A Successful Middle School Environment

Middle school students are perhaps the most difficult students to teach. During the 3 years of junior high, a middle schoolers academic brain shuts down while the social brain works overtime. Unfortunately, these years are often the most formative of a child’s life as well. Habits – good or poor – set in middle school often follow one throughout life. Integrity, independence, justice, and self-reflection – all are important for success. The groundwork for these personality traits are laid during the middle school years.

The importance and difficulties of working with middle school students serve to underscore the importance of our middle school faculty and staff. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and nurses all must work together to create an environment that leads these students to success. In a time when standards and testing are looked at with a highly critical eye, school administrators often wonder what they can do to help ensure success. There are 10 different ways in which the school environment effects the success – both social and academic – of its students.

  1. Curriculum/Backward Design: Curriculum defines the specifics of what students should learn and be able to do. A successful middle school environment employs curriculum by backward design. Where standard curriculum programs ask teachers to start by creating assessments, in backward design, educators start with the standards and then decide on the assessments that will allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the knowledge and skills. As teachers design a unit, both assessment and instructional methods can have implications for curriculum, making the process of learning creative for both teachers and students.

  1. Interdisciplinary Teaming: Creating a team in large schools can be a vital part of establishing a successful middle school learning community. A team consists of two or more teachers and the group of students they commonly instruct. Together, teachers on a team teach all the core academic subjects; if time and budgets allow, teams also cover encore subjects and special education. The team approach offers students the most direct path for forging stable relationships with teachers and peers. A team provides the valued group that young adolescents need to support their intellectual and interpersonal development. They provide a psychological home within the school that helps reduce the stress of isolation. Teaming also allows for a more integrated approach to curriculum. Broad-based generic concepts, generalizations, and questions that go across disciplines are the driving force of integrated curriculum design. Standards are used as rich sources of ideas for revealing the connections across disciplines. This type of curriculum is beneficial to students because the material suddenly becomes high-relevance to every subject – it fosters student success.

  1. Health Services: After conducting a thorough assessment of student health needs, schools can collect community public health data and information from informal conversations with parents and community members to develop a broad picture of the kinds of services required. These services need to be centrally located in or near the school and must consult with teachers and other school officials for help in identifying and addressing students’ problems. Students, parents and community members will appreciate the accessibility, convenience, confidentiality, and caring attitudes exemplified by such centers. These centers help the school provide high-quality health education and a healthy, supportive learning environment for students by ensuring that students’ health needs do not interfere with their ability to learn and grow.

  1. Professional Development: Mentoring and induction programs are part of a broader array of learning opportunities that must be available to teachers throughout their careers. Effective professional development in middle schools is results-driven, standards-based, and embedded in teachers daily work. Staff development content standards are used to describe what is important for all educators to know and be able to do to facilitate high levels of student learning including areas such as curriculum, instruction, adolescent development, classroom management, assessment, service learning, interdisciplinary teaming, and parent involvement. Professional development activities can be effectively focused to improve outcomes for students and can help create a collaborative community of adult learners who accept joint responsibility for student achievement.

  1. School-wide Discipline Plan: Effective school wide discipline policies, peer mediation, and conflict resolution programs further strengthen the bonds between students and among teachers and help to make the schools a safe place without violence. Middle schools will only be safe places because of the strength the relationships between teachers and students and among the students themselves. Any school wide discipline policy must be clearly articulated and consistently enforced in order to develop an orderly and safe climate for learning. However, discipline established primarily on the basis of externally imposed rewards for positive behavior and punishment for disruptive behavior will only go so far in creating the environment of respect and community desired. Clearly structured behavioral parameters do not necessarily provide students with an understanding of why it is important to follow rules governing conduct. Ensuring that students understand and have the opportunity to shape norms of behavior stimulates their intrinsic motivation to observe school rules because it taps into and supports students’ ideas of what is fair and just.

  1. Special Ed/ELL Programs: These special services are an integral part of creating the middle school community for many students. The ideal middle school would have at least one full time special education resource teacher as well as one on premises (but not necessarily full-time) ELL professional. These educators would be responsible for primarily assisting the resource students with integration into the mainstream classrooms whenever possible and with the least amount of undue attention. By offering students who require extra assistance these programs, school are creating a safe and positive learning environment for all students.

  1. After-School Programs: After school programs are a way of preventing young people from engaging in unhealthy or dangerous behavior, a way to reinforce and extend classroom learning, and a rich opportunity for young people to explore their own creativity. These programs can take the shape of clubs, mini-courses, intramural athletics, or tutoring sessions. They may also be administered by other organizations, and agencies within the community. These programs provide three major components for middle school students: positive relationships with adults and peers, enriching activities, and a safe place. The most effective after-school programs have both academic and recreational content. They allow young people to explore topics, skills, or projects that interest them but that may not be explicitly tied to the school curriculum.

  1. Advising/Counseling Department: An advisory period during the school day is potentially an important time for educators and students in middle schools to develop strong interpersonal bonds. When it is well implements, the advisory can be effective in developing relationships that support learning. Small group advisers drawn from with in the team provide a further opportunity for the personalized guidance and active monitoring young adolescents need. In the advisory, a teacher, administrator, or other qualified staff member meets with the students and leads group activities that address a broad range of students’ concerts. Middle school students need continuing assistance in comprehending, analyzing, accepting, and coping with the various emotional and social components of their lives. They need help in getting to know themselves and sustained support in crafting relationships with peers and adults both in and out of school.

  1. Character Traits/Values Education: When the community and school come together to provide students with a solid values education, the entire community will feel the positive effects. Modeling these values or character traits, educators, community members and professionals give students positive role models to whom they can aspire. Students improve in pursuing good grades and in their commitment to class work and feel more empowered at school because of their sense of having life-altering, decision-making opportunities and recognition from adults with programs like these. This values education could be woven into a curriculum, which embeds schoolwork in a local setting, connects the community and community members to other related contexts, and adds value to others in the school community.

  1. Parent/Community Involvement: Parent and community participation in the life of the school and in children’s schoolwork has a positive impact on student outcomes. Their involvement increases student achievement, enhances self-esteem, and improves behavior and attendance. To involve the community and parents meaningfully in the life of the middle school requires constant outreach by the school. This requires the school to regard involvement as a high priority and to develop structures and practices that will enable it to reach its goal. Schools must be both persistent and flexible in their approach. It may be necessary to schedule parent meetings or school orientations in locations that are less intimidating and more accessible to parents and community members, etc. For all middle schools, the surrounding community and the parents themselves serve as an enormous potential resource for educating young adolescents. Partnerships with community organizations and parents also provide middle schools with valuable opportunities to enhance and extend classroom learning in the out-of-school hours.

While all schools can benefit from looking at these 10 areas of development, middle schools in particular will find that improvement in these components offers improvement in student success across the board. By taking into account all different aspects of the school environment, administrators can ensure that their middle school is successful in helping students achieve academic, social, and personal goals. Education professionals will find that by improving all areas of school environment, standardized testing scores will improve as well.

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