Engagement, Leadership, Teaching

In Search of the Middle School Principal

Early adolescence is a critical stage that demands specialized skills and knowledge, from principals as well as teachers

At the Australian Curriculum Studies Association Conference in 2009, Rumble and Aspland presented a paper entitled In Search of the Middle School Teacher: What differentiates the middle school teacher from other teachers.[1] Rumble and Aspland’s findings clearly point out the need for middle years teachers to have expertise in adolescent learning and development, along with a true passion for working with students aged ten to 14.

Through my career – as a middle years teacher, a district specialist for middle years teaching and learning, and an assistant principal of two different middle schools – I have worked with hundreds of teachers and school principals. Only a handful of those educators have taken part in teacher training programs focused on working with adolescents in middle level learning environments. None have been part of leadership development programs aimed at aspiring middle school principals. Many carry with them the belief – a misguided belief, based on my own research – that “good teaching is good teaching,” and “good leadership is good leadership,” regardless of the developmental stage of their students. While there may be key tenets of basic pedagogy that cross the developmental spectrum of students, foundational middle years research[2] has demonstrated there are far more pedagogical considerations specific to the age, and more importantly, the developmental readiness of the student.

As a teacher with particular expertise working with early adolescent learners, I am very aware of my strengths as a teacher. While I might be able to “survive” as a teacher in a classroom of 22 Kindergarten students, it would not be the very best learning experience for them. If the filter, “What is best for students?” is used for everything we endeavour to in the field of education, then logic would dictate that we place people with specific expertise in leading, teaching and learning at the various developmental levels in those specific contexts. As a mother of an early adolescent son, this is what I want for him to experience in middle school: expert teachers and expert instructional leaders, who have dedicated their careers to creating the best learning environments for middle years students.

Rumble and Aspland outline four core attributes of the middle years teacher:

  • a capacity to forge a middle school identity
  • a designer of wholesome curriculum
  • a specialization in adolescence
  • a capacity to sustain middle school reform and support systems for the middle school teacher

These attributes, I suggest, should be applied more broadly to include the search for middle school principals. The practice of many education systems to hire school-based principals and assistant/vice-principals who have little to no background in working with teachers, students and their families in middle level learning environments is puzzling to me. A search of recent job postings for middle school principals uncovered postings that made no mention of specific expertise in middle level learning or a passion for working with early adolescents and their teachers. It is troubling that so much is left to chance when it comes to creating the conditions for early adolescent learners to experience success in their growth and development as learners and as individuals within our school systems.

An abundance of current research points to the middle years of learning as being key to putting early adolescents on the path to success in subsequent grades, high school graduation, post-secondary acceptance and completion, career futures and overall well-being.[3] CEA’s multi-year, cross-Canada What did you do in school today? study from 2009 presented findings that should have been cause for concern for those leading and teaching in Canada’s middle schools.[4] Responses elicited from over 63,000 Canadian adolescents revealed only 37 percent of them to be intellectually engaged in their learning. With this percentage decreasing throughout the middle years of learning, one must ask why a more widespread, intentional look at the processes, policies and people supporting our nation’s middle years learning environments has not been called for.

The middle school leader

My own doctoral research study, “Leading, Teaching and Learning ‘In the Middle’: An international case study narrative examining the leadership dimensions, instructional practices and contextual philosophies that have transformed teaching and learning in the middle years,”[5] revealed the importance of connecting early adolescent learners with instructional leaders and teachers who have the expertise, experience and passion to work with middle years students, along with the courage to commit to creating the best possible learning environments for these particular learners.

Interviews conducted with Canadian participants in my study revealed that many middle school principals have no prior experience with middle school. Some start as a high school assistant principal, only to move “down” to the middle school for their first principalship; others have been principal of an elementary school and then move “up” to a larger middle school. A lack of awareness of how the adolescent development period impacts all aspects of leading, teaching and learning has created a situation where it is often believed that any kind of instructional leadership experience makes you qualified to be a Canadian middle school principal.

Study participants in Finland and Germany had very different paths to their current positions as middle years teachers or principals. The incessant movement of teachers and instructional leaders up and across the human resources ladder that seems to plague many urban education systems in North America, is not seen in these European countries. The principals with whom I worked had, in most cases, begun their careers as a teacher in one school and had, through demonstration of sound understanding of early adolescent teaching and learning, been asked to put their names forward for the principalship of that same school. Most of these middle level principals had earned doctorate degrees and were part of ongoing principal development programs designed for their middle level learning context. These principals had no intention of moving elsewhere, ensuring their own professional learning and development as instructional leaders was contextualized to one school environment. Any reform efforts they sought to pursue were based on an intimate understanding of the needs and capabilities of their teachers, their early adolescent learners and their school communities. This perspective takes time to develop and cannot be attained when one is always looking at other schools as opportunities for personal and professional advancement.

In her book, Student-Centered Leadership, Viviane Robinson presented five leadership dimensions that were found to have the most significant impact on student achievement outcomes.[6] These dimensions (establishing goals and expectations, resourcing strategically, ensuring quality teaching, leading teacher learning and development, and ensuring an orderly and safe environment) can only be pursued when instructional leaders understand the context of teaching and learning in their school. Creating the conditions for teaching and learning to unfold is the central task of the student-centered leader. This happens when principals have the necessary skills, knowledge, expertise and experience to act in the capacity of the instructional leader for the middle years teachers and students they serve.

These research findings reinforce the central message I am trying to convey – the importance of searching for the “right fit” instructional leader in Canada’s middle schools. In the analysis of data collected during my study, the principal as instructional leader emerged as one of the most significant factors influencing early adolescents’ experience in middle school. I used the concept “principal as synergist” to capture the essential qualities of the principal highlighted in my study. A synergist is “something that enhances the effectiveness of an active agent.”[7] Thus the instructional leader, by creating optimal conditions, acts as a synergist for the work of teaching and learning to unfold in the classroom.

With the clear evidence that early adolescents are becoming increasingly disengaged from schooling, there is an undeniable need for the “principal as synergist” who can bring together, transform and lead extraordinary middle years learning environments. Other, more systemic factors also emerged in my research as essential to transforming teaching and learning in the middle years: commitment to supporting and resourcing effective teachers and leaders, along with viewing adolescent learners as a system priority. These issues have been left out of many provincial and territorial education agendas. At what point will it be realized that if the middle years of learning are not approached in a more intentional way, we may never be able to create the learning environments necessary for the healthy development of early adolescents? The importance of searching for the “right” instructional leaders for middle level schools must not be underestimated. Newly emerging images of teaching and learning in the middle years must form the basis for developing and selecting those who will lead the schools that serve our early adolescent learners.


EN BREF: Au Canada, peu de programmes de leadership préparent les directions d’école potentielles à travailler avec des adolescents et avec le personnel enseignant dans le contexte complexe et dynamique d’une école intermédiaire. Il semble que l’intentionnalité mise de l’avant pour chercher des enseignants possédant une expérience et des compétences précises ne s’étende pas toujours aux personnes chargées de diriger les écoles intermédiaires du pays. Pourtant, de nombreuses recherches soulignent l’importance des années à l’école intermédiaire pour la réussite des adolescents au cours des années suivantes, des études postsecondaires ou de leurs carrières futures. Selon les statistiques mondiales, les élèves se désengagent et se désintéressent de plus en plus de leurs apprentissages pendant la période développementale de l’adolescence. Par ailleurs, la recherche sur le leadership en éducation souligne l’évolution du rôle des directions d’école qui n’ont plus que des fonctions d’administration, mais aussi de leadership pédagogique nécessitant des compétences, des connaissances et la compréhension des apprenants adolescents pour favoriser un enseignement et un apprentissage de qualité. L’intentionnalité moindre caractérisant la recherche et le développement de directions d’école qualifiées pour diriger nos écoles intermédiaires est donc à la fois curieuse et inquiétante.




Photo: Susan Chiang (iStock)


First published in Education Canada, March 2016

1 Paul Rumble and Tania Aspland, In Search of the Middle School Teacher: What differentiates the middle school teacher from other teachers. Conference presentation, Australian Curriculum Studies Association, Canberra, October 3, 2009.

2 See, for example, This We Believe: Keys to the education of young adolescents (Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education, 2010); Turning Points: At the turning point, the young adolescent learner (Boston, MA: Centre for Collaborative Education, 2003); Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for leading middle level reform (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006); Engaging Middle Years Students in Learning: Transforming middle years education in Manitoba (Winnipeg, MB: Manitoba Education School Programs Division, 2010).

3 This We Believe.

4 Doug Willms, Sharon Friesen and Penny Milton, What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement: First National Report(Toronto, ON: Canadian Education Association, 2009).

5 Brandy Yee, “Leading, Teaching and Learning ‘In the Middle’: An international case study narrative examining the leadership dimensions, instructional practices and contextual philosophies that have transformed teaching and learning in the middle years,” (doctoral thesis, Universität Heidelberg, July 2015).

6 Viviane Robinson, Student-Centered Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011). 

7 “synergist,” Merriam-Webster (2014). www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synergist

Meet the Expert(s)

brandy yee

Brandy Yee

Brandy Yee recently earned her PhD from the Universität Heidelberg, with the honoured distinction of summa cum laude. She works as an Assistant Principal in a large middle school in western Canada and can think of no other age group of students she would rather work with.

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