The Little Middle School

Pursue the puzzle. Embrace the struggle. Grow.

How to be part of our team

ASSUME THERE IS A REASON.

What this means for teachers: When you assume there is a reason, you are meeting your student where he is and addressing his underlying needs with kindness and discretion. The ideal teacher assumes their* student is not a blank slate, that his past experiences in education contribute to his understanding and comfort, and that he is trying to be on your team to the extent that he knows how. Believing that your students, like all people, want to grow and succeed is the first step towards helping them do so.

What this means for students: The world does not operate on magic, although its workings (including the motivations of others) can appear inscrutable. When we assume there is a reason for something, our minds are open to learning, even if clear answers aren’t immediate. Not only is this valuable in an academic context, it helps us to create lasting relationships. The student who assumes there is a reason values empathy and considers the unknown contexts of others’ choices and emotions. This student, curious and compassionate, accepts and remembers that we are all on the same team.

What this means for parents: Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge that our family members are separate people, each with their own thoughts, wants, likes, and motivations. When we assume there is a reason, we allow ourselves the opportunity to consider our family members as complex human beings. We resist the temptation to see things in terms of how they affect us and instead empathize with our family members, understanding that we may not always be seeing the whole picture. “Assume there is a reason” calls us to trust that just like us, others are making the best choices they can with the information they have. 

Build on strengths.

For teachers: The teacher who builds on strengths understands that they, and their students, don’t have to be equally good at everything. Rather than being critical of others’ weaknesses, this teacher helps to identify and celebrate the unique contributions of each team member, even when those strengths are not tied to traditional academic subjects or extracurricular activities.

For students: Rather than focus on the things they can’t do, students who build on strengths develop the areas where they have the greatest interest and ability. They seize the opportunity to excel and are not content with satisfying the minimum requirement. They understand that everyone has different strengths; they measure their progress by reflecting on their own growth and potential rather than by comparing themselves to others. The confidence that they get from building on their strengths allows them to let go of the need to be good at everything.

For parents: When we build on strengths we let go of the need to be good at everything. We acknowledge that if we focus on the things we are good at, we get powerful results that allow us to be a positive contribution to the team in our own way. This helps us to avoid comparing ourselves to other people with different strengths than our own. We also observe that, as humans, our children are unlikely to be good at everything, which allows us to help our children focus their efforts without anxiety over the future. 

CUT A PATH.

For teachers: Sometimes following a set procedure to solve a problem is problematic in itself. Learning is an individual process of growth and change which doesn’t always fit into an established protocol. When you cut a path, you are focusing on first on the result you want and finding a more satisfying route to reach that goal. This teacher is willing to collaborate with students to find creative ways to achieve success and is willing to question underlying assumptions that create obstacles to growth.

For students: The student who cuts a path finds creative ways to achieve a goal. This student may approach the teacher to suggest a modification to an assignment that allows the requirement to be met in a novel or elegant way. This is a student who questions the accepted sequence of steps and blazes a trail from Point A to Point C without sacrificing integrity, modeling a route for others to take if they choose. 

For parents: When we cut a path, we navigate around obstacles allowing others to follow our example. We question assumptions that we have made that have led us to dead ends. Sometimes cutting a path means saying the scary thing as soon as we can. Sometimes it means letting go of our desired outcome. Sometimes it means being okay with correcting our children’s behavior in the moment without forcing them to “learn their lesson.” Sometimes it means advocating for our children in the world while teaching them to advocate for themselves. 

SHARE YOUR TRUTH.

For teachers: Authentic and genuine, this teacher is honest with themselves about their feelings, goals, and struggles. They are forthright about the responsibilities they are willing to take on and where their true interests lie. Rather than creating scapegoats or apologizing for their preferences, they own their choices and are true to themselves. They know that they do their best work when they are doing what is most fun for them, and they encourage others (including their students) to do the same.

For students: Students who share their truth are honest with themselves and others. They advocate for themselves and their own wishes and are able to make the distinction between what they want and what they need. They invite each other to understand their perspective, truly sharing it rather than simply telling it. They encourage others to also share their truths, thereby expanding everyone’s understanding.

For parents: Being a parent doesn’t mean sacrificing your humanity. While we protect our children from some aspects of reality, it is important that they know who we are as people. That might mean letting them know we are frustrated, tired, or just need some time by ourselves. Sharing our truth also means offering our love without fear. When we model this kind of authenticity for our children, we are teaching them that it is okay for them to feel how they feel and find appropriate ways to share their feelings with others. By defending our own boundaries we are teaching them to find their own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. 

STRIVE TO CATCH THE BALL.

For teachers: When you strive to catch the ball, you acknowledge the importance of your role on the team.  Sometimes, being part of the team means doing something new or participating even if you don’t know exactly how. A teacher who strives to catch the ball knows that being a positive contribution to the team means trying, even when it’s hard or foreign.

For students: Sometimes, work needs to get done even when we don’t want to do it or don’t understand why it has to be done. The student who strives to catch the ball goes beyond trying; they do their very best, no matter how far they’re going to have to stretch. Sometimes they miss it, but that’s okay - they will chase after it, grab it, and pass it to someone else on the team. This is a student who participates fully in conversations and activities and engages with the team both academically and socially in a way that allows other people to participate. 

For parents: We all want to raise our children to value the same things that we value, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have interests we don’t understand. When we strive to catch the ball, we work to give our children unconditional support in developing their skills and interests. That might mean attending a sporting event you don’t like, having a conversation you would ordinarily find boring, or being open to encouraging an interest that you might find intimidating or uncomfortable. 

BE A FRIEND.

For teachers: Good teachers have boundaries that leave them unafraid to connect with their students as people. In being a friend, a teacher demonstrates empathy and compassion, supporting a student’s emotional, social, and academic needs. They respect their students’ boundaries and help them to learn to respect the boundaries of others. Playful and open, this teacher fosters a spirit of unity among team members.

For students: A friend is not just somebody who you want to invite to your birthday party - a friend is someone who looks out for you. A friend is somebody who will help you to be your best self, even when that means disagreeing with you. A friend looks out for your needs and doesn’t assume that your needs are the same as theirs. Friends work together, play together, and grow together - they are on the same team. Sometimes being a friend means that you join someone else’s team, and sometimes it means inviting someone to join yours.

For parents: Being a friend as a parent does not mean being a pushover. It means doing what is right through the lens of compassion and empathy. We expect that over time, our children will learn to do right. We will be there to pull them back on track and we will be there to catch them when they fall. When we decide to be a friend, we welcome the full range of human emotions in our lives and allow our children to feel safe in participating fully. Though life has its challenges, we seek out opportunities to be playful.

LEARN WHEN TO WAIT.

For teachers: Many times, we balk when someone says, “Do this, right now.” The teacher who can learn when to wait can read the room and respond to students’ individual and collective readiness for information, instruction, or correction. This teacher knows that the right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing and uses their authority to support rather than to control.

For students: The right thing at the wrong time ceases to be the right thing. There comes a point when the proper action is to wait. Students who learn when to wait know when it’s time to put their hand down and let someone else have the floor. They know that even if they already have the answer, the best thing for the team may be to give others time to find it, too. They trust the judgment of their teammates to make sure everyone’s needs are met in the long run, even if sometimes that means temporary personal discomfort or confusion.

For parents: In middle school, students are always learning from mistakes, be they academic or social. It is often easy to feel that we can expedite this process by pointing out previous mistakes and showing children how to avoid the negative consequences of past choices. But when we learn when to wait, we trust that our children have the ability to learn from their environment without shame. We understand that offering love without judgement is in fact the way to support our children in their learning. This is a process that takes the time it takes which sometimes means repeated failure on the way to growth and change. 

Created by Casey McCann and Kyle von Neumann, 2015 & 2016.


*The lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English causes all kinds of problems, doesn't it? Rather than twist into a pretzel to use perfect grammar, we rely here at times on good ol' "they." Any use of he or she or other gender-specific pronouns is random.

Founded in 2012 by Casey McCann. Thank you to the daring parents and students who tried something new. I am forever grateful.