Remember your transition into the middle grades? For me, it was junior high. I left a small, nurturing elementary school where I was known and appreciated and moved to a three story huge building, filled mostly with strangers. Even today, when I think about my middle school years, I literally experience an ache in my stomach.
Middle grade students face so many challenges. They are still children, yet yearn to be young adults. Their bodies are changing. And, in many cases, the “cocoon” they experienced in elementary school has burst open, providing both opportunities and challenges. To nurture their development, we need to deeply understand them.
That’s why I appreciate the writing of Laurie Barron and Patty Kinney, two outstanding national educators with award-winning middle grades credentials. Dr. Barron is a district superintendent in Montana, a former Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year and the 2021 Montana Superintendent of the Year. Patti Kinney has been president of the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly NMSA), an Oregon Principal of the Year, and a Met-Life/NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year.
We are using the Barron-Kinney book, Middle School: A Place to Belong and Become (AMLE, 2018), as our anchor text in a pilot middle grades professional learning experience this year. I’ve also blogged about another book they’ve authored, We Belong, which extends their thinking about building a culture of caring and learning during those all important early adolescent years.
As you read what they have to share below, I think you’ll agree with me that their expertise is on target and their insights about the promises new and veteran middle grades educators can make to their students are important to consider.
– Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
A+ Alabama Best Practices Center
Promises to Keep
By Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney
From childhood promises we made with a pinky swear – to more serious marriage or religious vows – we‘ve all made (and sometimes broken) an uncountable number of promises in our lifetime.
Just what is a promise? We define it as an assurance that one will do a particular thing. So what kind of promises do we need to make (and keep) so that our students will truly believe that they belong in our classrooms and will be safe and cared for there?
In our book We Belong we shared 25 promises we feel have the greatest impact on promoting belonging and creating a middle grades school or classroom community that elicits positive classroom behavior.
Here we’ve categorized those promises into four groups: Relationships, Safety, Consistency, and Instruction. While most can fit into more than one category, we think this is an easy way to approach the daunting task of keeping 25 commitments to those we teach.
Promises that Promote Relationships
► Learn constantly about students as a group and as individuals.
► Be available to each student and all students.
► Be an obvious and passionate advocate for each student.
► Let students see evidence that I am helping every one of them belong.
► Be agreeable, be patient, smile, encourage constantly, and speak kindly.
► Treat all students with respect at all times.
► Make some positive contact with each student every day.
► Laugh, embrace and include humor, and show that I enjoy being with students.
► Be honest, direct, and real.
There is no question that relationships are important. We both love the James Comer quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Building those significant relationships with students requires three things – getting to know your students, letting your students get to know you, and ensuring your students get to know each other.
Most teachers make efforts to know their students at the beginning of the year but sometimes forget to revisit that knowledge throughout the year to stay aware of issues that students may be facing. One way to reinforce mid-year connections with your students is with a simple feedback survey: What should I keep doing? What should I start doing? What should I stop doing? What else should I know about you?
You know them; do they know you? Ask yourself, what do I share about my life with my students? Do they know why you became a teacher, what you’re interested in learning about, what your hobbies are, what you were like at their age, and so forth?
Share a failure or two you experienced. Ask their advice when appropriate – what should you name your new pet, what kind of new car should you get, where’s a good place to eat?
The third prong is to be sure students know each other. One strategy is to pair students and ask them to each share two pieces of information about themselves; group three pairs together, and have each partner introduce his or her original partner to the group by telling the two pieces of information learned. Repeat with different groups of three partners and let the introductions continue.
Promises that Provide Safety
► Keep students safe from taunting, derision, exclusion, and bullying of any kind.
► Give students stress-free, embarrassment-free ways to communicate with me.
► Never yell, threaten, manipulate, shame, ridicule, label, judge, or demean.
► Make my nonverbal messages as caring and nonthreatening as my words.
► Give messages of equal worth for all students, showing no biases or favoritism.
► Confront students’ misbehavior in private, never disciplining anyone in front of others.
No matter the age, but particularly for our youth, feeling valued, important, and safe matters.
Physical safety must be a top priority. If your school hasn’t already, be sure to conduct a school safety checkup on a regular basis, at least annually. Your check up should start with the “feel” of the building and classroom. Do all places feel welcoming? Are adults actively supervising students? Do students have opportunities to share concerns? Are families welcomed in the school?
Emotional safety is a top priority as well. Ask yourself how you and your school help students define and demonstrate values that help everyone feel safe. Are there strategies in place to ensure that everyone is seen and heard? Are appropriate behaviors discussed, modeled, and upheld? Are students acquiring and practicing social-emotional skills to help them cope with feelings of insecurity?
Ensuring the physical and emotional safety of students (and staff, including yourself) can sometimes feel overwhelming. Understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and implementing trauma-informed practices are two ways to help improve the environment, not just for those experiencing these challenges but also for other students who share the environment. Also remember that providing a safe and healthy environment is a team effort. Often we need to collaborate with others when our efforts are not successful or there are more serious issues such as weapons, drugs, or harassment.
Promises that Practice Consistency
► Set clear expectations for students to treat each other respectfully; teach them explicitly what that means and hold them to expectations equitably.
► Provide a structured (not rigid), predictable, and safe environment.
► Be fair, but realize that being “fair” may not always be equal for each student.
► Be trustworthy, keep my word and do what I say I will do.
► Set procedures and expectations and follow through on them – consistently.
We all know the importance of being consistent, following through, and doing what we say. And every year we promise ourselves we’ll be consistent . . . but then that promise seems to melt away, and we can end up struggling with classroom management.
A few thoughts to help you be more consistent:
- First, think of it as a student right, not your choice! You are consistent because you care about your students and know they deserve your best.
- Second, don’t establish a hard-and-fast rule or protocol that you know you will not be able to consistently enforce, follow through on, or hold students accountable for.
- Third, remember consistency does not mean rigidity. Treating students equitably does not mean they must be treated the same way. Consider what you know about the student and deal with the situation in the way that meets the student’s needs, the class needs, and your needs. For example, you may always give consequences for a particular misbehavior, but it doesn’t have to be the same consequence for every student.
Promises that Assure Quality Instruction
► Honor each student’s unique qualities, abilities, and interests.
► Show passion for the subject and concepts I teach and show students I enjoy teaching them.
► Set high learning expectations and help them reach them; help them over individual learning hurdles, and let all students know I believe they can succeed.
► Ask for and listen to students’ opinions, ideas, and evaluations; act on them.
► Make learning fun.
When it comes to maximizing a student’s potential, there are few replacements for high quality, engaging instruction in a safe and supportive environment. Effective classroom management depends on effective instruction.
Remember to set the instructional tone early, beginning with the first day of school. Make sure that first day is full of engaging, cooperative opportunities to learn together. (Nothing is more boring and less engaging than returning from summer break to a full day of teachers reading rules to students from the handbook or syllabus.)
Keep that strong instruction going all year long. Plan ahead, make sure you have materials ready prior to class, monitor students regularly, and vary your instructional strategies. And remember to honor student voices, give them choice when appropriate, and teach them to assess their own learning. When students practice reflection and self-assessment, they are more likely to take responsibility for and care about their learning.
School and Teacher Leaders: Promise Yourself!
Make a promise to yourself that you will review these promises on a regular basis, and decide if there are ones that need work.
And, yes, we know teaching is hard, and it’s been especially difficult the past several years. So we have decided to add a most important twenty-sixth promise to this list: Take care of yourself!
Take a deep breath, squeeze a stress ball, have a glass of water, eat some protein (or chocolate!), go outside for a few minutes, listen to some music, read a thank you note, pursue a hobby, exercise, or relax with a book or television show.
“Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean me first, it means me too” (LR Knost).
More help: ASCD has made many of the resources such as surveys, checklists, and handouts discussed in our book We Belong available as free reproducible downloadables.
Education leaders Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney are co-authors of We Belong: 50 Strategies to Create Community and Revolutionize Classroom Management (ASCD, 2021) and also Middle School: A Place to Belong and Become (2018, AMLE).
Dr. Laurie Barron (@LaurieBarron) is in her 26th year in education, serving as a high school English teacher, a middle school assistant principal, and nine years as a middle school principal. Since 2013, she has served as the superintendent of the Evergreen School District in Kalispell, Montana. She is an NBCT and was the 2012 Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year, the 2013 National Middle School Principal of the Year, and currently the 2021 Montana Superintendent of the Year. Laurie studied abroad at Oxford University and holds National Superintendent Certification through AASA.
Patti Kinney (@pckinney) began her career as an elementary music specialist and later taught 6th and 7th grades in a middle school setting with coaching and PD duties. She was assistant principal and later principal of Talent Middle School, recognized as one of “100 highly successful middle schools” by NASSP. Patti is a past president of AMLE and was selected as both the Oregon Assistant Principal and Principal of the Year and as the Met-Life/NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year. From 2007-2014, she served as NASSP’s Associate Director of Middle Level Services and currently consults on teaching and leadership.