The middle school years can show up as a blip in a student’s K-12 journey, but it’s a very important transition period for them. They’re trying to figure out their place in school, their social circles, and the world, while navigating a rush of emotional and hormonal changes.
Those who came of age during the pandemic had an additional layer of uncertainty to navigate. But middle school can be a challenging—and joyful—place for school leaders, too.
“It’s messy,” said Wes Kanawyer, the former principal of Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Texas, in the Midway school district.
Here’s what some current and former middle school leaders say can help principals and their students get through these bumpy years.
Don’t take things—or yourself—too seriously
Running a middle school requires a thick skin. Kids say a lot of things they don’t mean, especially when they are upset. Don’t take it personally.
“If you can’t laugh in a day in middle school, you are not meant to do it,” said Ashley Bowling, an assistant principal at Florence Middle School in Florence, Ala.
“It takes a certain mindset if you are going to enjoy the process,” Kanawyer said. “If you are overly rigid, and you can’t just laugh some stuff off, you might be miserable on a middle school campus. You have to just roll with the punches.”
Middle school students are also genuinely funny, too, said Kyle Nix, the principal of Christiana Middle School in Christiana, Tenn. So, take time to enjoy their humor.
“Everything is funny to them,” she said. “You don’t want them running up and hitting the door frames, but that’s like the best part of their day. So when you see kids in the hallways, they’ll be hitting the doorframes, they’re going to be punching all the walls, and just being goofy.”
Hone your listening skills
Students will tell you what’s troubling them, but you really have to listen to hear the problem.
They’re also not always looking for a solution, either, said Bowling.
“Sometimes, they just need a listening ear,” she said.
Focus on interventions for students
Students often come from different elementary schools—meaning they had varying access to school interventions and programs.
It’s easy to think that every student would have been screened before they got to middle school. Don’t assume, Kanawyer said.
If you can’t laugh in a day in middle school, you are not meant to do it.
Take the extra step to ensure that students have required interventions and supports as early as possible, whether it’s helping them get up to speed academically or ensuring that they have proper access to special education or other services.
“If they need accelerated instruction, it has to happen now,” Kanawyer said. “That can be a game-changer going into high school.”
Boost student agency and student voice
Students are just finding their voice at this level. They are also testing boundaries. After two years of students being told what not to do during the pandemic, principals have to give them space to be themselves.
Students at Fulton Middle School in Fulton, Mo., participated in focus groups alongside the school’s staff to work on issues related to the school’s themes: safety, academics, family and community partnerships, and culture and climate.
“Our kids are there helping to make decisions,” said Beth Houf, the school’s principal and the 2022 National Principal of the Year.
But students wanted more, and a group flagged her down last year and gave an impromptu 15-point-presentation on why Houf should start a student advisory council and topics they wanted to focus on. They wanted to improve passing period, and they’re now researching ways to update the schedule to include more electives, which they will present to the school board.
It was “completely organic,” said Houf, who is now one of the newly-formed advisory group’s faculty advisers.
“I have to let the reins go a little bit and make sure kids are leading,” Houf said. “I’ve got kids who are passionate about something. Let me step back, be that safety net, and let’s let them run with it.”
Strengthen parent engagement
Students start to pull away from their parents in middle school, but it’s also a time when parental guidance can help them avoid many pitfalls.
It’s important for school leaders to keep parents in the loop and engaged with what’s happening at school and their children’s education.
“It doesn’t have to be visible on campus,” Kanawyer said. “But it has to be having ongoing, honest conversations about how they are navigating certain things and providing a different perspective.”
That relationship is a two-way street and can help principals develop appropriate responses or programming for students.
“You still have to communicate with their parents at a level you may not think you’d have to for a 13-, 14-year old,” Bowling, the Alabama assistant principal, said.
Felipé Jackson, the principal of Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn, Ga., has monthly coffee and doughnut meetings with parents and has created on-campus volunteer opportunities for them. He also visits local homeowners’ associations meeting, community gatherings, and city council meetings to keep parents in the loop.
The idea, he said, is to communicate to parents that, “We are one team, and we are with you.”
There’s a lot of activities in middle school—from band to choir to sports. A principal can get stretched pretty thin juggling all of those on top of their required duties. It’s good to remember that there are other capable, competent adults in the school who’re often willing to step up if asked.
Shared or distributed leadership is really important to ensuring principals stay on top of what matters most, but it also helps teachers and other staff members strengthen their expertise and gain valuable leadership experience.
“I try very hard to be a leader of leaders,” Houf said.
Help students get a perspective
Everything (and anything) can seem like the end of the world for a middle school student. A bad grade. The end of a friendship. Not making a sports team.
One of the middle school principal’s biggest jobs is to help students see that that’s not the case. They’ll bounce back; everything will be OK.
School leaders can help students develop those skills—on dealing with adversity, regulating emotions, making good decisions—by focusing deeply on social-emotional learning.
Kanawyer relied heavily on the CharacterStrong SEL program, which helps students develop self-awareness and build relationships. Woodgate embedded those lessons into the school’s once-a-week “flex period,” where teachers centered lessons on desired character traits such as respect and perseverance.
“We want them to be kind,” Kanawyer said. “We want them to be empathetic. We want them to persevere. We are going to teach those things.”
Be flexible—and ready to change plans
You’ll wear lots of different hats: Principal, counselor, disciplinarian, confidante, you name it. Sometimes within the same hour—sometimes with the same student.
“They want to belong,” Houf said of the students. “They want to be supported. They want to be cared for. It’s definitely more challenging. Some are quicker to lash out and be frustrated.”
Be ready to tackle all of those different roles.
Build meaningful relationships
Students can spot a fake a mile away, so find genuine ways to get to know them and let them know that you’re there for them.
When Kanawyer was a middle school principal, he greeted students at the door and used the daily morning announcements to set a positive tone, reminding students that they “had a building full of people here who love and care about you. Let us know if you need anything.”
“Start each day positively, and reaffirm kids,” said Kanawyer, who mixed celebrations and shout-outs in the greetings. “I know it sounds cheesy.”
You may not always the response you want, but keep at it.
“Sometimes I have a big hug from a kid, sometimes I get just an eyebrow, a shrug,” said Houf. “But again ... every kiddo needs something different, and that’s OK.”
The entire team—from teachers to counselors to custodians—should be involved in building meaningful relationships with students.
“Let them know we care about you, and we are there for your success,” Kanawyer said. “Show them in the way you interact with them, the way you talk with them, your mannerisms—everything.”
Balance understanding with consequences
It’s an emotional ride, and students are undergoing a lot of changes.
While school leaders must be empathetic and understanding, they must also ensure that students know there are consequences for their actions.
It’s tricky balance: The drill sergeant versus the principal who lets students get away with everything. Both extremes are bad places to be.
Jackson, the Georgia principal, has found ways to strike the balance. His school has a rewards program for students and weekly and monthly recognition for academic and behavioral improvement.
But sports teams and clubs have behavioral clauses, and students can lose the right to play or participate in those activities if they violate the rules.
Instead of always calling parents when students misbehave, Jackson contacts the clubs or the adult in charge of that school activity.
Still, Jackson and other middle level principals said, students also must have the chance to learn and grow from their mistakes.
“We know they are still in the trial and error phase,” Jackson said. “We use it as a tool to help redirect behavior versus just putting them out or cutting them off … We are not here to take away students’ opportunities for growth, but to teach them.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Survive—and Thrive—As a Middle School Principal