Meeting in the Middle

COVID-19 has given us new opportunities to review, revise, and revamp what we’re doing.

Topics: Middle Level

What do you do when what has worked in the past isn’t working today—and isn’t likely to work going forward? COVID-19 gave school leaders an opportunity to review practices in real time and make adjustments to meet the needs of students, staff, and families. Now that a new school year has begun, there will be new opportunities to review, revise, and revamp what we’re doing.

The following are several challenges schools will face in the new school year and a few strategies to reinvigorate practices.

Beth’s Challenge: Build Relationships With Students

Principals faced many challenges in the 2020–2021 school year, but the greatest I faced was physical distancing and masks. While important to keep everyone healthy, they had a huge impact on relationship-building.

One tradition that I’m looking forward to bringing back is our sixth-grade welcome wagon. With the assistant principal, I visit each of our incoming sixth graders at home, dropping off swag featuring the school’s Hornet mascot and inviting them to August locker distribution and parent meetings. These informal meetings have a big impact; they give families the chance to ask any questions they might have, and their feedback is valuable in setting up transition activities for new middle schoolers.

During the 2020–2021 school year, students felt as if they had less control and input into school decisions due to COVID restrictions. A principal think tank was a way to invite students to offer feedback on a variety of topics, from choosing the next SEL program to handling vaping and fistfights. When you ask for suggestions from students and let them lead the charge, amazing things can happen.

The result: Taking the time to get to know students and families has helped students put their strengths to work in relevant and meaningful ways. Students crave connection and voice.

Jessica’s Challenge: Ensuring Staff Input in PD

During the 2020–2021 school year, Ellis Middle School scholars, staff, and families convened to discuss what the building schedule might look like for the 2021–2022 school year. After determining we would move away from the traditional seven-period day and toward a unique A/B block, we began to seek out meaningful professional development.

A small group of teachers and I vetted a series of speakers and facilitators familiar with the needs of middle learners and brought in two well-known educators and leaders. We met with them to go over our new schedule in detail, offer feedback from listening sessions, and suggest expected outcomes for the PD day before it began. By providing specific and clear goals for our professional development, the presenters were able to tailor sessions specifically to our needs.

The result: Teachers reported that this was the best PD session they had ever attended. Not only did they learn about the research behind the block schedule and the importance of making authentic relationships with students, they practiced “brain breaks” and other activities that they could implement in class the following day.

Beth’s Challenge: Getting Families Involved at a Distance

One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic year was that no visitors were allowed into the school building. Because of this, we needed to showcase the learning experiences happening at the school through social media to help families at home feel they were part of the experience.

Facebook and Instagram are the primary platforms for families in the community. In order to get representation from all classrooms, our staff tweeted to a common hashtag (#FMSTeach) each day showcasing our mission in action; those uncomfortable with Twitter would text or email me pictures. At the end of the day, I would move the pictures to Facebook, and an assistant would add pictures to the school’s Instagram account.

This had a twofold benefit: First, I was able to see lessons I might have missed. There were many instances last year when I was dealing with pandemic-​related issues—contact tracing, quarantining, substitute teaching, etc.—that robbed me of the opportunity to see amazing examples of learning in action. It was wonderful to see that there were still so many amazing things happening despite all of the uncertainty. Second, it gave families a chance to connect to the school, even when they weren’t able to be physically present.

The result: We were able to stay connected to families and the community continuously and create a time capsule of one of the most challenging years in history through our social posts. We proved that learning and engagement still happened every day in spite of COVID restrictions and mandates.

Jessica’s Challenge: Create Better Engagement

Transitioning to middle school is already challenging, and with students starting in a hybrid model under COVID, it was essential to have family support and a platform to address their questions and concerns.

In August 2020, we launched family listening sessions on Microsoft Teams, offering training so that families had an understanding of the platform we would use for the school year. And instead of a traditional open house, I offered Facebook and Instagram Live sessions during which students posted their schedules in the chat, and I would “walk” to each virtual room.

Parent back-to-school conferences were performed remotely one-on-one. During these sessions, parents could double-check Schoology and Infinite Campus access and ask questions about topics such as attendance-taking and communicating with teachers.

The result: More parents than expected showed up, and we heard their fears and concerns about children’s return to in-person learning. We continued to offer virtual conferences, since we found that families with multiple students enjoy the convenience of logging in from home instead of bringing the whole family to school. And we offered more virtual listening sessions at the end of the year to gain insights into families’ questions about post-pandemic transitions.

As leaders, we know the importance of being change agents, advocates, and purposeful servants of our schools. Finding ways to review, rethink, revise, and reboot our strategies will be critical to moving beyond the pandemic.

Beth Houf (@BethHouf) is principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, Missouri, 2021 Missouri Middle School Principal of the Year, and the co-author of Lead Like a PIRATE.

Jessica Cabeen (@JessicaCabeen) is principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota, and co-author of multiple
books on education and leadership, including Balance
Like a PIRATE.