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What to Expect from a Phenomenal Middle School

Stunned after watching Eighth Grade? There’s Help.

By Bill Waskowitz
Head Of Middle School at The Seven Hills School

If you are among the droves of parents who walked, stunned, out of the theater after seeing the movie, Eighth Grade, here’s a little comfort –there’s help, and it has a lot to do with the way your middle school operates.

In this selfie/self-proclaimed YouTube star generation, students are driven by the joys—and ills—of social media. As the movie, Eighth Grade, depicts, middle school-age students live a daily dichotomy of wanting to be heard and make a difference—all while not wanting to draw much attention to themselves. Middle schools traditionally struggle to provide the right kind of emotional space in which adolescents feel empowered and accepted. At this age, they require more emotional care in junior high and middle school than at any other grade-school age.

Educators at phenomenal middle schools appreciate the need for students to hone their non-cognitive skills as much as their intellect. They take bold—even unorthodox— steps to keep students connected to each other throughout the school day and they partner with their students to create a safe space to grow healthfully.

The adolescent psyche is often so fragile, that, in the five minutes between classes, a student could peek at their Snapchat, glimpse a derogatory post, and be emotionally ruined for the rest of the day. A middle school administration that is focused on helping students stay connected may look at implementing a no-cellphone policy during school hours. Not necessarily popular, but it may be the key to liberating students from uncomfortable interactions and giving them confidence to be part of a real, in-person community, void of the cybersphere.

Another sign of a phenomenal middle school is how often and thoroughly faculty and administration re-examine their mission to accommodate the unique social-emotional needs of their students. Knowing that students age 11-14 should learn in low pressure, nontraditional environments, some schools may find that students benefit from taking mid-morning breaks or participating in regular classroom advisory discussions with their school counselors.

It’s not easy to grade middle schools. Educators all work hard to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. But phenomenal middle schools take time to question their own time-honored practices and place emphasis on their students’ social-emotional health.

Awkward moments and hyper self-awareness are inescapable rungs on the middle school ladder of life. But these inevitabilities are not so insurmountable for students who feel part of a community at school and have the right social playground on which to thrive.


Bill Waskowitz is the Head of Middle School at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio. A progressive school administrator and self-proclaimed constant student of brain-based education, Waskowitz implemented a Middle School Design Thinking program that encourages students to use empathy to improve the lives of others. Inspired by a line in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, Waskowitz adapted an adage he lives by—“Above all else, connect.”


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