Embracing Middle Schools and Loving Middle Schoolers

Last week, I had the privilege of giving a co-keynote with a good friend, John Bernia, at AMLE [Association of Middle Level Education]. This was a great experience, truly a tremendous honor! We had a blast energizing about 1000 educators committed to growing and supporting middle school students. I can’t thank Dru Tomlin, Dena Harrison and other AMLE staff for inviting to be a part of this great experience.

cuau2nvuiaejuucWe wanted our message to be inspiring and uplifting so we chose a topic we thought paralleled the excitement and energy of the audience – ‘Make Everyday Like AMLE.’ Our challenge to the audience was to capture their excitement, remember their enthusiasm to learn and connect and take that back to middle schools and make a difference. Growth events like conferences bring out the best in our learning natures – we are genuinely excited to connect with other educators and experts and get inspired to better ourselves or help others improve. I believe its because we get to choose our learning paths and pursue our interests – even for a short time. This is what we need to capture and build upon everyday as we work with middle schoolers, and all students, as we strive to build better learning environments.

Something I Noticed

I’ve spent my career as a middle school educator. Except for 3 years of my 22 years in, I have loved being a middle school math teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal and now principal. I have worked to grow and get better every year so that I can serve my students better. I have loved every year. This past week, as I’ve shared my experience with people, I’ve become a lot more cognizant of what people say about middle schools and middle school educators. Specifically, when I identify myself as a middle school educator, I get responses like, “I could never do that!”, “Those kids are all hormonal [implying off-balance]”, or “What a crazy age group.” On my return trip from AMLE, I counted 4 separate responses like this before I got home. It was a disappointing given I just spent some days with educators committed to growing and supporting our middle schoolers. What do these casual thoughts and statements say about our commitment to work with this group?

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-3-16-38-amThis has made me reflect on the power of casual words and phrases we use when we talk about middle schools and education in general. My growing concern/problem is these casual joking comments will become reflexive responses. People with little or no firsthand knowledge of what happens in middle schools, or education, will take these ‘jokes’ as truths. Without knowing middle schools, they allow casual jokes or comments to serve as factual characterizations of middle schools. This shouldn’t be.

Middle schoolers grow up to be people

Let me qualify this by saying I absolutely do not believe that everyone has malicious intent or is out to intentionally harm/destroy the image of  middle schools. But we have to look at the sum total of what our words and casual references can do to the public. If we hear enough times that middle schools are crazy places to be, a FEAR of middle schools will develop. If we hear enough times that middle schoolers are erratic and crazy, we will do our best to avoid these kids [and they are kids]. If we hear or say something enough, it can become true or we can convince ourselves, it’s a fact.


We are all committed to improving the lives of students. As such, our actions should reflect our thoughts, not just repeat a joke we heard. This weekend at #WGEDD, my good friend Joe Sanfelippo talked about someone’s bad 15 minutes in a school system defining their whole experience with school system and how that became all the language they used when they talked about the schools. We can’t let a bad experience or one bad teacher or a bad grade become define our [middle] school experience.

While I’m committed to working with all of my parents and teachers experiences in schools, I don’t want readers of this to take on the cause of correcting everyone’s negative experience in every school. I would like for us all to be more deliberate in what we say about middle schools and of course, schools in general.

Baruti Kafele talks a lot about intentionalily, being very purposeful in choosing words and actions as they reflect the mindset and the person presenting them. If we as educators and parents casually joke about middle schools, we are enabling, empowering and validating a lot of the misconceptions people have about middle schools. Instead of following along, lets make a point to redirect that sentiment.  We have to make deliberate effort to show we want to be a part of the support for growing all kids. Lead or redirect conversations to help people know that:

  • These are formative years and kids are balancing approval from friends with approval from family and teachers
  • All kids, no matter where they come from, are needy;
  • Some are learning about independence, from good and not so good sources
  • The brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 – we’re at the halfway point.
  • You were a middle schooler – don’t criticize, empathize and change a life.

All school expressions are important. We should do our best as parents, educators, #leadlearners to promote that school need more support to help kids achieve.

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