Middle leaders collaborative: One characteristic of great middle school leaders

Name one characteristic of all great middle school leaders

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”.  

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 thatthey 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.  


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.


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 the 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 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” adds 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 of 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.


Dennis Schug, Principal, Hampton Bays, Long Island

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”.

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Educational Focus, Leadership, learning, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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