Connecting With Middle-Level Kids

A student roundtable helps tap teens’ feedback.

I was so proud of myself: I had figured out how to create a Bitmoji graphic to remind students of upcoming state testing. It showed a cartoon version of me descending in a parachute emblazoned with the words, “Hey Gang!”

But my excitement about learning something new and trying to find a way to connect with kids was short-lived. “I thought there was no gang business around EMS,” came one student’s reply.

When I read it, I was frustrated, put off, and a little shocked that a student would be so bold about commenting on a post made by the principal—the first I’d ever made on Ellis Middle School’s Instagram account.

That student would become the president of our first-ever Principal’s Roundtable.

Lessons in Humility

Asking students to come to the table, share their stories, and voice their opinions is a lesson in humility and vulnerability. Middle school can be messy—brain development, maturing bodies, and social demands contribute to a shifting educational dynamic that requires deep understanding of not just educational research, but implementation in practice.

One way to ensure that you meet students where they are and accelerate their learning is by taking the time to learn about them as individuals. “One of the highest forms of respect around the world is to prove to someone that we really know them, and that we see them as worth knowing,” author Rick Wormeli wrote in a 2019 blog post for the Association for Middle Level Education.

Done well, this connection can lead to meaningful relationships that last well beyond when the student leaves your school. But why we should find the time to get to know our students is one thing; how we do it is a little more complex.

The Principal’s Roundtable

My first year as a middle school principal followed six years as a kindergarten principal, and to say that I had a lot to learn is an understatement. Leaving playgrounds and small-group learning centers to enter into social media, hallway drama, and 1:1 devices was challenging.

Finding ways to gain authentic feedback was essential to my establishing practices that kept students safe, successful, and seen. The Principal’s Roundtable was one of the first consistent communication channels I launched to hear authentic student voices.

My social media friend was the first member of the roundtable. He and I met weekly to get to know each other. Sometimes it would be during lunch; other weeks it might just be a quick check-in between classes. After about a month, he started to see the value in being heard and seen and asked to bring a few friends.

The meetings always started with conversations about them—who they are, what they enjoy. Once relationships and trust were established, we moved on to topics about things I could do to make school safer and more engaging.

Taking time to get to know the students in the focus group and following up on their questions, concerns, and suggestions helped me build a strong communication channel and a valuable way to check if what we were doing at Ellis was meeting the approval of its students.

New Perspectives

As the roundtable became more established, we started to meet once a month during lunch. Its president stayed the same throughout, but we tapped different groups of students based upon the topics we were going to address.

One group gave feedback that changed the rules in the school handbook regarding dress codes and grading practices. They helped develop a more personalized and relevant transition plan for incoming seventh graders, and they offered their insights into topics that were attracting attention in the school and community.

The unintentional takeaway from these meetings was that I was becoming more connected to these students as their principal than I might have been otherwise. Making a commitment to sit down with a group of teens and be fully present gave me insights that proved valuable long after they graduated and moved on to high school.

Ongoing Influence

I found it beneficial to stay connected with my roundtable students beyond graduation. Circling back to see how they are doing in the next phase of their education keeps the feedback loop alive and gives them the opportunity to express their opinions as they grow up. It also gives you a chance to see how the seeds of leadership, encouragement, and empowerment you planted grew.

The first president of my roundtable is now a senior at Austin High School. He is a star on the basketball team, a powerful advocate for fellow students, and widely regarded as a leader by all stakeholders. And he is still welcome to give me feedback on my Instagram posts.

Jessica Cabeen (@JessicaCabeen) is principal of Alternative Educational Programs at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota, co-author of multiple books on education and leadership including Lead Like a PIRATE, and an NAESP Middle Level Fellow.