Nurturing kindness, resilience in middle school
'If they're going to make mistakes, this is the time,' principal says
Katherine Baker can relate to the Type A moms in Palo Alto — she remembers having been one herself.
"I wanted everything to be perfect for my child," said the principal of Terman Middle School of her daughter, now a professor in Connecticut.
"But I finally realized she's got to fall down, skin her knees a little bit. It just makes her stronger and more resilient."
Middle school, Baker said, is just the place for kids to do that.
"If they're going to make mistakes, this is the time," she said in an interview on the Terman campus, where construction crews were working seven days a week to make classrooms accessible in time for school opening next week.
"We have firm boundaries, and we try to teach them so they don't make the same mistake again."
After working with many age groups, Baker says she's found her niche with 11- to 14-year-olds.
"They're intelligent, funny, have a great sense of humor; they're sensitive, they're, like, everything — their moods go up and down, and they kind of do everything in extremes," she said.
Most of all, they "respond so well to guidance — not authority and power, but to genuine caring."
Baker came to Palo Alto as Terman principal three years ago after working as a teacher and principal for 16 years in San Jose's K-8 Oak Grove School District.
"Opportunity brought me here," she said. "We were cutting back so much (in San Jose) it was kind of heartbreaking.
"It was very attractive to have the resources for programs and interventions and everything you want to do in a school district."
Today's middle schoolers strike Baker as more "in charge" than she remembers feeling during her own junior high school years in Sheboygan, Wis.
"I was on student council, in acting and theater, but I still had a horrible insecurity complex and never wanted to be embarrassed."
Educators have come a long way since then in knowing how to handle the middle-school years, she believes.
"There's a lot of drama, and I think people used to think, 'That's just the way it is in middle school.' But we're much more savvy now about what helps children and what they respond to.
"Kids need to be known as individuals. You need to know their names, and they need to be connected to school," she said.
At Terman this month, sixth-graders will be greeted with a six-day "Tiger Camp" in which they get acclimated to the school and spend time with every one of the 10 sixth-grade teachers.
Only after being observed and assessed at Tiger Camp are students assigned to their classes for the year, with an effort to make sure every child has someone in her class she went to elementary school with.
To address bullying — a big issue in the middle school years — "we have a very strong social kindness program," Baker said. The lessons are taught explicitly at least once a month.
Eighth-graders can become leaders in the TASK program (Tigers Achieving Social Kindness), in which they agree to be role models, give school tours and host lunches for new students.
To foster "more human interaction and a warmer environment on campus," cell phones are supposed to be turned off and out of sight during school hours — even at lunchtime.
"We have land lines in the office, and they can always call home," Baker said.
"We encourage parents not to text-message their kids because it puts the student in a difficult position of trying to follow a school rule but disobeying the parent."
Lunchtime activities at Terman are driven by students.
"Students get the ideas for a club, find a teacher sponsor and have a big sign-up day," she said.
"There are students who raise money for all kinds of things.
"Kids this age are much more confident than I remember feeling. They have great ideas and a lot of energy. They want to make a difference, change the world. I see evidence of that every day."