Q&A with Head of Middle School Jen Schuckman

Jen SchuckmanWe 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?

A: 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. 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?

A: The people. It all comes down to the people here–my colleagues, the students, and 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: Describe your philosophy on educational leadership.

A: 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. At the same time, I want to promote a culture of wellness and balance for all students and adults in this community because I know it is not always easy to maintain in a high-achieving independent school like MICDS.

Q: How do you navigate as the middle division in a JK-12 school?

A: The MICDS Middle School is both a bridge between Lower and Upper School and a door to new students where we must be grounded in the School’s Mission while also serving the unique developmental needs of our students. In Middle School, students gain the “Three Ps”: perspective on themselves and others through community building; preparation for higher learning through the cultivation of academic curiosity, executive function, and critical thinking; and engagement in creative and playful learning. All students also follow our LEAD motto: Learn with curiosity and joy, Embrace challenge, Advocate for self and community, and Demonstrate collaboration and teamwork. We developed LEAD as a way to give students actionable language for how best to support the School’s Mission and our Middle School Honor Code. Our teachers identified behaviors and habits of mind that supported student learning and their role in the wider community. We want students to reach beyond just earning grades. They must navigate interactions with peers and adults, they must find what sparks their interest, and they must learn how to struggle and push through. The LEAD elements equip them for success in Upper School and beyond.

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

A: 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. Our community is big and small on these 100 acres. The Middle School is tucked away in a nurturing south corner of campus that we call home where we are also connected to the larger campus and other divisions. And our Middle School is truly in the middle—in the middle of MICDS, in the middle of growing up, and in the middle of the chaos and fun. We have an incredible faculty who demonstrate a passion for their subject area, love their craft, and also understand and thrive in the complexities that our students navigate through these delicate years. Our teachers appreciate the fact that middle schoolers are not a finished product, but they are getting them as close to ready as they can.

Q: What are some of the best ways to build community?

A: At the start of each school year, we anchor our purpose with the Middle School Honor Code. Each of the four tenets–trust, respect, responsibility, and honor–guides how we interact, how we take care of our spaces, and how we engage in learning. From there, each grade level works closely within the advisory groups as well as the whole grade level to create a sense of class unity and to find opportunities beyond the classroom to build those connections. For example, as seventh 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 Meetings 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. It is important to offer every opportunity for critical peer connections to be made.

Q: What is your favorite MICDS tradition?

A: How am I supposed to pick just one? MICDS has so many spirited traditions from fall Homecoming weekend to graduation to Turkey Train. Seeing our community come together on these occasions is truly magical and unique to our School. I love the Honor Code assembly and signing ceremony where all the Middle School students commit to living by these core values. Many of our student artists participated in the School’s inaugural Arts Fest, and we look forward to seeing that tradition grow. 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?

A: 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 lovely acoustics enhancing a choir concert. This is where we gather on the first day of school, where we recognize the accomplishments of our middle schoolers, 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. To see the full Middle School community gathered in Eliot Chapel and look out on all those smiling faces from the podium is a true gift.