Thursday, October 31, 2019

How do you build belonging in your school and your school community?

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country. Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those "in the middle". 

Dennis Schug, Middle School Principal, Long Island, NY

EVERY ACTION presents opportunities for us to demonstrate our values. Where I stand and where I visit throughout my day. How I interact with students, staff, and visitors. Announcements on the PA system. Scheduling my priorities (versus prioritizing my schedule). It all matters.

But what's most important to me is simple. It's to foster a sense of belonging for each student, promoting regular opportunities for each to be known, and to feel that they are known by a caring adult in our school community. I am proud to lead this work, but I am not alone. In fact, I can still hear my grandmother's voice saying, "Many hands make light work."  

As I reflect on this week, three examples come to mind. This week I: 

1. Established a routine to check in and check out daily...with a kid who needs positive reinforcement.

2. Participated in a entirely by students.

3. Worked with a student in need, identified and removed his obstacles, and watched him shine.

No doubt, I beam with pride over ongoing school-wide initiatives such as Start with Hello Week, Unity Day, and the Kindness Challenge (to name a few!) and the positive impact these have on school culture. But it's these small moments that make a big difference.

Like those most challenging puzzle pieces (the ones that are tough to find or figure out how they fit), when we discover their place in the puzzle, we realize how magnificent it feels when they all have their place.


Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island, NY

The feeling of belonging is arguably one of the most critical variables in the success of a young adolescent at school. Think about the places where you feel most safe, belong. Ideally, we feel that we belong when we’re with our family, our closest happy, willing to take risks. These are all places where you feel that you friends, our partners.  The climate at the ideal Middle School should
resemble these settings. 

A practice that interferes with this sense of belonging is suspension. Suspension is a “time honored” practice that schools utilize in cases of severe violations of the school for a period of days or sit in what’s called “In-School Suspension” a code of conduct.  Typically, a child is required to remain home from room sat school where they complete assignments provided by their peers and from most of the adults in the school. If we agree that a sense of teachers.  In both instances, the child is separated from the rest of his belonging is crucial for middle school kids’ success, it is difficult to we need to teach right from wrong, consequences are fine,  but can we find consequences that have the effect justify this practice.  When children misbehave, even in ways that are significant, this is the time we need to embrace them, not isolate them. Yes, of increasing this sense of belonging rather than corrupting it? 

Many schools, including ours, are employing restorative justice approaches to school discipline. In a typical example, which actually occurred at my school suspending them out of school, the students participated in a restorative recently, three students were found to have vandalized a bathroom. Instead of circle along with their parents, some teachers, classmates, and, most and our awesome assistant principal stayed after school with them one day to importantly, members of the custodial staff. They also wrote letters of apology make cookies for the custodial staff. This was so much more powerful and effective than any suspension could have been.  I am extremely excited  about the potential of restorative justice approaches to school discipline.  

Chris Legleiter. Middle School Principal.  Leawood, Kansas

The key to a successful school  year is the quality of relationships within the school and the school community. Great leaders recognize they must continually work on building great culture where everyone in school the school. feels like they belong and the school community feels connected and supports

The question is how is this achieved? While there are many components that lead to everyone feeling like “this is my home”, the one key aspect that is incorporated with these components is how the leaders must model the desired behaviors. Let’s take a look at how this is achieved:

- Leaders understand the importance of leading with positivity.
- Leaders are vulnerable with staff and students by sharing personal examples that connect through emotion and stories. This helps drive continual growth through trusting relationships.
- Leaders lead with grace and kindness as they are the first to congratulate the hard work of others and also the first to apologize when something does not go according to plan. 
- Leaders find ways to get student voice within the school by having regular “feedback loops” with students to listen to their ideas.
- Leaders implement methods to support whole child initiatives by recognizing students for great character, support inclusivity and daily SEL work.
- Leaders have consistent opportunities to share with parents the work of the school so they are informed.

Leaders understand how they treat others and develop an inclusive school community is the foundation of their work. This takes intentional efforts through modeling the desired behaviors and leading with vulnerability.


Brenda Vatthauer, Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
Middle school adolescent perception is real, well in their mind it is real.  At times, their perception misses the mark, is twisted, is off, but it feels “real” to a middle school student.  To help middle school students grow and enrich their learning (academically and social emotionally), a sense of belonging is a must.  A sense of belonging, can be perceived with many factors of influence, by both adults and students.  The feelings from their perception can distract or enhance growth and development in middle school.  To help build a positive sense of belonging, thoughtful consideration should be given to the following:

Be Real-Let your personality show through your “title” at school.  Attend student events, cheer, show you care and be real through expression. Your body language speaks a thousand words and students can read it well.  Step out of your comfort zone and be genuine with the students.   

Make It Personal-When you work with students, use examples that they can relate to.  Focus on them, their interests, their talents, their routines, their cultures.  By making conversations personal, you are making a connection and helping them feel a sense of belonging. 

Listen-We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, to listen more than we speak.  Listening to students is so important.  By listening, we not only learn about them, but they feel valued.  Listening also may include asking questions to allow more of the message to be drawn out and to gain a deeper understanding.  This also leads to a greater sense of person to person “connection.” 

Know Student’s Names-Being new to the middle school, I have to admit I struggle with names.  It is a work in progress for me, but necessary.  It’s ok to creatively create your own reminders to help remember student names. Students feel valued when they hear their name.

Welcome Student Voice in Decision Making-A true sense of belonging is when student voice is encouraged when decisions are being made within the middle school.  Students will work harder, perform at a higher level and feel a stronger connection to the school community if their ideas can be part of solutions.

Be Visible-Being visible in the hallways, classrooms, during lunch, recess, before school, at the bus loading and at extra-curricular activities shows connection. This communicates a you, walk by you, not say “hi” but they will see you.  Over time, a continual visible presence will powerful connection to all students.  Some middle schoolers will “ignore” help connect a sense of belonging with each other.

Create Check-Ins During Homeroom/Class-One of the most powerful ways to establish a sense of belonging is to routinely allow time for circle check-ins within each classroom.  Many character traits are developed throughout the year if staff take the time to create a sense of community and belonging through circle check-ins. 

How do you build belonging in your school and your school community?


Read the previous installments of the Middle School Collaborative:

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Running Fartleks

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.  

Name one characteristic of all great middle school leaders.

There are many roles leaders play in education.  Undoubtedly, positions in each of these places require a commitment to excellence, unique to the demands of the position. 

Serving as a middle level school leader requires one to balance the ability to make quick decisions with more deep and thoughtful thought processes, deftly shifting, based upon what’s called for in a specific situation.  

It’s as if we need to run sprints between running a marathon. There is, in fact, a perfect adolescent word for this: fartlek.

(Go ahead, say it. While you’re doing that try not to smirk. It’s a great middle school word.)

What does it take to successfully run fartleks?

Well, it may be no surprise that it’s the same as being a great leader “in the middle”:


Think about it. On any given day, we may:

·        greet students
·        hold a 15-minute meeting with 150 kids
·        formally evaluate a teacher
·     visit classrooms
·        attend several scheduled meetings 
·        chat in the hallway with someone we’ve been meaning to talk to 
·        facilitate a restorative discussion between adolescents
·        take a call from a parent regarding an ongoing issue involving their child
·        have several standing meetings with members of our Student Support Team
·        conduct an interview
·        and oh, check...and then thoughtfully respond to emails. 

This is the life we choose when we commit to school leadership “in the middle”.

And, while more often than not, this all happens before lunch periods that begin at 11 am, I’d choose nothing different.


Chris Legleiter, Principal.  Leawood, Kansas
There are many great middle school leaders that I have been fortunate to work with and get to know through my PLN.  I am grateful for our connections and owe so much of my success to their support. While they have many differences they also have shared qualities as well. One characteristic they all share is the great leaders recognize “it’s about others, not about themselves.”

You can call this servant leadership or simply how they recognize that if “serving others is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.” Great leaders understand that to help drive a successful school, it always comes back to people and how can you influence their behavior, actions and beliefs. This means connecting with them, supporting their work and finding ways to help them grow. They use this approach for students, staff and parents. This mindset puts a premium on making school a place that people enjoy coming to and celebrating the work together.  They create a school culture that is demonstrated by healthy, positive relationships and led by strong teacher leaders that empower students to be the difference.  This only occurs because the leaders recognize the importance of developing other leaders. As Jimmy Casas shares, “In the end, your legacy won’t be about your success. It will be about your significance and the impact you made on every student, every day, and whether you were willing to do whatever it took to inspire them to be more than they ever thought possible.”


Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

The single most important characteristic of a middle school leader? Oh boy, there are so many. I’m going to go with the following: Effective middle school leaders need to have good memories. That is, they need to remember what it was like to be a young adolescent. If there’s anything that characterizes middle school kids it’s the fact that they are inscrutable.  If we can’t connect with what it was like when we were 13 years old, then most behaviors of the kids in our schools are going to appear confusing frustrating, anger inducing, sinister, silly, or just plain wrong. When presented with adolescent behavior, one of the best tools in the box is to recall what it was like when we were 13.  Can you remember feeling like you were the only kid who…

  • was growing so fast your knees hurt
  • had a crush on a girl… or a boy…
  • had parents who were too strict, wouldn’t let you do ANYTHING
  • felt sad for no reason, or sometimes really happy for no reason
  • Still liked playing with legos or Barbies

It’s critical that those who work with middle school kids have a healthy recollection of that time in their lives when they were convinced that nobody had the same fears, joys, interests, and loves that they did. The more in touch we are  with what it was like to be 13, the better we can love the kids who depend upon us to understand what they're going through at this exciting time in their lives.  


Brenda Vatthauer, Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
When I left my first principal position and moved to a larger school, I received a gift from a teacher.  It was a colorful, well designed wooden desk sculpture that said "Inspire."  The card that accompanied the gift, illustrated the growth and change that teacher had accomplished over the time I was her principal.  I have displayed the "Inspire" desk sculpture in my office for several years, giving credit back to the teacher who I inspired.  I also have been inspired myself by many middle school leaders. 

Being a middle school leader isn't just a matter of knowing what to do--it is a matter of choosing to lead by inspiring others.  Most people will rise above expectations when they know you believe in them and inspire them.  A small token of appreciation, a note or a "special labeled" bottle of water can make the day of a staff member.   A leader accentuating the positive and continually look for reasons to raise people up, can generate rippled inspiration in a school culture.  By highlighting and allowing their strengths to shine, while genuinely showing that you "care", can motivate and inspire even the fixed mindset.   Sharing "celebrations" to begin a staff meeting or headlining your Staff Weekly Bulletin with "Shout Outs" add a new dimension to relationship building which will inspire staff.   Give students, staff, parents and community members a listening ear and provide support, then get out of their way and watch the great things that come. A leader has a way about bringing others along on the journey and keeping the journey alive and real.  Leaders have passion and purpose and lead by example. They find balance and model balance as they continue to learn, lead, grow and inspire others


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Who is Your Go-to Person?

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.  

Working at the middle-level is uniquely challenging.  Nobody can do it alone.  
Who is your “go to” person?

Dennis Schug - Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York
Hundreds of adolescents spanning several grades may seem overwhelming and appear, frenetic. As anyone who works with kids turning 10 through 14 can attest, there is a super-charged energy. Passing times and lunchtime resembles a human popcorn popper.  
From a student’s point-of-view, one may feel as if he/she is the only person navigating adolescent challenges. The struggle to get (and stay) organized, manage time, and prioritize tasks. Friendships, family life, changing bodies, developing minds, and the roller coaster of emotions may feel all-consuming. 
Our school’s master schedule includes Advisory, Teaming, and Looping. To personalize and maximize these organization frameworks, school-wide, we ask students, “Who is your Go-to Person?”

A Go-to Person is an adult who a student perceives he/she can trust. This can be a current (or former) teacher, coach, secretary, paraprofessional, school nurse, school counselor, social worker, or school leader, what matters is the connection. 
We speak early (and often) with our staff about the developmentally responsive side of middle school. When at least 50% of our focus is there, the impact can be seen in “the other 50%”: a student’s attendance, motivation, focus, purpose, and achievement. 
Go-to People know what needs to be brought to our Learning Support Team, and what should be shared with a parent or at a team meeting. Sometimes, though, what matters most is that trusting relationship between an adolescent and an adult with whom a student identifies or they feel simply “gets them”. 
Remember being 13? Who was YOUR Go-to Person?

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

My wife.  My wife is my “go to” person.  Danielle Gately is the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the district just down the road from my school.  She’s smart, funny, generous and caring.  Before moving into her present leadership position, her career was spent exclusively in middle school, so she really gets it.    That’s the main thing, you need a go to person who understands the unique nature of working with adolescent learners.  Because they truly are different.  They’re not bigger elementary school kids or smaller high school kids.  Middle school kids are singular beings who only thrive when they are surrounded by adults who are committed to working with them.  Danielle is this person and I’m so fortunate that I have the opportunity to come home from work and bounce things off of her.  In addition to raising our five kids, we talk about everything education and middle school related.  Some people might say that this is a corruption of the so-called “work-life balance”; that to bring home problems and concerns from the workplace isn’t healthy.  We haven’t found this to be so.  Probably because both Danielle and I share the same passion for our work that it doesn’t feel like we’re talking about “work”; instead, we are united by our passions.  Our work and our lives are very much blended together.  I don’t know what I would do without her support and advice.

Chris Legleiter.  Principal, Leawood, KS

For every great leader, a mentor pushed that person into their current reality. When we think of “who is you go to person”, my core beliefs and decision making practices developed from a combination of experiences and individuals. This has been pivotal in my development and from my perspective; here is why a group of mentors is so essential:
  • Learning from others increase greater capacity for growth
    Leadership is influence upon others. You must find time to consistently learn latest strategies, reflect and challenge the status quo. You can learn in isolation, but you have greater capacity for growth when you have multiple people with different perspectives and experiences to learn.
  • It Provide multiple opportunities for reflection
    Having an extensive PLN provides a platform where you get feedback from others.  They can share different strategies that you can consider for next steps.
  • Growth is not automatic but connecting with others becomes intentional practices.  Leaders have very busy lives filled with a variety of tasks, but when you have “go to people,” it provides daily practices and time set aside to reflect and challenge your thinking.  Growth is what separates those who are successful and those who are not.  It takes time to grow and when you have a PLN pushing you, then you will develop over time as a leader. 

Having a “go to person or people” is critical in any person’s development as it provides capacity for growth, reflection and intentional part of your work.

Brenda Vatthauer - Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
Top 5-Who Is Your Go To Person?  Who is the first person you seek out when there is a need?  The need might include a problem to solve, to obtain advice, a listening ear, to gain insight and information, coordinate a large event, bring together community partners, etc.  Timing depends on the context and with someone you trust.  A "go to" person possesses qualities to help make one a better educator, parent, spouse, community member or friend.  A "go to" person has a reputation for:
making solid decisions              well-grounded in beliefs
prepared                                                  responsible
growth minded                            talented
well-rounded citizen                    holistic in points of view
give honest feedback                 resourceful

My Top 5 go to people, or people I have in my corner, I have had firsthand experience with.  I have grown from each group of people as I reflect on earlier interactions which I valued and learned from.  It is the relationship not the transaction which makes the experience so powerful. Genuine connections have been developed over time.  So who are these Top 5 Go-To People?
  • Middle School Leader Voxer Group - phenomenal educators who are inner driven, giving honest feedback.
  • Former Superintendent (from my first principalship) and Assistant Principals-have a wealth of wisdom, knowledge and insight.
  •  Administrative Professionals-have numerous connections that are limitless and they are advocates who have your back.
  • Teacher Leaders-have their pulse on the day to day happenings and give input to help in navigating.
  • Community School Coordinator-have a jackpot of resources to tap into along with the coordinating skills to make it happen.

In education, a "go to" person can make a real difference in your career and life.  Take time to celebrate how they have supported you in your professional and personal growth.

Did you read our last collaborative post, about some of the “essentials" for middle school educators, teachers, and leaders for the start of a new school year?
Click here to check it out.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Lessons in Gratitude: Edcamp Long Island

It turns out, what an old friend and mentor told me is true: Life moves fast. And if you're not paying attention, you'll miss it. I guess time does actually fly, regardless of whether or not you're having fun. The last five years have gone by in what feels like the blink of an eye. And I almost missed it.

For that reason, I made a conscious personal decision to take a personal growth journey: My goal has been to work on slowing down, to resist the urge we have as busy humans, to live life on the surface. This decision is as much a quality of life decision as it is anything else. Fortunately, I am surrounded by strong role models: a healthy and happy family, a now college-aged daughter who lives everyday with a life full of meaning, trustworthy colleagues who I work alongside daily, and several friends and mentors who are generous with their precious time. I am lucky, I am fortunate, and I am truly blessed.

My life, by all appearances is "just right". I've also made a conscious decision to make a point of incorporating the written word into everyday life. Read more books. Write more, just for me. 

Just write.  

Besides reading and writing, I am a big podcast listener - mostly as professional nourishment and mental stimulation. But this summer, I came across one that resonates with me well beyond the time I listen to it, called The Science of Happiness. I can listen to most episodes in one sitting, on either the daily commute, to or from work. I found this podcast at just the right moment, a moment when I needed to find something like this. See, as traffic patterns shift in late spring, so does my daily commute. The detour I take is along a road where the Bay is on one side, and the Ocean, is on the other. (Not too bad a view either way.) And with the local speed limit enforced by local law enforcement, I have no choice but to drive slowly, enjoy the salt air, breathe deeply, and listen. I spent the majority of my spring and summer mornings reflecting, on finding happiness and even joy, in everyday experiences. As someone who has always struggled with work-life balance, I was ready for a change. Then I read this article about the value of 365 days of gratitude and how Gratitude is the Key to Work-Life Balance . 

Taking time to be grateful seems worth the time, as it may just be a key to finding joy and life success.

This past weekend, we celebrated the 6th Annual Edcamp Long Island. As a member of the planning team, I've had the privilege of working with some of the most dedicated, passionate, and generous profession educators around. Each year, our team evolves and grows.And each year, we have new and returning attendees, all focused on learning, sharing, and helping one another to see another perspective on teaching, leading, and learning. Each year differs a little bit different from those before, based on who shows up and what topics land on the empty session board.

For several years, my edcamp experience was similar to my life experience: I discovered that, even as a member of the planning team, I participated only superficially. In retrospect, I had convinced myself that being "busy" was the same as being "meaningfully engaged". Turns out, they're not the same. 

This year, I decided to take a different approach. Yes, I'd arrive early, as I've always done, because there's NOTHING like catching up with old friends from the planning team. Being part of the morning-of ritual always brings me back to that sense of nervous anticipation that 1) not a single one of the 1,000 registrants will show up, and 2) no one would be willing to facilitate an edcamp session. I'll never forget our first Edcamp Long Island in which every team member committed to have two sessions in our "back-pockets" to throw on the board, if no one showed or facilitated. Turns out, we didn't need them after all.

Another favorite morning ritual of Edcamp LI is the charge of an empty board, which actually gets bigger every year because of strong registration. Standing outside with some friends, greeting and checking in attendees before they enter the host school, we see friends, old and new, some new to edcamp and other "edcamp veterans", some of whom we only get to see annually at this event.

The student musicians provided us with an Edcamp Soundtrack
The student leaders who volunteered were amazing hosts!

As the board fills, I remember how much I enjoy the sights and sounds of edcamp. One-on-one conversations that happen outside of sessions. Catching up with two old friends, each of whom is a second year middle school principal, both who are enjoying the heck out of working in a community that is thriving and who are appreciative of the amazing energy of adolescents. Listening to a new colleague at the coffee pot, saying that the best way to hook a teacher on a new idea is to show them how it will help their work. Having an impromptu discussion at the session board with someone from a neighboring county about how we can rebuild competition in recruiting and hiring the highest quality teaching candidates. Seeing student leaders with a proud, caring teacher, volunteering their time on a Saturday to help in every capacity, ranging from handing out snacks, to directing foot traffic, to performing in musical ensembles. Another student speaking to passersby about the value of being an live organ donor. (Her mother donated one of her kidneys to another loved one - the girl's grandfather!) 

This is just a sampling of the golden moments waiting to be discovered at Edcamp Long Island. 

Following a quick coffee and grab-and-go breakfast, I decided that, rather than popping into the myriad sessions happening throughout the school, I was going to pick one that matters to me that I have more questions than I do answers. Like my morning commute and my new goal to resist superficial experiences, I decided to slow down and enjoy the experience.

My first session was Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. I attended, not expecting to contribute much, but hoping that I'd leave with thoughts that would resonate well after the session. My main takeaway from several small group and one-on-one discussions? We talk about our responsibility and we create lists to improve on priorities like being more culturally responsive. But if our largest action step is to purchase books with diverse characters and by diverse authors. It's harder than that, more controversial than that, and it takes courage to take steps towards doing this important work. It requires thoughtful and fearless educators, willing to unpack complex topics we don't fully understand, to ask more questions than provide answers, and to take risks with people we trust to support a school culture that embraces fostering culturally responsive practices. It requires us to delve beneath the surface, that we sometimes see in a typical school day.

My next step is small but significant, because it's a step in the right direction: deciding to purchase The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings . I plan to use Twitter to stay connected with the session facilitators, @dr_niri_art and @7dreamkeepers who lead this work and build this culture daily. And I commit to learning more deeply about how we can support all members of our school community to experience school on terms that are responsive to their needs. 

The second session I chose to attend, facilitated by an elementary school leader who can be followed on Twitter @Hillarybrom was Restorative Practices: What do you do? This session full of educators from all levels, from school of varied demographics, and the participants, it turns out, are all at a different phase of their journey in RP. One thing was clear, however, in our circular discussion: this is about relationship-building, community-building, and capacity-building. It was promising to realize that much of the time and energy that we devote to building a healthy school culture, one in which we strive to reach students before we teach them, is central to the work that goes into restorative practices. It's how we speak with students, the words we use in everyday dialogue, that supports more formal practices such as restorative circles, used for restorative practice and restorative justice. And one of the session attendees had suggested something I have heard for a long time: this will never be perfect and fully supported by all members of a school community. But, it's also not going away. It's the reason we got into education to begin with: to connect with students and help them find authentic meaning beyond their school experience. One of the participants shared the Ted Talk, The Happiness Secret to Better Work by Shawn Achor. Re-watching this clip through a lens of restorative practices has me reflecting on how we often approach our vision for school success, academic first and social-emotional second, if at all. Achor theorizes placing an emphasis on social emotional well-being will lead to being more productive and successful, not the reverse. I am grateful to have been in this space with others on a professional journey similar to mine: to help others find meaning in our work.

Instructional Technology Extraordinaire, Bonnie McClelland

While I did not attend a third session at Edcamp LI, I did wake up the following day, thinking how I'd have liked to facilitate one on running a successful Parent Camp, as this seems to be taking shape thematically and organically in my school, with both parents and staff who want to learn more about middle school life.  But like the morning commute, whether it's culturally responsive teaching, restorative practices, or learning in general, these things take (and deserve) our time.

In that moment, I remembered wanting to avoid being busy versus being meaningfully engaged. So, I caught up with an old friend, and together, we organized for the Smackdown, to close out our day.

The Ultimate Smackdown Emcee, Jim Cameron 

Edcamp Long Island continues to teach me so much, about myself and helps me to sometimes remember, and other times, discover what I value. Reflecting on work-life balance, living a more meaningful existence, serving our students more deeply, or accepting that life (and work), we are often presented with more questions than answers. However, at the center of it all is a focus...on gratitude. 

I am grateful to my Edcamp Long Island friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances as we join one another on our learning journeys. Question is, do we enjoy the Bay or the Ocean view together? 

Slow and scenic wins the race.

Edcamp Long Island Founders, Don and Danielle Gately