Q&A with Head of Middle School Jen Schuckman

We recently interviewed Head of Middle School Jen Schuckman to learn more about her approach to leading the Middle School and the joy she feels in her work each day.

Q: How did you come to lead the Middle School at MICDS?

Schuckman: I started my career at MICDS right out of graduate school in 1998, teaching Middle School science. Over the course of my 16 years in the classroom, I also served as a coach, advisor, dean, and Bridge coordinator, along with engaging in a myriad of other institutional committees and endeavors. I stepped into the Interim Head of Middle School role in the summer of 2014, and I quickly found myself embracing the new challenges and opportunities that were presented to me. Now in my seventh year as Head of Middle School, I still continue to grow professionally and find new ways to further enhance our division. Each day is a new adventure, and I am deeply grateful to be entrusted with a role that brings me such joy.

Q: What are you most proud of at MICDS?

Schuckman: The people. It all comes down to the people here – my colleagues, the students, the families. Everyone is committed to the School’s Mission, and we believe in it wholeheartedly. Each person shows up with a shared sense of community, knowing we all want to be our best selves. We help each other stand up for what is good and right and strive to lead lives of purpose and service. The spirit of our community is truly one of a kind!

Q: How did the School pivot to distance learning so seamlessly in the spring? And how did the School continue to adjust this fall?

Schuckman: We are very lucky to have our one-to-one laptop model as an essential element of our middle school program. Students are well versed in so many platforms and technological applications that enhance their learning experience. Thus, faculty and students pivoted easily to the remote learning environment in the spring. The shift certainly required patience, adaptability, and collaboration, all of which were already pillars in our community. We all learned this new way of school together.

This fall, we have continued to adapt to the changing landscape. A particular challenge was onboarding and orienting our new students both in the virtual environment and, more recently, to the in-person classroom experience. There is a delicate balance between the logistical side of “going to school” and finding creative ways to build connections among students and with faculty during the school day. We do all what we can to maximize our time and enjoy our community. 

Q: What are some of the best ways to build community – both in typical times and now during this time where we are forced to teach and learn physically apart?

Schuckman: In typical school years, each grade level works closely as a team to create a sense of class unity and to find opportunities outside of the classroom to build those connections. For example, as 7th grade is our largest admission entry point, we send the whole class to an overnight camp experience where they engage in team-building activities and spend extended time with their advisory group. Throughout the year, we also gather as a full divisional community for Middle School Meeting and other special events like the Talent Show and Spring Fling. We also appreciate the opportunities to join in JK-12 community events, such as Homecoming and All-School Assemblies.  

As we have navigated the constraints of the pandemic, community and connection have remained top priorities. We were able to welcome our new students to campus for the Summer Bridge orientation program. We offered “Meet us at the MAC” welcome drive-thrus and adjusted Launch Day and orientation to be sure all students were ready to go on the first day. Since then, our students and faculty have engaged in class meetings and fun virtual games and activities to get to know one another. As we shifted to our recent on-campus learning model, we intentionally planned the schedule and spaces to privilege the grade-level experience. It was important to offer every opportunity for those critical peer connections to be made.

Q: What makes the Middle School at MICDS distinctly unique and special?

Schuckman: We love the idea of being at the center of a JK-12 school while still offering a true middle school experience. Our students can see what is ahead for them, and they can also relish in their Middle School years in their own space and community. We have an incredible faculty who demonstrate a passion for their subject area and also understand the challenges our students navigate through these delicate years. We love the joy and the chaos that fills our hallways and classrooms.

Q: Describe your philosophy on educational leadership.

Schuckman: Having been in the classroom for so many years, I came into this role understanding the support and guidance teachers need to thrive. As educators, we recognize the importance of keeping ourselves versed in best practices and collaborating with one another to provide an exceptional program. We dedicate institutional time and resources to engage in reflective practices and professional growth. As the leader, I want to be sure faculty continue to seek out opportunities to grow and learn alongside their students. And at the same time, I want to promote a culture of wellness and balance for all adults and students in this community, because I know that is not always easy to maintain in a high achieving independent school like MICDS.

Q: What is your favorite MICDS tradition?

Schuckman: How am I supposed to pick just one? MICDS has so many beautiful traditions from May Day to graduation to Turkey Train. Seeing our community come together on these occasions is truly magical and unique to our School. If I had to pick one specific Middle School tradition, I would have to say our Talent Show. This is a student-driven event, and I am always blown away by the hidden talents in our community. The students are so supportive of their peers on the big stage, and we complement the day with a “fan faves” lunch.  

Q: What is your favorite place on campus, and why?

Schuckman: There is just something about Mary Eliot Chapel that makes it my favorite place on campus – from the energy and buzz during a Middle School Meeting to the beautiful acoustics enhancing a choir concert. This is where we gather on the first day of school, where we say farewell to our 8th grade, and where we celebrate so many special moments in between. I have laughed and cried in that room so many times. But to be honest, it’s not really the space itself, although it is beautiful. It’s the people who make MICDS what it is, and to see the full Middle School community gathered in Eliot Chapel and to look out on all those beautiful faces from the podium, that is a true gift.