With over two decades of experience as a middle school teacher and administrator, including 19 years at institutions across Asia and Europe, Principal Pam Smith has seen the awkwardness of early adolescence shared across cultures—but she has also seen how educators can play a pivotal role in easing growing pains and creating joy.
“Middle school is about developing the whole person,” Pam said. “Many people don’t have positive memories of middle school, and that’s unfortunate because it should be an opportunity to build relationships, explore interests, and, above all, have fun.”
Educators can support this development in two ways, Pam said: by giving students tools to discover their interests and by teaching skills that help students pursue their passions. Together, these practices empower students to trust themselves and take ownership of their choices.
At the top of Pam's first-year priorities was learning from groups within the school—especially students. She listened to middle schoolers talk about their educational values and ideal experiences, and gave them ownership of assemblies, where they are free to emcee, perform, and present their work.
Pam’s firm belief in this approach to student development was apparent in her first-year priorities. At the top of the list was learning from groups within the school, such as teachers and parents, but especially students. She listened to students talk about their educational values and ideal experiences, and gave them ownership of areas like assemblies, where they are free to emcee, perform, and present their work.
“One of the first things we did this year was ask the student council to come in and speak at our new-student orientation,” she said. Because this was also her first time meeting the group, Pam asked each council member to state their name and grade, and to share something they like about Rowland Hall. “By and large, the students were talking about their teachers,” she remembered. “That comes through loud and clear: they care so much about their teachers.”
Experiences like this are a testament to the positive student-teacher relationships at the Middle School, a Rowland Hall strength that Pam could sense even during the interview process. “This is easily one of the best faculties that I’ve had the experience to work with,” she said. “The teachers really know and care about their kids. They understand what kids at this age are going through.”
This understanding is crucial to earning the trust necessary to guide students in self-discovery, particularly as they experiment with making choices. Pam explained that each student is on a personal journey, which they need to walk in their own way, at their own pace—mistakes and all. While giving them freedom to make mistakes can seem frightening, it is a crucial component of healthy development and essential at Rowland Hall, where there is a focus on teaching ethical decision-making, guiding students to take responsibility for learning, and developing student strengths.
The Middle School provides a safety net, Pam said, that helps catch students as they make mistakes and ultimately develop resilience and perseverance. “They can fall and get maybe a little scratched or bumped and bruised, but they’re going to be OK,” she said. “They’re going to learn.”
And as students become more experienced at healthy decision-making alongside discovering their passions, Pam said, they blossom. They start to understand that they have influence—what she calls their “powers for good”—over their lives and the world around them, and that they can engage their interests, skills, and talents in new ways. “There’s so much that students can do to be creative and to connect,” she said, citing examples of Rowland Hall students engaging those powers for good—from the seventh graders who started a campaign to remove straws from and limit single-use plastics in the cafeteria, to the eighth graders who led a clothing drive for Salt Lake City’s refugee community. She wants to continue to cultivate these opportunities next year to get more students engaged with the wider school and city communities, which can unlock passions they may not have yet discovered.
“School doesn’t have to just take place within the walls of the classroom,” Pam said. “This is a rich city with a lot to offer, so I want our students to be able to take advantage of that.”
Moving forward, Pam will continue to ensure that middle schoolers have the support they need to develop skills that will prepare them for the Upper School, and then college and life beyond.
“Our students really transform over three years,” she said. “By the end of eighth grade, they stand confidently, having found their voice, and are excited to continue learning and pursuing their passions. There’s this feeling that they can take on the world.”