5 Trends Impacting Middle Grades Leaders

RWilliamson-BBlackburnBy Ronald Williamson &
Barbara Blackburn

Being a school leader is an incredibly demanding job. You’re expected to stay up-to-date on current developments that influence your students and their learning – all while managing the day-to-day operation of your building.

Often, these demands mean there is little time to focus on one’s own professional growth and trends that will impact your school’s long-term mission and goals.

Over the last year we’ve worked with dozens of middle grades leaders. We’re always fascinated by the way they approach their work and balance the competing demands from students, teachers and parents. During that time we’ve become aware of five trends that are impacting middle level schools and their leaders.

Trend 1: Leadership Design Becomes Even Flatter and More Inclusive 

bb people around deskLeadership continues to shift from a design where the leader is the solitary figure at the top of the organization to one with a flatter, more horizontal structure. No single person can possibly know everything, and the need to accommodate multiple conceptions of leadership and pathways for leadership development is critical.

The most effective leaders recognize they can only do so much and welcome and nurture leadership at every level of their school. That means providing authentic leadership roles for teacher leaders, and involving teachers in decisions about program and operations.

It also means asking students to provide leadership for student activities, anti-bullying programs, and other ways of building positive culture. And, it means welcoming families to become involved at every level of the school life.

Trend 2: Even Greater Impact from Social Media

Perhaps no trend is having a greater impact on schools than the presence of social media technology. Social media technology is changing the way students and adults communicate as well as the way students learn and teachers teach.

Families expect schools to have a social media presence. Communities expect regular, if not daily, updates on school activities. And the integration of connected technology as a tool for teaching and learning will only continue to accelerate and blur the lines between traditional software and social media apps and strategies.

Unfortunately, some of the same tools that provide such incredible benefits for instruction and communication can also be used to disrupt the educational environment. Banning use of social media or smartphones never works. Those tools are not going away, and schools must adapt to their presence. The most successful schools commit to a comprehensive educational program for both students and their families about the appropriate use of technology (Williamson & Johnston, 2012).

Trend 3: Importance of Advocacy with Your School Community

blue squ of tools re appsSchools are interconnected with all facets of their community and the world. We’ve already noted the impact of social media technology on learning and on school climate. Those social media tools have also made it possible for families and communities to be intricately involved in school life. Information is transmitted instantly across the school community and school leaders no longer have much control over the messages that are being shared (Porterfield & Carnes, 2010).

That means that leaders must be pro-active in shaping accurate, illuminating messages with wide public distribution. They must become advocates for their school, its students and its programs within the school and the larger community.

It’s more important than ever that leaders work with families, with community organizations, and with critical community stakeholders to share information about their school and to build positive relationships with these groups (Williamson & Blackburn, 2010).

Trend 4: Incorporate Inclusive Practices

American public schools are incredibly diverse (Marx, 2006). That means that leaders must create, nurture and sustain a climate of inclusiveness where all students and their families are welcome.

The foundation of an inclusive culture is built on positive relationships with family and community, and a willingness to reach out to the diverse voices in our communities. Leaders must assure that their programs, policies, and day-to-day practices are inclusive rather than exclusive and never (intentionally or unintentionally) promote subtle distinctions based on faith, gender, race and ethnicity or socio-economic status.

Trend 5: Recognize It’s Now a Culture of “Choice” 

bb choice arrowsChoice is deeply embedded in the American educational system (and the American psyche). Like social media, choice is not going away. Even in the smallest communities, families have options for how and where they will educate their children. If anything, choice will accelerate as families become more comfortable with virtual schools, charter initiatives, and other non-traditional options.

The most successful leaders will be those who recognize the importance of sustaining a welcoming school, one that reaches out to families and provides options within its own program. That means respecting the decisions families make about educational choices and welcoming families back if decisions change.

The evidence is clear. The most successful schools in a choice environment are those that welcome families, listen to their concerns, and work with them to address those concerns (Johnston & Williamson, 2014).

What Do You Do? 

The same principals who helped us identify these five trends also suggested things that principals can do to stay current and anticipate future trends.

  • Analyze your environment. Scan the environment in which your school exists—district, community, state, nation, and world. Identify issues that affect your organization and those that affect the world more broadly. These trends and issues often emerge as important. What do you need to learn about these trends? Where can you gather that information?
  • Look beyond the traditional educational issues (good teachers, money) and consider emerging issues such as the maturing of the community (often a tax support issue), the ability to acquire and use technology, and the ability to respond to changing conditions. Connect with leaders outside of education and learn how they respond to these challenges.
  • bb rethinkThink about your assumptions. Identify some of the assumptions you hold about your school and its environment. Then test those by assessing their degree of certainty (high, medium, low) and the level of impact (high, medium, low). Assumptions play an important role in constructing the future, and they should be as reliable as possible. Be comfortable challenging long-held assumptions by gathering fresh evidence about current conditions.
  • Be intellectually curious. Read a lot, think a lot about current and emerging trends. Be open to ways to improve your school even when things are going well. Spend time with traditional publications as well as online, in education and in other fields, to learn about trends and new ideas and to promote your own thinking. Use social media to follow and interact with forward-thinking leaders in your field.
  • Cultivate a critical friend, someone outside your school or outside education. Such a friend can provide a fresh perspective on issues you face.
  • Talk with others about what you read, what you’ve watched, and what you learn. When you share your learning, you model the importance of learning.
  • Enjoy what you do. Relish the impact that principals have on the education of students in their school. But when the enjoyment fades, find ways to reinvigorate your passion and model the importance of continuous learning.


Johnston, J. H. & Williamson, R. (2014). Leading schools in an era of declining resources. New York: Routledge Education.

Marx, G. (2006). Sixteen trends, their profound impact on our future: Implications for students, education, communities, and the whole of society. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.

Porterfield, K. & Carnes, M. (2010). 10 reasons you should pay attention to social media. Retrieved December 16, 2010, from http://www.aasa.org

Williamson, R. & Blackburn, B. (2010). Tools to advocate for your school. Principal Leadership, 10(6), 61-63.

Williamson, R. & Johnston, J. H. (2012). The school leader’s guide to social media. New York: Routledge Education.


41gUKAaN5CL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Ron Williamson is a professor of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University. He was a middle grades teacher, principal and executive director of instruction in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s also served as executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) and as president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Ron works with middle grades schools across the country and is the author of numerous books including The School Leader’s Guide to Social Media with J. Howard Johnston, and Principalship from A to Z with Barbara Blackburn (2nd Edition available in April 2016).

Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 15 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word. A  nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. Her latest book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success, was published in July 2015.


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