Guest Blogger: Hannah Solomon, Founding Principal - Uncommon Schools
Why is middle school important?
I think most adults will reflect on their middle school years as some of the most challenging – or at least the most awkward – of their growing-up years. Everything about you is changing between the ages of 10 and 14 and you have to work really hard to know who you want to be…and then how to act to make sure that you are that person. Middle schoolers need a ton of love and patience and structure. Middle schoolers need someone strong who will tell them no (even when they are so convincing) and remind them to laugh at themselves. Middle school is important because it can be so hard – but we all want to make sure that the challenge doesn’t make these the forgotten years.
What are the benefits of being a stand-alone middle school?
Creativity! A stand-alone middle school can respond to the needs of its community and learn from the best practices everywhere, not just those within a certain style of education.
PRIDE: Students, teachers, and families can feel really invested knowing that their school is one of a kind.
Expertise: Leaders can leverage their choice making to prioritize teacher recruitment and retention, the biggest factor in any child’s success.
What are the qualities of a great middle school?
When I walk into a great middle school, kids smile at me even though they don’t know me. There is evidence of manners (holding open doors, introducing selves, etc) that peek through the school systems. A great middle school has really clear expectations – the hallway should look this way, kids should act this way during lunch – and all kids, teachers, and leaders can give answers about what they look like. Kids are kind to each other (most of the time) and they aren’t afraid to be playful. Kids are not disrespectful. When you walk into the classroom, hands are up, kids are participating or working hard, and the teacher spends most of her time giving feedback. Books are everywhere and they are books that we all love to read. And they were written by authors from many different backgrounds. I think a great school has a uniform, but a relaxed one. A great school celebrates things: Black History Month, Poetry Month, Chinese New Year, Jewish New Year – the more different celebrations, the better. There is evidence (posters, competitions, t-shirts) that kids are rewarded for hard work. Adults welcome you and are generally pleasant. If you spend time at a great middle school, you leave nostalgic for the best teacher you ever had.
What does it take to teach middle school?
Patience and humor! You have to have super thick skin because children will be rude to you and you still have to love them the next day. Really great teachers think of every child either as their client or as their child – meaning that every child (regardless of behavior or ability) is treated with exactly the same care, positivity, investment, and hope as his or her neighbor. Feigned short term memory loss is also helpful because you have to be able to instruct the child who just was asleep and hug the child who just was rude. You also need to love your subject – like really love it – so you can convey that passion to students. And if you are teaching seventh or eighth grade, you have to be smart not only in people skills, but also in your content area, so you can anticipate student confusions and push everyone to a deep and passionate understanding.
What should a middle school parent's role look like from a leader's perspective?
Parents should spend enough time in their students’ school that they deeply trust the teachers and leaders there. This is because your child is almost definitely going to act up in a way that they probably never did during elementary school. And you need to trust their teachers that they have your child’s best interest at heart and support them as they help your child grow into someone with grit and perseverance and manners. Your child’s teachers should reach out to you regularly enough, and with enough listening, that you know that this is a partnership.