Many people believe the middle level is one of the most difficult phases to be an educator—and this certainly can be true at times! But what most people don’t realize is the genuine goodness that these young adults possess and their desire to make a difference in the world.
The middle level is a time in which students are developing their own personalities, where they begin to see how they fit in a ginormous world, where they begin to see what makes them different and unique. It can be difficult for educators to discover what students are passionate about, but there is one quality that is often overlooked: students’ ability to be impactful, not just in their school but in their community as well.
Organizing a Team of Teens
When you are given a leadership class, it comes with a thousand unanswered questions and a million expectations. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who was able to guide me through the process of organizing a student council. One of the best pieces of advice she ever gave me was, “They are not your own council until you have been an adviser to them from sixth to eighth grade.” What does that mean? It means we all have our own way of helping our students. We all organize and communicate differently. The one thing that I have learned about middle schoolers is they are incredibly loyal. So, if you come in and replace their previous adviser, change will be difficult, and loyalties will be divided. That is okay. You should respect students for standing by their previous adviser and involve them in helping you find a balance between the old and the new.
This means you need to create your own identity and find your place in the world of being a leadership adviser. Start with organization. Organize your students into committees that have a balance of grade levels, genders, and personalities. From there, engage your students in deciding how to serve their school and community. Our council has specific categories that we hit on each year: student recognition, teacher recognition, contact with our high school, charitable drives, school and community service, and school spirit.
Then, decide what events the council wants to hold and give each committee an event or two that they will plan and implement on their own. Provide a task list so they have guidance in hosting their assigned event, but also allow them to work independently. Hold them accountable by setting universal due dates for the council. This will help you stay organized when you are monitoring so many different events.
Lastly, ensure that students write it all down. In order to make sure they stay on task, you need a way to keep them accountable. Create a system of checks and balances that will give you the opportunity to track their progress and provide feedback as needed. As adults, we need to create to-do lists and refer to them regularly—our students are no different. They need structure, and with structure all things are possible.
Serve, Serve, Serve
When I first became a student council adviser, there were many uncertainties. What drew me to leadership was my desire to serve. Middle level students want to lead. They want to make a difference. They want to find ways to give back, and in the process, they want to feel valued. That’s why I embarked on a journey to teach them the importance of giving back to their school and community.
Each quarter, my leadership students are required to complete 10 hours of service. To ensure the service is meaningful, each month one of the committees in our council is assigned to search for service opportunities in our community. By giving my students the responsibility of locating a place within our community that is in need, it empowers them to serve independently. It also teaches our students how to communicate with adults, how to correspond through email, how to identify problems and solutions, and how they, as middle schoolers, can be impactful.
On the surface, there is not a big difference between having them pick up trash around campus and volunteering at a food bank. But when students find a place to serve, they realize they are the reason someone is receiving food, or a child is receiving a Christmas present, and they know that moment was worth all the hard work. These opportunities are irreplaceable moments that you will always be taken aback by, and you will be incredibly proud that you, as an adviser, sacrificed your weekend to witness what they accomplished. The more you have students serve, the more you will fall in love with being a leadership adviser.
School spirit is one of the most challenging aspects of being a leadership adviser. The idea behind school spirit can be incredibly difficult to grapple with because our leadership students want nothing more than to show their spirit. Many of them are brave individuals who want to participate in public speaking, assemblies, and spirit days. But on the flip side, the majority of middle level students just simply want to fit in. They want to make it through these years without being called out for their differences, and many do not want to bring attention to themselves. So, when my council brings me a list of spirit days such as “Throwback Tuesday” or “Crazy Hair Day,” we are asking middle level students to stand out and do the exact opposite of what they are trying to accomplish each day.
This is where being an adviser can be daunting because our students have a hard time understanding why the rest of the school is not interested in showing up in a Halloween costume. We need to teach our leadership students to be empathetic, to read between the lines, and to put themselves in situations they may never actually have to experience. If we implement spirit days that require our students to make a purchase to be a part of the event, we immediately draw a line in the sand. It sends the message that only certain students may have families with the means to buy a new shirt for “Disney Day.” This alienates some of our students and leaves them feeling like school spirit is only for a specific group.
When planning spirit weeks, remind your students that being in leadership positions means they are representing the entire student body—not just their council. Encourage them to find spirit days that the students already participate in each day by simply showing up to school—for example, “Jeans Day.” A large percentage of our students will wear jeans regardless of whether a spirit day is taking place. This type of event will change the mindset of your students, and it will allow all of them to be a part of the school community without forcing them out of their comfort zone. Eventually, it will lead to spirit days creating unity, which is exactly what they are meant to do!
Remember the Mission
Middle level leadership is challenging, but remember that your students chose to lead! They chose to sacrifice their free time, to miss sporting events and birthday parties so they could be a part of something bigger. They chose to be the face of your school. These are selfless acts, so remember the mission: lead and serve. These loyal young humans are the future of our world, and we need every bit of good and courage they possess. Play your part and push yourself to find both in every student that crosses your path!
Jaime Marks has been a middle level leadership adviser for nine years at Kathleen and Tim Harney Middle School in Las Vegas.