ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Five Myths About the "Family" Middle School

Summer 2017

By John Anderson

Virtually every independent school’s promotional materials refer frequently to the “family,” many claiming to be a “family school.” This self-description is popular because it appeals to virtually every clientele.
Since every applicant comes from a family, parents are attracted to a school claiming to be a family. They assume that in such a family-oriented place their child will be cherished and nurtured just as he or she is at home.
Too frequently, however, independent schools’ actual operational practices fall far short of resembling a high-functioning family. By applying the perspective of a high-functioning family to common practices in middle schools, five common operational credos are exposed as myths.
Myth #1: Consistent discipline is best. All students should be treated equally.
Reality: Treating every child individually is far more helpful and educational.
Family Perspective: Find any high-functioning family with multiple kids, and ask the parents how they disciplined their children. Invariably they will tell you that what worked with one did not work with another. For example, with one child they used a time-out and reward system, whereas with another they simply needed to use reason and guidance.
School Application: No two situations—and definitely no two children—are identical. The “one size fits all” approach is a lazy one that misses a golden learning opportunity. If handled wisely, the school’s disciplinary response can make a profoundly positive impact on a child.
Consistency is important in one respect: An infraction of the rules should always result in consequences, regardless of the child. The category of the consequences (e.g., detention, conduct notice, suspension) should also be consistent. However, the actual consequences themselves—what the child is required to do in response to the infraction—should be individualized. For example, the rule is that throwing food in the cafeteria results in a detention. Both students who throw food in the cafeteria should receive detention. However, the one who tossed a biscuit to share with a friend should not serve anywhere close to the same consequences as the one who sprinkled a student’s hair with parmesan cheese.
The following four-step system for dealing with consequences maintains consistent delivery of a quality disciplinary response while allowing individualization.
1. Be prompt—The “teachable moment” must be captured before the memory and emotions fade and therefore before the school day ends. Parents also more easily assume a positive, supportive role for their child and the school if the situation is resolved and consequences determined by the time the child goes home.
2. Be logical—Consequences should be connected to the misbehavior (e.g., if a student made a mess in the cafeteria, he or she should clean up messes in the cafeteria).
3. Be restorative—If the student damaged things or feelings, he or she should make repair. This might mean buying a replacement item or writing an apology (or both).
4. Be educational—The student must learn from the mistake, not just to avoid the situation in the future or avoid getting caught. The student’s perspective should be broadened, empathy increased, and strategies fortified.
In conversation and investigation, the educator should seek first a thorough understanding of the facts, avoiding the temptation to jump to conclusions. Seldom if ever does a situation turn out to be as it first appears. The educator should assess where the child is emotionally, analyze why the child behaved this way, and determine the desired change in behavior and attitude. Then and only then should the educator decide upon the specific consequential actions that will get the child to that behavioral and attitudinal place.
Like a strong family, a family-oriented school should not pretend to be a judicial system. Rather, it is an educational system charged with guiding and nurturing young people with as much individual care and love as a parent would give to his or her own child. When the parents see that the school takes this approach to managing misbehavior, they tend to back the school 100 percent.
Myth #2: A great resume denotes a great teacher and should be the first priority in hiring.
Reality: A great teacher must have a heart for teaching children. Hire character over credentials.
Family Perspective: Parents employing a coach, a music teacher, a tutor, an au pair, or a sitter for their child would never base the hire primarily on that person’s resume and recommendations. While those are vital prerequisites, they amount to nothing without the person’s innate ability to connect with children.
School Application: A great resume has its worth. It can tell the hiring administrator that the candidate is an intelligent, high-achieving scholar. A good middle school teacher needs to know his or her stuff. Kids can sniff out a fraud in two seconds. So credentials have their place. But the resume should do no more than get the candidate through the door for an interview.
Administrators should look for teachers who like kids and enjoy their company. Whereas a college professor who does not know his or her students may be a sufficient lecturer, a middle school teacher must know and connect with every student in order to be effective.
Hiring someone with a sense of humor is essential—though, not a cynical, sarcastic sense of humor. Middle school kids “can dish it out, but can’t take it,” as the saying goes. Their developing personalities are often much more fragile than they appear. A gentle sense of humor, though, can diffuse a tense situation and open the pathways for connection.
A great middle school teacher must be a strong role model—someone the students admire and emulate. If the school believes in the “whole child” concept, the teacher should embody a wide range of interests and skills. The math teacher who sits in with the clarinet section once in a while sets a great example. The art teacher who brings his own children to watch the middle school musical demonstrates family togetherness while supporting his students. A “whole child” needs to spend time with “whole adults” as their teachers.
Myth #3: Keeping parents at a distance allows kids to own their education.
Reality: Open communication with parents and a parental presence in the school doubles the benefit for the child. Enlist parents as partners.
Family Perspective: The more parents are interconnected with the school—where their child spends the better part of every weekday—the more they will have in common with their child and the more inclined they will be to trust the school.
School Application: A partnership with parents fosters trust and frees a child to grow unencumbered by mixed messages. Schools should invite parents to volunteer in the office or library or to help build the set for the school play. A huge benefit of having parents onsite is that they get to see firsthand the school’s healthy, vibrant environment.
One note of caution: As they do with kids, administrators need to show parents where the boundaries are so they do not encroach upon the teacher’s thoughtfully developed classroom culture and professional respect. Parents also need guidance in how to avoid micro-managing their child’s school life. Developing this understanding and balance takes time and effort, including parent education meetings and seminars, letters home, book clubs, and many conversations.
The mutual support between the school and the home benefits the child, especially in times of trouble. If a child fails a test, for example, and the parent already knows and trusts the teacher and her methods, the parent’s first response is helpful and strategic rather than defensive.
Myth #4: Praising and rewarding success builds a child’s confidence.
Reality: To build confidence, praise the child’s effort, not the result of the effort.
Family Perspective: A child’s confidence in a high-functioning family derives from the child’s deeply rooted understanding that he or she is loved unconditionally. Victories and A-pluses do not increase how much the child is loved. Defeats and failures do not decrease the amount of love. On this foundation of unconditional love, the child’s confidence can grow through his or her own efforts and experiences.
Good parents know not to heap empty or extreme praise on their child. For example, certain chores are simply family responsibilities. When a child takes out the trash as a routine chore, the parent may say thank you but would never take the child out for ice cream to celebrate.
Good parents also know not to exaggeratedly praise their child’s successful moments. When the child hits a home run in the Little League game, wise parents would not say, “You’re the best hitter I’ve ever seen!” Instead, they keep it simple: “Nice game” and a smile are enough. Similarly, the parents’ response after a loss should be simple: “Good effort” and a smile are still enough. Good parents know that a child’s confidence comes from within his or her own experience and cannot be imposed on the child by external praise.
School Application: Our school’s motto is “to have the courage to strive for excellence.” We teachers try to remind our students that “striving for excellence” does not refer to achieving a victory or championship; rather, it describes a high standard of sustained effort. The wins and trophies are great fun, but they are only the veneer and not the substance of growth.
At our daily morning assemblies, students celebrate their endeavors in service, character, athletics, and the arts. They mention their victories and defeats, but they have been taught to emphasize the “striving.” When our teams come in second, third, or lower, the students speak of their contests with honesty, insight, and pride. Recently, a member of the girls’ softball team announced, “They beat us by, well, a lot the first time, but only by four runs yesterday. We played as a unit and improved a lot.”
If our students achieve victories at every attempt, the bar is likely too low and they may develop a false sense of self-esteem. So that students may grow up to be emotionally resilient and brave, we must allow them the freedom to fall short now and then. I was encouraged when a 6th grade girl told me how much she was enjoying the theater opportunities at school. I said, “Oh, are you in the fall play?” She said, “No, I got cut this time, but I’m going to try again in the winter for the musical, and if I don’t make it then, I’ll try again in the spring. Eventually I’m going to make it,” she said smiling. I told her I admired her resilience, which is already serving her well in life.
When my 7th grade English students wrote their goals for the year, nearly every one of them included “to make straight A’s all year.” I commended them for aiming high, but I cautioned them about focusing on an end result, a product, a letter A. So I asked them to consider revising their academic goals to successful habits—paying attention, not procrastinating, asking questions, and encouraging others.
Myth #5: More classroom instruction time is necessary to increase middle school students’ academic success.
Reality: A balance of activities is the key to learning, including daily student engagement in the intellectual, the physical, the social, and the spiritual.
Family Perspective: All good parents know their child’s biorhythms. They know when their child needs to eat, sleep, work, and play. For example, when the child arrives home after a day of school, the parent may know that a quick snack and an hour of playtime outside is necessary before the child can settle into homework. Good parents want their child to go outside and play for the physical growth, the friendship development, the freeing of the imagination, and the many other intangible benefits. Parents know this intuitively if not intellectually.
School Applications: All dimensions of the human being—the intellectual, the physical, the artistic, the social, and the spiritual—should be provided ample time to flourish in the school day. Students need a systematic balance of quiet, meditative work, collaborative group endeavors, vigorous physical workouts, concentrated artistic immersion, and free-play time.
Even within a 45-minute academic class period, the best middle school teachers can achieve this balance. Pen-to-paper work might be followed by an active educational relay review, which might then be followed by a cooperative small-group project. The variety of movement and intellectual challenge not only keeps the students’ minds engaged, but it also respects the more kinesthetic learners.
Middle school students are capable of deep and intense quiet concentration. However, after 20 or 30 minutes of it, they have the physiological need to get out of their desks and move. Even if the movement is simply a minute of stretching, the physical renewal refreshes the mind.
Schools sometimes make the mistake of reducing or even eliminating physical education classes to make room for more academic contact hours. They are forgetting the necessity of a physiological balance for proficient learning. As the mind is not separate from the body, it requires physical exercise to function well.
Additionally, daily recess should be a requirement for all family schools. No one, child or adult, functions efficiently without taking a break. Yet many schools have eliminated recess for the misguided purpose of increasing class time and learning. Recess is the one time within the school day when kids are allowed free play. During games of four square or basketball, kids use their imaginations to make up new rules and develop ethics by arguing who is in and who is out. With the increase in sports programs and individual coaches, plus the increase in parents’ anxiety about neighborhood safety, many children never otherwise have free time to play with other kids unencumbered by adult interference.
A middle school student’s spiritual development is perhaps best addressed through daily fine arts classes. Performing arts students not only learn a lifelong individual skill, but they also learn teamwork in an ensemble setting.
A school that provides a systematic balance of human endeavors through its daily schedule, within each class period, and through interdisciplinary planning among teachers achieves a rich learning environment for its students.
Identifying as a “family school” morally ties an institution to the ideal of the high-functioning family. Yet, many schools operate in ways antithetical to such a family, usually out of ignorance and a failure to reexamine traditional practices. If a school chooses to discipline all students the same way, to hire résumés over true teachers, to raise a wall between the school and the home, to show love and honor only for winning results, and to confine kids to desks through a day-long academic regimen, then it is more accurately an “assembly line” or “factory” school.
An authentic family school makes a concerted effort to operate as a high-functioning
family does—disciplining each child unequally; providing individually designed
 consequences that guide, strengthen, clarify; and educating each unique child. It seeks teachers who are role models, prioritizing character even over the prerequisite credentials. It enlists the partnership of parents by fostering direct and frequent communication and inviting parents to serve in supportive capacities on campus. It eschews excessive praise, especially praise tied to exclusively to results. Rather, it praises the effort and the action with a calm, objective description so that the child never confuses praise with love, or a lack of praise with a lack of love. The rhythm of the day balances the intellectual, the physical, the social-emotional, and the spiritual so that the whole humanity of the child is nourished.
John Anderson

John Anderson recently retired after 41 years in independent school education. Most recently, he was head of middle school at Pace Academy in Atlanta.