School Culture

A Middle School’s Yearlong Focus on Empathy

Leaders at a Maryland school have made showing empathy for students, parents, and colleagues their focus this year.

October 13, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

This school year, my leadership team’s main areas of focus, or “big rocks,” include several strategies to improve students’ academics, such as implementing reciprocal teaching and claim-evidence-reasoning. Of course, student learning is always paramount, but this year we have decided our biggest rock will be developing empathy.

Now more than ever, students need to be taught social and emotional skills—such as problem-solving, self-regulation, self-awareness, self-esteem, how to get along with others, and impulse control. Social and emotional skills are vital because they support students in navigating peer pressure, increasing academic demands, conflict, self-advocacy, relationships, and anxiety.

Our leadership team also wants our teachers to be vested in being a hero for our students. We define a hero as a collaborative leader with a cause, special superpower, talent, or niche. We have asked our teachers to flow with empathy. Collectively, our school staff is striving to be these things:

  • Flexible
  • Loving
  • Optimistic
  • Willing when engaging each other, students, and parents

To ensure that empathy is seen, heard, and felt throughout the building, our leadership team read Jorge Valenzuela’s Medium article, "Empathy: The Key to Thriving Relationships and 6 Elements for Success."

We then worked in small groups to determine how our teaching staff would steward empathy and the six elements for thriving relationships (effective communication, trust, shared values, boundaries, grace, and celebrating team wins). We decided that it was feasible to promote empathy throughout the school building all day.

Morning Meetings and Announcements

Students report to school at 7:50, and the first-period class doesn’t start until 8:30. This allows the grade-level assistant principals to show our students empathy and love first thing. We conduct morning meetings with students while they eat breakfast.

The seventh-grade administrator leads morning meetings in the gym, and the sixth- and eighth-grade administrators lead morning meetings in the cafeteria. We focus on empathy as well as social and emotional learning (SEL) during these meetings by discussing moral and ethical dilemmas, affording students time to share how they are feeling with the school counselors that are present, leading students in an affirmation, and encouraging them with kind and motivational words.

An example of the kind words I employ: Your teachers, principals, counselors, and student advocates love, like, and understand you. We all want the best for you. We believe in you. We have high expectations that we know you can meet and exceed. We are here to support you in becoming your best self. Have a great day on purpose.

An example of the motivational words I employ: Your brain is a sponge. Go to class and soak up all the knowledge that you can soak up. Knowledge is power!

An example of the affirmations I employ: “I am liked. I am loved. I am beautifully made. Oh, so beautifully made. Success and abundance flow to me.”

Morning announcements start at 8:25 via television. Our principal collaborates with student ambassadors to ensure that the morning announcements are delivered in an informative and uplifting manner.

Classroom Instruction and Hallway Transitions

The small actions of teachers go a long way. Every day, teachers stand at their doors and greet students prior to the start of every class. This allows teachers to monitor the halls and exchange pleasantries with students while also gauging the young people’s emotional needs.

At the start of each quarter, the teachers establish classroom norms with their students so that students know the expectations for learning and can experience academic success. The teachers reward good behavior through a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports system.

We have an all-hands-on-deck approach during hallway transitions. Every staff member has a duty post. This ensures that an adult presence is always visible and lessens the likelihood of student conflicts or bullying. During lunch, we socialize with students and play music.

Town Hall Meetings, Student Support, and Parent engagement

At the start of each quarter, the grade-level administrators host town hall meetings to discuss grade-level concerns and student rights and responsibilities. These meetings are vital because they give the administrator the opportunity to build relationships and review schoolwide expectations, rules, consequences, and incentives. These meetings usually deter discipline infractions.

In addition to holding town hall meetings, our professional school counselors facilitate lunch bunches daily to engage students in SEL activities. Our counselors also push into classes quarterly to conduct bullying awareness and prevention and college and career planning.

We use peer mediation and restorative practices to address student behaviors. We have an alternative learning center that allows students to reflect on their actions via a reflection capture sheet. We also pride ourselves on mentoring students who need additional interventions and supports.

We value our VIPs (Very Important Parents). We recognize that they have varying schedules, so we make ourselves available before, during, and after school via email, telephone, and conferences, as well as through a daily communication journal and various other communication platforms such as ClassDojo, the TalkingPoints for Families app, and the Remind app.

We have a parent-engagement specialist who facilitates monthly parent workshops, stewards the parent teacher organization, and disseminates family resources (food and clothes distribution, school supplies, mental health resources).

We have thoughtfully put systems and structures in place to ensure that empathy is our superpower. Our hope is for students to experience the highest levels of social, emotional, and academic success.

Michelle Richardson, Kenneth Nance, Ana Ordonez, and Kim Ealy-Lambert contributed to this article.

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Filed Under

  • School Culture
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School

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