This took great collaborative leadership, extremely hard work and hours of efforts by many people. There were setbacks and not everything was perfect – but the focus continued to remain on clear communication, focused efforts and moving closer to getting everything back to normal. The best part – we started school on time and I do not believe students ever noticed the challenging few days that existed for staff as we focused on making the 1st day amazing for kids!
During this experience, it was an authentic reminder about the importance of leadership and the impact it can have upon people. The following traits are key areas of leadership that I observed which occur during a difficult situation that are essential for success:
Focus on what you can control – When difficult things happen, it is natural to have emotions and negative thoughts. However, leaders must shift the focus to intentional thoughts on moving forward and what they can do within their control to respond to the challenge.
Model the behaviors you want others to show – When there is a devastating situation, human reactions can be one of grief, frustration, anxiety and much more. During these times, staff will look to their leaders for direction and how to react. Leaders must model “calm, patience and flexibility” as this allows the staff to move forward with the right demeanor and decision-making.
Make lemons out of lemonade – Life can be challenging and working in schools has its own unique set of challenges. If you add in a difficult situation, then it can be unsurmountable for some people to move forward. Leaders must purposefully focus on what can they do to move it in a positive that allows the school to come out of the situation better than before. We must find the strength within ourselves in a situation to help see the great potential and capitalize upon it. In this particular situation, we developed an entirely new schedule for day 1 with kids, as we were not sure if we would have student class schedules. We ended up using this schedule (despite having student schedules ready) as everyone became so excited as we all were invested in developing this Plan B. The Plan B is now our Plan A moving forward in future years as we saw how positive it was for kids.
Don’t make decisions in a vacuum – When there are challenges, any person can be swayed by emotion or poor thoughts as there are many variable to consider. It is critical that leaders use the wisdom, creativity and experience of others to help you. The collective decision making of many is important in a situation as it allows all perspectives to be considered and determined what is best for kids.
The challenging situation will make us collectively stronger and more united – Situations that involve collective work, setbacks and then new ideas to develop is a measure of the resilience of the organization. In many instances, it allows us to see our “blind spots” that we may not have recognized as existed previously. As we work through the difficult process, we grow stronger together. As a result, the focused work make us better as a school and great for kids.
Excellence is not a skill but an attitude – leaders who excel are intentional and they focus on the right work. True leadership occurs by intentional efforts when leaders work extremely hard to solve difficult situations and it allows us to reflect and learn valuable lessons. Comment below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org