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Professionalism + Perseverance + Passion = Progress

Michelle Pedigo is a leader with a vision of a "kids first" middle-level learning community. Her dedication to academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity embodied by her innovative and challenging reforms at Barren County (Kentucky) Middle School (BCMS) earned Pedigo distinction as the MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level School Principal of the Year for 2001. Education World speaks with Pedigo about her role as middle school principal and about the most meaningful reforms she oversaw during her tenure as principal of BCMS. Included: Pedigo offers best tips to middle school principals.

Image Michelle Pedigo tells Education World that thinking outside the box "to offer children learning like they've never experienced it before" was the reason she got into this business of education. A short ten years later, that kind of progressive and reform-minded thinking has earned her designation as the 2001 MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level School Principal of the Year! Education World talks with Pedigo, now a curriculum administrator, about her middle school reform process and the powerful personal mission statement that guides her work.

Education World: What do you see as the role of a middle school principal?

Michelle Pedigo: Well, first and foremost, the role of a middle school principal is to be an instructional leader around a vision of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity. That means that we serve all kids in the developmentally appropriate way, and we expect all students to be academically excellent. As principal, one finds and facilitates ways for teachers, parents, community members, and students to work together to help kids meet high expectations.

"...the bottom line is the kids come first. That's our business. And if we don't show student success and student achievement -- our profit -- we're going to be out of business."

We take students from the elementary schools where they've been nurtured and shaped as young children, and we prepare them for the new world of high school. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, though. If a high school's dominant practice is asking kids to sit in seats and listen to lectures all day, we can't succumb to that pressure. We are no longer a "junior" high school.

If we really look at each level -- elementary, middle, and high school, we can say that those three tenets -- academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity -- apply at any level. If students aren't engaged, if we are not connecting their learning, and if we are not tying their learning to prior experiences, the research says they are not going to remember what they've learned.

Education World: Where did your "kids first" philosophy come from?

Michelle Pedigo: "Kids first" is really just a synthesis from years of being involved with children. I came into education to offer children learning like they'd never experienced it before in a classroom environment like they'd never experienced before. That was my paradigm, my benchmark. I wanted kids to leave my class saying "that was the coolest class I've ever been in," and "I learned more there than I've ever learned!" Was that something somebody taught me? Probably not -- and at the time, I didn't recognize that as "kids first."

When I came to Barren County as an administrator, I was exposed to administrators who would stand up and say, "Is that consistent with a 'kids first' philosophy? Or is that an 'adults first' philosophy?" I realized that in order to really make a difference in a whole school, the school's leader has to be overtly vigilant about that issue, so we become communities of learning for children, not places of employment for adults.

I'm not going to say that it's always easy; adults are typically much more vocal than children. That's just human nature. The bottom line is, however, that the kids come first. That's our business. And if we don't show student success and student achievement -- our profit -- we're going to be out of business.

Education World: Let's talk a little bit about the Galef Institute's Different Ways of Knowing (DWoK) strategy. You brought that reform to BCMS?

Michelle Pedigo: The first year I was principal at the middle school was our first year to do consolidated planning -- our long-range planning. It is typically a two-year plan with revisions made anytime. It's a working document. We sit down and look at student work and make sure the activities in the plan are working to promote student achievement.

At the time, we had two seventh- and two eighth-grade teams. We had each subject area on the team, but then we went into our rooms and shut our doors. We never talked about what was being taught in those rooms so that we could make cross-curricular connections around the big concepts. That takes major planning. DWoK is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, so that became our first drawing card.

The superintendent planned to fund a pilot program in each of our six elementary schools and our middle school. DWoK is multiple-intelligences based, constructivist in theory, with arts infusion. Students make their own meaning from their inquiry-based learning, with a strong component for student and teacher reflection and an ongoing professional development component for teachers like we'd never done it before.

DWoK is all the things I'm about as an educator. So instead of a pilot program, we took on whole school reform even though DWoK had been primarily an elementary strategy. I saw it as a real way to serve the children that we weren't really serving at that point. It is a transformational opportunity.

We are in the third year now of implementation. During the course of that time, the Galef Institute has written actual middle school modules. It is going to be neat when we can put those into the hands of our teachers.

Education World: Have you been able to see positive change as a result of your school reforms?

Michelle Pedigo: We have seen continuous improvement in our test scores. I see students very much engaged in their learning -- we have become a community of learners. I see students having more input into the way they learn and in what goes on in their classrooms, and I see more smiles.

I think we've learned a lot about professional development through DWoK. We can't just do the two or three days in the summer and be done with it. Professional development has to be ongoing -- job embedded -- with teacher reflection. We have to be very intentional in our team planning to create those big connections for kids as they are learning. An outgrowth of that learning is curriculum mapping, which we started last summer. We map our curriculum so that we have big concepts that teachers can work with as they teach their content areas in an interdisciplinary way.

"Our teachers have learned how to use student work as their gyroscope. Because of that, we moved from talking about what's been covered to talking about what's been learned. It is incredible to feel that transition happen!"

Our teachers have learned how to use student work as their gyroscope. Because of that, we moved from talking about what's been covered to talking about what's been learned. It is incredible to feel that transition happen! I think those transformations show. In the summer of 1999, our school was named a national School to Watch by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform because of our school's "continuous trajectory toward reform." We were also one of the middle schools on a U. S. Department of Education Satellite Town Meeting about middle level education.

I see positive change on a more individual level as well. I had a grandmother tell me that her grandson who had been bored in elementary school couldn't stop talking about middle school. Another student, in trouble since kindergarten, talked on videotape about how much he likes school now and how involved he feels.

One of our developmental goals is that every child finds his or her niche at BCMS. We strive to serve not just the athletes or the scholars. Because of this, we have other programs, such as Junior Guard, a kind of junior ROTC. We have a bowling league and lots of other activities through our 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. I won't say that kids who have never liked school become our A students, but I am going to say that most of them become comfortable here and begin to feel a part of this community.

Education World: Are those kinds of extracurricular things an example of how you "think outside the box"?

Michelle Pedigo: The extracurricular activities are an example of thinking outside the box because schools are often satisfied to offer band and some sports and to have honor roll students. We need to focus our energies on those students we are really not serving. Thinking out of the box is not always comfortable for some folks, though. I'm not sure I always do a good job of being aware of that.

For example, our School-Based Decision-Making Council chose to participate in looping -- teachers stay with the same students for two years -- for our seventh and eighth graders. We got into a situation in which we did almost too good a job of promoting ourselves, so when we addressed the looping initiative, people didn't understand why we needed to change.

I also had to think about the needs of our staff if we looped. I push and I nudge all the time to get people to think out of that box. Sometimes I forget that while you push, you also have to nurture. Although looping is best for kids, we also have to think about the teachers because the first year teachers loop, every teacher has a new content preparation. That's a big issue. How do we nurture those teachers as we make that right decision for children?

I think my strength is seeing what's there, finding what we can tweak and where we can start new initiatives. It is so much fun to stretch myself and others in that way! I want to do whatever it takes, so I'll ask the naysayers, "Why can't we?"

Education World: Do you miss working as a building principal?

Michelle Pedigo: I have to say that I very much miss the building level. I probably didn't know how much I was going to miss it!

Mainly I miss the team-building with a vision that a principal is able to do, not just with the staff but with all stakeholders in that school -- the community members, the students, the teachers, the parents.

The other thing I miss is being able to look, through consolidated planning, at all of the resources, and putting those resources to work in the best arrangement for the school. It's kind of like a puzzle, and to be able to do that for kids at the building level, with input from all stakeholders, is such an adrenaline rush!

I really miss working individually with teachers, parents, and community members and helping them understand what we're trying to do through reform. Working to serve the needs of all children, and seeing that growth, is an incredible role a principal is able to play.

"We also have to understand that middle-level teachers are different because middle-level kids are different."
Education World: What is the best advice you have for a new middle school principal?

Michelle Pedigo: First and foremost, we need to communicate a true love for kids by being around them. We can't sit in our offices all day. We have to be out talking with them, learning their names. We also have to understand that middle-level teachers are different because middle-level kids are different.

We have to know that academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity all come together. It's not a choice between being warm and fuzzy and developmentally responsive or being academically excellent but cold, with high expectations that kids will measure up and no help for them to get there.

We have to have a vision to keep the school focused on promoting high academic achievement and serving students at all costs. We have to be cheerleaders for student and staff achievement. We have to develop excellent communication skills so we are able to work with parents. We need to hone those technology skills to be efficient with the things that don't matter as much as the relationship building and the long-term vision. We must have a deep understanding of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment and communicate those expectations to the entire learning community. We must have the tenacity to persevere beyond the naysayers.

We also have to take care of our selves -- to find time to "sharpen the saw" and hone all the skills that allow us to keep the long-term vision in mind.

This past summer, through leadership development, the administrators in our district were each asked to create a personal mission statement. The idea is that when you make decisions, you check to be sure you are being consistent with that personal mission statement.

Here's mine: Professionalism and perseverance around a passion for learning create progress for kids. That's what I want to be all about!


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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