About intentions: Positivity

I haven’t declared my New Year’s resolution this year because,  for me, this practice has become redolent with the stink of failure.  I look back on the resolutions I’ve made these past five years and I haven’t successfully achieved any of them.  

posterHere are some things I do NOT do every day:  

  • 200 pushups and drink 10 glasses of water
  • call my dad
  • converse in Spanish
  • write 750 words
  • run for 30 minutes

I know, I’m a pretty horrible person.  But, I’ve been using an app called Calm to practice mindfulness (an unsuccessful resolution from 2018, I’m still tryin’, don’t ask :-).  In a recent session, the difference between a resolution and an intention was discussed.  Both terms are noun forms of powerful verbs, “resolve” and “intend.  

To “resolve” is to “decide firmly on a course of action”

To “intend” is to “have (a course of action) as one’s purpose or objective.”  

There’s a difference.   

D9TM-LNXkAAZbL1Countless people are posting their New Year’s resolutions in the form of a “one-word focus” for 2020.  In fact, the hashtag #OneWord2020 has been trending since December 31.  But what happens when we make a resolution and we break it: We resolve to diet,  but we eat that second piece of cake; we resolve to workout every day but we miss Monday morning because it was a long weekend. What does that do to our resolution?  We’ve failed. Intentions, on the other hand,  are just that, directions we intend to travel in, things we intend to do.  If we slip up, our intentions remain the same, we’re still moving in the same direction.  One might say this is simply a matter of semantics, but words matter right? It’s a clarification that works for me because when I think of past resolutions, my previous one words, they seem rife with failure. Although I realize the importance of embracing failure, to break resolutions year after year, it’s dispiriting.  

Hence, my intention for 2020 –  my one word – is:  POSITIVE. I will strive to be more positive.  Jon Gordon, author of The Positive Dog, states that being positive not only makes you better, but it also makes everyone around you better. This is an outcome I can surely embrace.  Gordon offers an 11-day positivity Action Plan. Here are several of his suggestions: turn off negative news and identify things for which you’re grateful; be a coach to somebody who needs it; don’t participate in gossip, and turn complaints into solutions.   I’m going to try all of these (not on the same day). Hopefully, I’ll occupy a more positive world. And if I slip up, that’s OK, positivity will remain my intention. I will keep you posted in this space on how I’m doing with my INTENTION for 2020.  


some of the positive people… Juliet, me, Danielle, Olivia

Posted in Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, learning, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Middle-leaders Collaborative: How do you handle “lame-duck” days?

The holidays are approaching.  Working with middle school kids on the days preceding a vacation can be particularly challenging.  How do you make it work?

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

This is a great question because, frankly, middle school students are nothing if not temperamental.  Their moods shift frequently, often without warning. The days preceding a vacation can be the most challenging period to work with young adolescents.  Jennifer Gonzalez calls these, Lame Duck School Days, “Those days when technically we’re still in school, but because it’s right before vacation, the end of the school year is near, or we’re in the middle of standardized testing, those class hours don’t have the same instructional potential as your average school day.”

IMG_5366Smart middle school principals try to keep their calendars as open as possible on the days before vacations, knowing that anything and everything can come up.  Students have more energy on these days because of the excitement of soon enjoying time off from school, sleeping late, not having homework. Another group of students might act out or display signs of anxiety and depression because school is their “safe place”, the place that they are free from the problems that characterize their home lives.  The day before vacation, it is not uncommon for certain kids to act out, or even express feelings of depression or “self-harm”. Naturally, these expressions are too often articulated about 20 minutes before the school buses are set to roll and a frantic principal and school psychologist have to make a decision whether or not to put the child on a bus to go home.

As an inexperienced middle school leader, I would try my best on the days before a vacation to keep a lid on the pot.  As you might imagine, it didn’t work. Just as you can’t hold down the cover on a pressure cooker with your hands, you can’t hope to squelch adolescent enthusiasm by increased supervision, threats, and consequences.  I’ve learned to channel the energy of students on these days so that learning continues to take place within the context of the excitement and joy that students are feeling.  

The day before the winter break, our teachers organize “Student-Led EdCamp”.   Students choose the topics they will facilitate and learn about with each other.    Check out this video of kids populating the session board in anticipation of EdCamp in 6th grade.  Kids facilitated sessions on juggling, waffle making, infectious diseases, how to create YouTube content and many other topics of interest to young adolescents.  The kids are excited about this participant-driven learning and they probably learn more on these days than they do on school days that aren’t “lame duck days”.

Brenda Vatthauer, Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

We often need a brain break especially the day before the end of a quarter, semester, trimester, holiday, etc.  The day before a vacation can be rewarding, yet challenging. Middle school students look forward to spending time with friends and wrapping up a unit of learning with anticipation of enjoying time away from school.  But wait, there are IMG_5344segments of students who do not welcome an upcoming break from school and actually dread it. Time away from school, to some, may not be a positive experience. Many factors play into this which may include homelessness, family separations and challenges, poverty, loneliness, mental health, etc.  This is not only apparent in students, but sometimes with staff also. 

How do administrators make the day before a break, a Lame Duck School Day, meaningful?

1) Gather input from the Leadership Team.  Input, input, input is necessary.

2) Gather input from students.  Student voice is valued for planning the day before break.IMG_5370

3) Gather parent input.  Utilize parents and the community as partners.

Start with a focus question, “How can we make the day before a break meaningful to everyone?”  This would include wrapping up a segment of learning and building a positive school culture at the same time.  Utilize input to draft a plan.

         *Make it fun.

         *Think outside the box.

         *Involve community partners.

         *Allow planning time and planning with a team.

         *Reflect on the needs of the “whole child.”

Keep in mind the activity you plan and carry out will have a lasting impression for students and staff.  You will be setting a trend, whether in grade-level teams, blocks or whole school groups. The outcome and memories students keep will be long-lasting.  Down the road, you may hear “Remember that fun day we had before our holiday break in 7th-grade when……”

Learning doesn’t have to be traditional, learning can occur on Lame Duck School Days before a break if planned and executed in a meaningful way.


Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Leadership, learning, Personal Best, Teaching/Learning | Leave a comment

How do you build belonging in your school and your school community? (Middle-Level Collaborative)

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

EINN39NWoAAcqZQThe 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, happy, willing to take risks. These are all places where you feel that you belong. Ideally, we feel that we belong when we’re with our family, our closest 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 code of conduct.  Typically, a child is required to remain home from school for a period of days or sit in what’s called “In-School Suspension” a room at school where they complete assignments provided by their teachers.  In both instances, the child is separated from the rest of his peers and from most of the adults in the school. If we agree that a sense of belonging is crucial for middle school kids’ success, it is difficult to 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, we need to teach right from wrong, consequences are fine, but can we find consequences that have the effect 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 recently, three students were found to have vandalized a bathroom. Instead of suspending them out of school, the students participated in a restorative circle along with their parents, some teachers, classmates, and, most importantly, members of the custodial staff. They also wrote letters of apology and our awesome assistant principal stayed after school with them one day to 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

EIOM-T_WwAAHjQEThe 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 feels like they belong and the school community feels connected and supports the school. 

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 powerful connection to all students.  Some middle schoolers will “ignore” you, walk by you, not say “hi” but they will see you. Over time, a continual visible presence will 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.  

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.


  1. Participated in a meeting…run entirely by students.


  1. 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.

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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”.

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Middle-Level Leaders Collaborative: Who’s 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?

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 edacmp-daniellethrive 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.

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 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. 

schugOur 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?

 Chris Legleiter.  Principal, Leawood, KS

For every great leader, a mentor pushed that person into their current reality. When we think of “who is your 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 the 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.
  • chrisIt provides 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 practice.  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 Supbrendaerintendent (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.

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Middle School Principals’ Collaborative: Beginning of the Year Essentials

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”.

Topic: The 2019-20 school year started over the past month across the country.  What are some “essentials” for middle school educators, teachers or leaders, at the beginning of the school year?

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

For me, it’s important to do something new every year.  There is a truism that we needn’t do new things just for the sake of doing them.  To keep things fresh, I need to always be trying new things, at least that’s how it works for me personally.  This is actually my 18th year as a middle school principal, I know this because my second day as a brand-new principal was September 11, 2001, it was a tragic and challenging start to my career.  This year, inspired by one of my colleagues, Anthony Ciuffo, we implemented with our staff an initiative we’re calling “Learning-Edge Buddies”. Here’s how it works: At our first faculty meeting, each member of our staff responded on paper to the following prompts: What are you going to try for the first time this year or what are you trying to get better at? What’s your plan?  What are some things you’re going to do differently?  Next, each member of the staff crumpled up the paper into a “snowball” and tossed it at someone across the room; pick up the snowball and throw it again.  Everyone picks up a snowball. That is your learning-edge buddy. Your role is to be a cheerleader and supporter for your colleague / new friend as they travel on a learning journey this year. 

EErqieRWkAAKqyJA simple and elegant idea that so far is working beautifully. So many of our teachers have commented that their learning-edge buddy drops them little notes, maybe a small treat, an e-mail, a pat on the back, just to keep each other on track and accountable to somebody besides ourselves.  I’m excited by this initiative. Wondering what we will do next year!

Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York

Remember being 13? Who among us, given the opportunity, would actually choose to return to this…day I say, unique time of life?

These questions stick in my mind every September, facing a new school year, lying at the core of my approach with new (and returning) students, families, and staff. Whether for the first time, or a second or even third decade in middle school, September is the time to re-evaluate our memories and perceptions of life in middle school, to reset our perspectives. 

EErq5T_XkAEBoH7Middle School is amazing. Minute to minute, day by day, and month by month, there is this indescribable energy permeating every square inch of space of the building. As adults charged with finding ways to guide, steer, and sometimes harness this energy, a willingness to accept this challenge represents a key to success with adolescents. Catch the lightning in a bottle, and celebrate when you do. 

Middle School is complicated. Personal identity, evolving friendships, and puberty. While these are some of the “typical” struggles associated with adolescence, coupled with real-world issues,  this makes middle school tough to understand, leaving kids (and even sometimes adults) to wonder, “Am I the only one who…?” 

September presents a chance for renewal, a rebirth of sorts. Provided the chance to, not necessarily walk in our own shoes again, but to walk alongside a 13 year-old, that’s where the magic is, the privilege of Middle School. And that’s for us adults as much as the 13 year-olds who we serve.

Chris Legleiter – Middle School Principal, Leawood, KS 

The school year is an extremely busy setting but also provides great opportunities for educators to positively influence and impact others. The middle level is unique as kids are striving to grow as learners, develop independence and find their social place among peers. Educators that thrive at the middle level use the following “essentials” within their work:


  • Foster Effective Relationships – This is the most important factor in a successful classroom and school. It’s all about the people and how do we support and encourage each other. 
  • Effective Instructional Leadership – Both teachers and administrators are instructional leaders, and a primary goal must be student learning. We must always learn new strategies to enhance our work.
  • Focus on Growth – The School year is long but does move by quickly. All educators must focus on getting better at their craft thru learning new practices, becoming connected with other educators, reflect upon the work and adjust as needed.
  • Develop Others – The best schools exist because of its people. They also have a collective efficacy that “we are all in it together “ for kids. We must build others up and focus on “being the best for the team, not the best on the team.”
  • Show your passion – All educators go into teaching because they want to make a difference. We must let others see our enthusiasm, energy and positivity. Those things are contagious and it’s great when kids see the adults having fun in their roles as it creates a “community”. 

EErqieQXYAEYKStThe school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching is hard as everyday matters but it is great because every day matters as we can impact kids. Be You and Be the Difference.

LaQuita Outlaw – Middle School Principal, Long Island

You spent the summer thinking about all the different things you would try to be better this year than you were the year before. Your desire to inspire students is at its peak. Before the feeling passes, find a way to harness the excitement that you have at this very moment. Grab a pencil (or a pen – whatever your preference) and record the fine details of what makes you smile. The children’s genuine admiration as they look at you when you speak. The way their eyes follow your every moment as you introduce a new topic, or even the surprise in their eyes when you show them something they’ve never heard before. Think about the conversations they’re having with their peers around the task you’ve given them, or the work that they’ve produced, which far supersedes anything you ever imagined. It’s these moments that will carry you through the difficult times of the year.   

Use the list that you generated to the sheer joy that brought you into education. There are an endless number of ways to capture, or reignite, the beginning of the year bliss. Here are some to consider:

  • Take a picture that sits on your desk as a reminder of the moment that brought you joy.
  • Celebrate children! A note home to the child’s family, or a certificate that celebrates an accomplishment will bring you back to why you do what you do

Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

What Are Your Hopes and DreamsEEr-4qqWwAAa1rs

Each year I look forward to connecting with students, parents and staff when they return to school in the fall.  I ask students “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams” and listen carefully to their responses. This question can become a “coaching” conversation by asking several follow up questions helping each student think about their future.  The real power behind the question comes when 8th grade mentors have a conversation with incoming 6th graders about their hopes and dreams. This is not only a mentoring connection, but an opportunity for growth. 

Parents can play a significant role by carrying out the discussion at home, driving to soccer practice or out for a meal together.  Middle school is a great time for parents to engage in the “Hopes and Dreams” conversation with their child. Teachers can promote this at Open House in the fall by posting a welcome on their SMART board stating “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams.”  The visual allows for a great conversation starter.

I would encourage you to continue the discussion by asking your staff what their hopes and dreams are for the upcoming year.  Ask staff to share their thoughts at a staff meeting before school starts. This allows an opportunity for risk taking and builds school culture at the same time.  We are never too old to have hopes and dreams for the new school year.

Jay Posick- Merton Intermediate School, Merton, WI

The beginning of the school year is when we need to focus on the 3 R’s-

Relationships with students

Relationships with staff

Relationships with family.

Most of the interactions we have before the school year starts are with our staff.  It’s important to provide our staff time with one another and it’s also important to spend time with our staff.  It doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, all professional development. It’s time to talk about our expectations for our students and for one another.

EEW_1k_X4AEW-3fOnce the students are in the building, it’s important to connect with students as much as you can.  Greet them when they arrive. Connect with them in the halls. Eat with them at lunch. Play with them at recess.  Learn with them in classrooms. And say good-bye to them as they leave for the day.

Building relationships starts with the first email you send, either at the end of the summer or as the school year gets started.  We have used flipgrid to have our staff share a brief video. Open House and Family Information Nights also bring families into our schools.

Relationships are developed over time in 15-30 second increments.  Make the 3R’s a priority for the start of the school year and there’s a great chance it will be your best school year ever.

Ted Huff – Educational Consultant / Retired Missouri Middle School Principal

As educators, it is essential to remember what it was like to be a middle school student. Picture yourself back in 8th grade. Two essential questions ring true: First, Will I be accepted? And second, Can I do the work? If we empower our students to confidently answer both questions with a resounding “Yes”, then our students will be prepared to have a successful year.

EEXSJuyXoAAIvnsBuilding positive professional relationships with our students begins with the first days of school. Dedicating the first few days of school to relationship building, academic work won’t begin until the first full week of school. During Character Connection Class (our academic lab) teachers and students work together to foster a collaborative and accepting community through a variety of them building activities. This is continues throughout the rest of the school year. During the “academic” and elective classes, the teachers also focus on class relationships. Here they share the importance of getting to know their students before jumping into curriculum work. 

So goes the first week of school, so goes your school year. Start off on the correct foot by building a foundation based on relationships.

Laura Jennaro – Christian Education Leadership Academy (K-8) , Pewaukee, WI

I love the start of a new school year!  With it brings an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a positive approach.  We educators, are the luckiest people on earth; we get to inspire youth everyday.  While blessed by this endeavor, we also accept great responsibility. It is essential for educators, to embrace this responsibility in the following three ways: show up, be curious about your people, and lead by example.  

SHOW UP  When I show up, I am present and engaged in the moment.  I am not multitasking; I do not have my phone out; I am listening; I am interacting.  I am curious. I seek to learn with and from you. In what ways can we show up?

BE CURIOUS  Stories connect us.  I enjoy learning the stories of my people, be it staff, students, parents.  Commonalities create an invisible bridge over which relationships are developed.  How do you learn other’s stories?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE  It is not enough to talk the talk, we must w


alk the talk.  Model what is expected in all that you say and do. Inspire others with your actions.

Setting the tone for a new school year is essential, and not always easy.  Remember to give yourself grace as you embrace this new school year and the opportunities it provides!

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About learning: You’re not always saving lives

The administrative team in my district recently engaged in a ritual that we have performed for as long as I have been here, we renewed our certification in CPR and basic first aid.  It takes about two hours and the training is usually provided by a few of our staff members, a nurse, PE or health teacher. Our instructors were two of our very best health and PE teachers from our school district.  Their expertise was apparent, their affect was warm and inviting, they encouraged risk-taking and engendered confidence in the participants. Numerous elements of a successful learning experience were in place. Our instructors showed us several videos that illustrated the symptoms of cardiac arrest and the procedures for emergency care.  The animations were of high quality, it was fun to try to figure out if the figures depicted in the video were actual people or computer-generated images.  CPR_training-05

Practice is essential because if you find yourself in a situation requiring CPR, you must have done it before, even though you didn’t perform it on an actual person.  We practiced on first aid dummies, pardon the expression, but they’re literally “dummies” – plastic mannequin-like apparatuses that have a head and torso, but no arms or legs.  You can blow into the dummy’s mouth and, as long as you are holding its nose in proper form, the chest will rise as it would in real mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Chest compressions mimic how it will feel to administer actual CPR, the dummy’s chest depresses approximately 2 inches, manually causing the heart to pump blood to the body.  So each administrator practiced the entire routine at least three times. 

One might conclude that this entire exercise was a matter of compliance, that is, something you just have to do periodically, check off a box to meet a legal requirement D_H1XwiX4AAdi5Lfor training.  But I have found that it’s not sufficient to sit back and “comply” because although the process of administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation is quite elemental, the procedure seems to change every time I’ve been trained.  You’re required to recertify once every two years and sure enough, every two years, the methods to move blood throughout the body via chest compressions and provide a small amount of oxygen through mouth-to-mouth seem to change in each instance.  When I first learned, it was one breath and 15 chest compressions. Then it was changed to chest compressions first, then breaths. Later, it changed again, 30 chest compressions and two breaths. I shouldn’t be surprised that the procedure is in constant flux, we’re talking about life and death here, we’ve got our best people working on it.  In other words, it’s not sufficient to simply put the time in, you’ve really got to pay attention.   

EDJindkWkAALkV9It worked, after this two-hour training, I felt confident about my ability to provide CPR and rescue breathing if called upon to do so (God forbid, my mother would’ve insisted I say that out loud after the preceding sentence). After training, we took a quiz.  If we passed, we received a card certifying us as “Cardiac Lifesavers” by the American Red Cross. I’m pleased to report that every administrator passed the quiz and successfully recertified.  

Above, I have described several variables of effective instruction: the “feeling-tone” of the classroom setting, the expertise of the instructors, the relationships developed in the workshop, the use of media, modeling, cooperative grouping, and independent practice.  Given the subject of this workshop, you might ask, “Why was any of this necessary? You were learning to save lives!” You would think that we could have mastered these techniques even with horrible teachers, in a lousy environment, with no videos and no opportunities to practice on dummies.  But this isn’t true. If none of these factors were in place, we likely would not have successfully recertified in first aid procedures.  

D_H1XwjXkAEouheAs important was the content of this training, the success of this learning experience was due more to the pedagogical factors and the human capital of the instructors than the to the (quite likely) possibility that we may one day have to use these skills to save somebody’s life.  Put simply, if a group of dedicated, experienced, school administrators don’t automatically engage when the content is a matter of life or death, how much do you think your 12-year-old learners are going to engage with a discussion of Shays rebellion or a poem by Dickinson. Regardless of how “essential” we feel the content we are teaching is, kids won’t engage unless we focus on the essentials of learning.  

All great teachers have singular passions for their disciplines.  As a teacher of English language arts, I know that I did. No one needs to convince us of the importance and relevance of our content.  But that’s not enough. Even though we teach our content as though the lives of our kids depend upon it, they won’t learn unless we purposefully employ techniques to ensure the engagement of students.

What are you passionate about in your content area?   How do you ensure that your students “engage”?

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About Learning: “Hey, you had the lighter one”

My wife and I attended a family party at her sister’s last weekend.  Her neighbor and husband stopped by with their five-month-old twins, a boy, and a girl.


Ryan and Harper

As it happened at this particular party, most of the kids were older, not infants.  My eight-year-old daughter Juliet might have been the youngest kid at the party. So these were the only babies enjoying this family graduation party.  And, as usually occurs, the babies started getting passed around like a bowl of guac. All the parents, remembering the good old days, arguing over who’s turn it was to hold them next.  Holding these adorable infants, parents reminisced about the times when their kids didn’t talk back, didn’t leave towels on the bathroom floor, didn’t borrow their cars, and return them without gas.  Oh my — watching your friends hold these two infants brought us right back to those days when parenting was reduced to changing diapers and breastfeeding (my wife, not me).  


Not babies anymore

We have five children between us, a blended family. So each of us has done “baby parent” three times. And when you are the parent of an infant, you have a great deal to learn. I remember that first time I changed my son’s diaper,  how difficult it was: ”Where do I put this while I open up that?  What do I do with this cream over here? It’s getting all over me. Ugh, he’s peeing on me.” Not six weeks later I became an expert diaper changer. I could change my baby’s diaper like a Penn and Teller trick;  you hardly knew it had happened.  I changed my kids’ diapers everywhere. I did diaper duty on car seats, desks, even garbage pails. Anywhere I needed to. I think I could change a diaper in midair if necessary.

And so you learn. 

As an educator, I am utterly fascinated by the way we learn, as we all should be.   Here is an essential question: Does learning have to be difficult? Can learning come without some degree of pain and hard work?  Consider parenting and the lyricism of the reverie that occurred at that party the other night. Everyone who held those babies forgot the vicissitudes of parenting, the sleepless nights, the running around, the worry, not to mention, for the women, delivering the baby, which I hear can be kinda painful.  My mother was fond of saying that if God didn’t put a baby’s face over the pain of delivery,  every kid in the world would be an only child. All of these challenges were forgotten.  These folks preferred to reflect on how much they learned, how much they accomplished as parents, how proud they were of their children.

When it was our turn to hold the babies, they were getting fussy so no one seemed to want to take them from us.  Danielle and I used whatever special parenting tricks we’ve learned to soothe them for a little over a half-hour while mom went home to get bottles to feed them.  You know what, it really is like riding a bike, we are still pretty good at being “baby parents”. Danielle held Ryan, the boy, who loved looking around at all the action.  I held Harper, the girl, and I used some of my special tricks to quiet her quivering lip; she even started to fall asleep in my arms. Of course, everyone at the party was saying,  “Hey, you guys are naturals, you should have more kids.” People always say this.

When mom came back with the bottles,  she took Ryan first. Feeling the difference between the weight of the two when I handed Harper to Danielle, my wife said, “Hey, you had the lighter one.” So funny. 

I guess you learn a lot by overcoming challenging circumstances, but memories of that journey never completely fade away. That’s how learning works.

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About our legacy: What details will be remembered

In 2007 a former astronaut got in her car and drove 850 miles from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida to confront a man, also a former astronaut, with whom she had some kind of a love interest.  It’s not certain what her intentions were but she had in her possession a steel mallet, a 4-inch folding knife, rubber tubing, rubber gloves, $600 in cash, and love letters,  all in bags. When she confronted the fellow ex-astronaut, she succeeded only in getting him to partially roll down the window of his car and she sprayed him with pepper spray.images

Despite the intricacies of the sordid plan described above, the one detail everyone remembers about this incident is the fact that in order to endure the long drive from Houston to Orlando, the woman wore an adult diaper.  In fact, Google it, and the first headline you will find is “Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot”.   There wasn’t a single story published about this incident in which this wasn’t mentioned; in most cases, it was the lead.  

I’m not going to focus here on the reasons why Americans were fascinated by this little detail (although I reserve the right to do so at length in a future post).  Rather, my fascination is with the curious details that can take such prominence that they overshadow the story itself. This, I have found, is a curious phenomenon associated with middle school kids.  Whenever you ask young adolescents about the adults in their lives, their teachers, administrators, their bus driver, the lunch ladies, they always focus on some quirky detail that is the part that becomes the whole:

The social studies teacher who shepherded his students from Jamestown through Reconstruction: 

  • “He always had  M & M’s on his desk”

The lovely lady who served lunch to 804 kids every day: 

  • “She used to whistle songs from Wicked”

The assistant principal who greeted them every day when they got off the bus:

  • ”That guy was really tall.”

So what’s the point?  Middle school kids and probably elementary and high school kids too, will not remember all of the pearls of wisdom and small acts of kindness that we bestow upon them every day, well, maybe one or two. 

Middle school educators should focus their attention on always doing their very best work with kids, don’t worry about the details. Be kind, elevate student voice, work hard, focus more on learning than on “content” … because more than likely, your legacy is going to be some version of  “Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot.” 

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About parenting: You’re not so bad

For years I’ve had a sneaky suspicion that I was a horrible parent.  It wasn’t anything obvious. I never left my children in a car with the windows rolled up on a hot day.  My kids always have money in their lunch accounts at school. We have a pool in our backyard, that’s something.  We’ve even driven to Disney with them, in Florida, twice. Nevertheless, I have a nagging thought in the back of my mind, or in my horribly dark soul, that I’m really not cutting it as a parent.  

517rvxIMdNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fortunately for me, I have discovered a book that has helped me to understand that I actually am a horrible parent.  Just as Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has helped tens of thousands of people to look at their homes and offices to realize they are unredeemable slobs, reading Amy Morin’s book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do  has helped me to finally particularize the ways in which I actually am the substandard parent I always imagined myself to be.

What are the 13 things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do..?

1. They don’t condone a victim mentality.
2. They don’t parent out of guilt.
3. They don’t make their children the center of the universe.
4. They don’t allow fear to dictate their choices.
5. They don’t give their children power over them.
6. They don’t expect perfection.
7. They don’t let their children avoid responsibility.
8. They don’t shield their children from pain.
9. They don’t feel responsible for their children’s emotions.
10. They don’t prevent their children from making mistakes.
11. They don’t confuse discipline with punishment.
12. They don’t take shortcuts to avoid discomfort.
13. They don’t lose sight of their values.


Maybe Juliet could’ve taken the railroad to the game by herself

That describes most weekends at my house… that is… between my wife and me… we cover at least 9 of the 13 “things” at our house between Friday and Sunday night.  I didn’t collaborate with Amy in writing this book but I’m pretty certain she has a webcam in my house that sees me remind my 8 year old to get off her I-Pad for the 4th time in an hour, or me giving my 11th grader a little too much help with his college essay, or scolding my 9th grader for getting an 87% on her science test and not crying about it.  Yes, it’s confirmed, as I’ve long suspected, I am a fairly horrible parent.


Made their beds

But… there’s hope for me, for all of us. Morin’s book offers guidance that can help all of us become better parents.  Many of her ideas are powerful and common sense things parents can do differently; some of her ideas challenge our assumptions about parenting.  Consider this advice to parents who make their child the center of the universe: “Keep the emphasis on how kindness affects other people, rather than how great a person it makes the child for doing a good deed.”  To parents who expect perfection, Morin encourages parents to tell their children stories about their own failures.  We make our kids’ beds and do their laundry but we’re surprised when they

return to live with us well into their 30’s; Morin advises parents to give their children chores and responsibility.

I’m pretty sure you’re a better parent than I am but there’s something in this powerful book for everybody.  Read it and also join us for a discussion at the Jericho Joint PTA Open Council Meeting in the Middle School Library on MARCH 18 at 9:30am.  See you there.

(One last thought.  I do not do Number 4:  “allow fear to dictate my choices.”   I’m trying to talk my wife into allowing my third grader to walk to school by herself; hey, I took the subway to Yankee Stadium when I was in 7th grade.  I’m not winning this argument.)

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