College is tough, but these principals love it better than anything

Kyle Nix, principal of Christiana Middle School in Christiana, Tennessee, describes her role as a middle school principal as “the community connector,” providing that crucial link between elementary school and high school.

For Ashley Bowling, vice-principal at Florence Middle School in Florence, Alabama, any reservations she had about working at a stand-alone middle school quickly disappeared when she got there.

“I love it,” said Bowling, now in his eighth year as a college PA. “It’s unique. Every day is different. [The students] are innocent and always want to wonder how they fit into the world. It’s a tough age, but it’s a fun age. You really feel like you have an impact at this age.

“You have to remember: we have students who still believe very much in superheroes – that they are real and that Spider-Man can come,” Bowling said. “But, along the same lines, you have some who bring up other things: dating, their first heartbreak, they bring up some adult issues too soon. And you have to be able to respect both points of view. and appreciate what these students bring to the table.

Middle school is where it all can come together — or begin to fall apart — for students who are on the brink of childhood and on the cusp of adolescence. Principals who run these schools say these grades (they vary from district to district, but can include grades 5-8) are important transition years when students go through a range of emotional and hormonal changes while by dealing with more rigorous academic content.

School leaders need a reserve of patience, splashed with a dose of humor and humility, to deal with these students. But they also need to focus on spotting students — all converging on a middle school of multiple elementary schools — with gaps in their knowledge who need immediate support to ensure they don’t fall further behind. Leaders also play a huge role in helping students develop good habits and character traits.

The transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult for some students whose social lives are being reorganized, said Wes Kanawayer, former principal of Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Texas.

“They try to navigate socially,” he said. “They interact with kids they didn’t grow up with, kids from different campuses. They have to reinvent their social group. They’re trying to figure out who they are, how they’re going to survive social media with a bunch of, quite frankly, very immature people who are also trying to figure out the same things. It’s messy.”

Pandemic effects

Those who came of age during the pandemic, whose traditional primary school experience was interrupted by closures or changes in teaching patterns, had another layer of uncertainty to come to terms with.

Middle and coeducational school principals were more likely than their elementary and secondary school peers to say they had seen an increase in fights, threats of physical assault and disruption in the classroom, according to a survey of principals conducted this spring and published in July by the Institute of Educational Sciences.

“I think the most important thing we saw in middle school was just teaching them how to socialize with each other,” said Nix, the Tennessee principal. “When they were in the pandemic, the way to socialize was via social media, or email, or FaceTime, and they just weren’t used to talking to each other face to face.”

Bowling, the Alabama middle school vice principal, said educators need to “re-norm” students – essentially teaching them appropriate behavior in school – by learning to pass each other in the hallway until participate in group discussions. The school held small group assemblies, with a third of the Grade 7 class at a time, to model and practice how to do it. No running, no marking, keep your hands to yourself, Bowling said.

“It was like when they got back together, they just needed to touch each other,” Bowling said. “It was like, ‘No, no, no. It was never okay to just kiss everybody.

Students also needed a boost with class discussions after nearly two years of communicating primarily through screens. The teachers provided prompts to help and also made sure everyone at the table had a role during the discussions.

“We had to get them out of the texting language because that’s all they had done,” said Bowling, whose school closed for the initial closure in spring 2020 but reopened this fall with a schedule. hybrid and other safety precautions. “We had to go back and talk about how to have full conversations.”

Felipé Jackson, the principal of Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn, Georgia, found himself having to respond to an increase in fights, which he attributed to social media providing an audience for students to post the altercations.

Jackson created a conflict resolution course for students, hired a support staff member for each of the three classes, and met with parents to discuss challenges staff and students were facing. The school also has an Intervention Response Program – a series of tiered supports – where a staff member works with students in groups.

“All of our students had a layer of support to help them cope, teach them to cope and then coexist and then focus on teaching,” Jackson said.

But one of the biggest things he did was ban cellphones on campus, removing the ability for students to record and broadcast altercations.

The school also established a Culture and Climate Committee, which surveyed staff members, students, and the school community about campus issues and provided recommendations for improvement. This formed the basis of an action plan, Jackson said.

“What we’ve noticed now is a difference between night and day in our school climate,” Jackson said.

The college raffle

In many ways, college has returned to the daily rhythms that closely approximated college life in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic changed the world.

“I think we’ve evolved into a really good new normal,” Tennessee manager Nix said.

It was stories of former elementary school students who deviated once they got to middle school that inspired Jackson to quit his job as elementary school principal and head to college.

“They were getting caught up in gangs; they got caught using drugs; or they weren’t going to school,” said Jackson, now in his fifth year at Bear Creek. “I wanted to put myself in a position where I could make a difference and be a role model for others.”

In short, Jackson said he “wanted to maintain the work” he was doing in the lower grades.

“I saw there was a need for sustainability and a righteous need to make a difference in the lives of young people, in terms of producing productive citizens, being an advocate for them and guiding them. so they can make the right decisions and be successful,” Jackson said.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to “model how to relate to students, how to be kind to them, how to teach them how to stand up for themselves, and how to teach them how to be critical thinkers and how to cope with adversity”.

Getting to know your students

Nix, who taught middle and high schools before taking over as college principal, said middle school suited him better.

Part of working successfully in college is knowing and appreciating that students are at different levels of maturity and responding to them with that in mind.

“Middle school kids sometimes look like high school kids, but sometimes they act like elementary school kids,” she said. “You just have to know how to treat children. … You have to be ok with having the little, little kid who can’t open a locker – he doesn’t know how to walk to a class the right way – and also in the same building to have the kid who’s too cool for school.”

After three years in the job, Nix’s favorite part of school is still spending time in the cafeteria with the students.

“It’s a completely different conversation at each table,” she said. “In 6th grade, they love you. They want to talk to you all the time. If you could sit down and have lunch with them, it would make their day. In 7th grade, they’re like, ‘Uh. They’re fine. Administration.’ In Grade 8, they’re almost too cool for you. But they still want to talk to you. … I love it. You see the kids in their element.”

Beth Houf, the principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, Mo., wasn’t quite sure she’d like to go to college – she described her own experience as “awkward” – but she said watching the children growing up and becoming leaders is one of the greatest joys of college leadership. They are ready to take the reins, she said. Adults must give them the opportunity.

“Kids want to belong,” said Houf, whose students participated in focus groups to help make decisions related to school themes. “They want to know you care, but it also has to be a little more on their terms. They grow up. They want that freedom, but they want to make sure you’re there and care about them.

While elementary students are quick to say what they need and think, it takes extra effort to build trust with middle schoolers, Houf said. The students also navigate minefields that their directors didn’t know growing up.

“I think back to my own college, I’m glad there’s no social media or video evidence,” she said.

But while principals say they wouldn’t trade their college jobs for the world, there’s some heartbreak: They don’t see their students leaving for the rest of their lives, whether it’s college or at work.

Secondary school principals hold large graduation ceremonies, sometimes in large stadiums, with hundreds of people in the stands. Even elementary school principals have transition ceremonies.

“That’s probably the hardest part of middle school: there’s no definite ending,” Nix said. “There is no closure. If they don’t come back, I don’t always know what happened with them.

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