As we meet with educators, parents, and students, one concern about middle school comes up again and again: social safety. People are worried about bullying, cliques, "mean girls," snapchat, etc. Without being alarmist about it, we think they're right - the foundation for a great middle school is a compassionate, safe social environment.
This is not just a general "feel good" thing that everyone can agree on. Middle school is a very unique age in terms of identity formation and peer influence. To put it simply: middle and high school are the most important times for identity formation - figuring out who you are, what your talents and interests are - and it's also the most peer-influenced time in our entire lives. Put the two together, and it's clear that the social culture of a school has huge influence on healthy development.
In a healthy social environment, students can do one of the most important "jobs" of adolescence - trying many different identities, interests, peer groups, etc to discover a stable, confident, unique identity. If this goes well, they leave middle school with a sense for who they are, a comfort interacting with others, and insight into where their talents and passions lie. Now imagine doing this in an environment where you could be ridiculed for acting in an un-cool way, humiliated in front of friends, at just the time in life when your friends' respect means more than anything. Clearly in that kind of school, you can't afford to take risks. You've got to figure out what's "cool" and do that as much as possible. In socially unsafe environments like that, kids don't learn who they are; they learn how to conform.
This is why we feel that social safety is the foundation of a great middle school. There are lots of ways to build this, but we think three rise to the top:
- The Right School Size. A lot of parents we talk to are worried about large middle schools simply because of their size - they ask how can you create a trusting culture with 750 or 1,000 middle schoolers in one building? How can students feel comfortable trying on different identities when they're around peers they don't know much of the time? We don't think it's impossible to build great culture at large middle schools, but it's a lot harder. This is less true in high school, when students begin to be ready for a larger environment. But for middle school, we think a size of 50-150 students is optimal, and we've chosen 100 for the full enrollment at Millennium. It's big enough to be dynamic and have many different types of kids; small enough that each student knows every other, and feels a sense of community and trust as they figure out who they are.
- The Adults. The real curriculum of school is largely unwritten - more than what we study, students see the way we act, the habits we model, the mindsets we value. At the core of a socially healthy school are faculty and administrators who have high social and emotional intelligence, who are naturally compassionate while also comfortable setting boundaries, who model conflict resolution, who see beyond the surface anxieties of students and help them find their footing. Staff with these well-developed skills, given the space to use them and continue refining them, create a culture of social safety more than any other single factor.
- Teaching Social & Emotional Intelligence. This may sound obvious, but there is still a common idea that your social and emotional intelligence is innate, that some people are lucky to be born with a lot, others a little. While some may have natural talents, in general, social and emotional intelligence is teachable. It can be learned explicitly, which is the core for the Advisory program we're building; and it's learned implicitly, in everything from applying psychology in studying historical figures, to using empathy as the first stage in "design thinking," which begins by understanding a user's needs in designing a given solution.
These are just three ways of many in which compassion for each other is modeled and encouraged in a great school. Add these all up, and it's possible to have a school experience without the deep insecurities and social fears that many of us remember when we hear the word "middle school." We've seen this kind of culture created at the best schools we've visited, and while social safety alone doesn't make a school great, it's the foundation we build everything else upon.