School & District Management

Middle School Is Tough, But These Principals Like It Best of All

By Denisa R. Superville — November 11, 2022 8 min read
A student gives middle school principal Felipé Jackson a hug in the cafeteria.
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Kyle Nix, the principal of Christiana Middle School in Christiana, Tenn., describes her role as a middle school principal as “the community connector,” providing that crucial link between elementary and high school.

For Ashley Bowling, an assistant principal at Florence Middle School in Florence, Ala., whatever reservations she had about working in a standalone middle school soon disappeared when she got there.

“I love it,” said Bowling, now in her eighth year as a middle school AP. “It is unique. Every day is different. [The students] are innocent and still wanting to question how they fit in the world. It’s an awkward age, but it’s a fun age. You really feel like you make an impact at this age.”

“You have to remember: We have some students who still very much believe in superheroes—that they are real, and Spider-Man can come,” Bowling said. “But, in the same sense, you have some who are broaching other topics: dating, their first heartbreak, they are dealing with some adult issues too early. And you have to be able to respect both views and appreciate what those students are bringing to the table.”

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

School leaders require a reserve of patience, splashed with a dose of humor and humility, to deal with those students. But they also have to be focused on spotting students—all converging on one middle school from several 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 tough for some students whose social lives are being reordered, said Wes Kanawyer, the former principal of Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Tex.

“They are trying to navigate things socially,” he said. “They are interacting with kids they have not grown up with, kids from different campuses. They have to reinvent their social group. They are trying to figure out who they are, how they are going to survive social networking with a bunch of, quite frankly, very immature individuals who are also trying to figure out the same things. It’s messy.”

Pandemic effects

Those coming of age during the pandemic, whose traditional elementary schooling experience was interrupted by lockdowns or shifting instructional modes, had another layer of uncertainty to figure out.

Middle and combined school principals were more likely than their peers in elementary and high schools to say that they saw an increase in fights, threats of physical attacks, and classroom disruptions, according to a survey of principals conducted this spring and released in July by the Institute of Education Sciences.

“I think the biggest thing that we saw in middle school was just having to reteach them how to socialize with each other,” Nix, the Tennessee principal, said. “When they were in the pandemic, the way to socialize was through 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 assistant principal, said educators had to “re-norm” students—essentially teach them appropriate in-school behavior—from learning how to walk past each other in the hallway to participating in group discussions. The school held small group assemblies, with a third of the 7th grade class at a time, to model and practice how to do so. No running, no tagging, keep your hands to yourselves, 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. That’s never been OK to just hug everybody.’”

Students also needed a nudge for classroom discussions after nearly two years of communicating primarily through screens. Teachers provided prompts to help and also ensured that everyone at the table had a role during discussions.

“We had to get them out of texting language because that’s all they had done,” said Bowling, whose school closed for the initial shutdown in spring 2020, but reopened that fall with a hybrid schedule 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, Ga., found himself having to respond to an increase in fights, which he attributed to social media that provided an audience for students to post the altercations.

Jackson created a conflict resolution course for students, hired a support staffer for each of the three grade bands, and met with parents to discuss the challenges staff and students were facing. The school also has a response-to-intervention 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 how to cope and then coexist, and then focus on instruction,” Jackson said.

But one of the biggest things he did was to ban cell phones on campus, removing students’ ability to record and disseminate the altercations.

The school also created a culture and climate committee, which surveyed staff members, students, and the school community about on campus issues and provided recommendations for improvement. That formed the basis of an action plan, Jackson said.

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

The draw of middle school

In a number of ways, middle school has returned to the daily rhythms that closely approximate middle school life in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic changed the world.

“I think we’ve evolved into a very good, new normal,” said Nix, the Tennessee principal.

It was stories of former elementary students veering off track once they got to middle school that inspired Jackson to leave his elementary school principalship and head to middle school.

“They were getting caught up in gangs; they were getting caught up in 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 the position where I could make a difference and model that for others.”

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

“I saw there was a need for sustainability and a need just to make a difference in the young folks’ lives, as far as producing productive citizens, being an advocate for them and providing guidance to them so that way they can make the right decisions and be successful,” Jackson said.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to “model how to build relationships with students, be personable with them, teach them how to advocate for themselves, and teach them how to become critical thinkers and deal with adversity.”

Getting to know your students

Nix, who taught at middle and high schools before taking on middle school leadership, said middle school was ultimately a better fit for her.

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

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

After three years in her position, Nix’s favorite part of school remains spending time in the cafeteria with students.

“It’s a completely different conversation at each table,” she said. “At 6th grade, they love you. They want to talk to you the whole time. If you would sit and eat lunch with them, that would make their day. In 7th grade they’re like, ‘Uh. They’re OK. Administration.’ In 8th grade, they are almost too cool for you. But they still want to talk to you. ... I just love it. You get to see the kids in their element.”

Beth Houf, the principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, Mo., wasn’t quite sure she’d like middle school—she described her own experience as “awkward”—but she said watching kids grow up and become leaders is one of the biggest joys in middle school leadership. They’re ready to take the reins, she said. Adults have to give them opportunities to do so.

“The kids want to belong,” said Houf, whose students participated on focus groups to help make decisions tied to the school’s themes. “They want to know you care, but it has to be on their terms a little bit more, too. They are growing up. They want that freedom, but yet they want to make sure that you’re there and you care for them.”

While elementary school students are quick to say what they need and what’s on their minds, it takes extra effort to develop trust with middle schoolers, Houf said. Students are also navigating minefields that their principals didn’t experience growing up.

“I think back to my own middle school, I am glad there is no social media or video evidence,” she said.

But while principals say they wouldn’t trade their middle school jobs for the world, there’s a little bit of heartbreak: they don’t get to see their students head off to the rest of their lives, whether it’s to college or a job.

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

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

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Middle School Is Tough, But These Principals Like It Best of All

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