Maria Coleman is a former second grade teacher who became assistant principal and later associate principal at Wilton High School. What a way to kick off her 15th year in the district, then, when on July 1 she seamlessly stepped in to the role of principal at Middlebrook after Julia Harris retired last summer. Harris’ were big shoes to fill for such a petite powerhouse as Coleman, but she’s landed squarely on two feet and has been off and running ever since.
GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with Coleman in October to check in on how her first year at the helm has started and to get her take on Wilton’s middle school.
GMW: Any time there’s transition, people want to know how things are going. Anecdotally, most of the stories you hear around town is that both parents and students really love the Middlebrook experience.
Maria Coleman: That’s kind. They’re all wonderful schools!
GMW: Speaking as the parent of a sixth grader, the kids especially are always so excited. My son couldn’t wait to be a student here, to be more independent, to come here and just have the feeling of “middle school!”
MC: Love that!
GMW: How has the year’s start been? It’s been how many weeks?
MC: Oh gee, that’s the nice thing, we don’t count. We’re all just here, and very happy to be here. School just goes.
GMW: This is a nice, well-oiled machine. It helped to step into the existing team, I imagine?
MC: We have processes in place that work very well and we all function as a team. While I am the principal, I am one of the leaders in this school and I’m joined by my three wonderful colleagues in the administrative ranks, and all of the instructional leaders and team leaders and teachers and secretaries and paraprofessionals. I think the beauty of being in an environment like this is that we are all leaders in different ways, and we all rely on each other, and I think the students see that. In modeling that for them, I think they recognize that they need to function as a team, support each other and give help and be kind. It’s really rewarding to see that.”
GMW: No matter which school you enter as a student, there are particular transitions. But it’s really unique time and age when kids begin Middlebrook. I’ve been impressed that it isn’t just about, “Now you switch teachers eight times a day, and this is ‘real’ school.” There’s really a focus on the ‘complete child.
MC: We are all, as educators across the district, we are all aware that it is about educating the whole child. The social/emotional piece is so closely connected to the academic development. At this level, we need to be that much more aware of the importance of nurturing and supporting students, because it is such a difficult time for them developmentally. They grow more now than at any other time in their lives, with the exception of birth-to-three. The fact that so much is going on for them physically, neurologically, socially—all of these things, it’s really important for them to feel safe and to feel connected to at least one adult in the building. So that if there is trouble with a friend, or a problem that they can’t quite solve, they find an adult to help them with that.
It’s not to say that there aren’t bumps in the road—there are, this is real life. There are challenges that kids face and we work through them. But again, that team spirit we have and the structures we have in place help support students through those things.
GMW: It seems in the last few decades (since I was in school), there’s more and more of an onus that falls on schools, especially at this age. Social media, technology, boundary testing, bullying are just some areas. It seems that societally and legally a lot of newer burdens fall on the schools. It must be harder to have to balance that as well as focus on common core standards and curriculum. It’s a lot that you as educators have to handle.
MC: Yes, it’s more things that we need to be vigilant about and responsive to. The challenge is that we don’t necessarily have control over what the kids are doing at home or at friends’ houses or on the weekends. What we try to do is take an approach where we’re being proactive and responsive. We’re responding to the issues when they’re coming in, like cyberspace [conduct] but we’re also trying to educate them on consequences of some of these behaviors, whether it’s legal consequences or just the emotional impact. And we’re trying to educate them on making choices. Which is something that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years.
Fundamentally it’s about making choices that’s going to advance you or advance a friend. We don’t ever want to do something that’s going to hold someone back. It’s about making good choices. And about making mistakes, but learning from them, so you don’t make those mistakes again.
GMW: The way the school is structured, with teams, really helps promote that.
MC: The grades are divided into three teams per grade level—red, yellow and green. We work very hard to ensure the teams have like experiences and ending the year with the same fundamental skills, and we have the curriculum which unites us. We have common expectations and assessments. But each team has its own unique personality. It’s based on the interest of the kids and the things that they’re invested in. The teams will have interdisciplinary projects that spans across the subject areas. For example, we have the students studying Egypt in sixth grade, so we have a living museum. In seventh grade, one of the teams does a “change agent” project, where they look at different historical figures and the impact they’ve had on the world. It gives each team the opportunity to be unique and have students have a say in what’s going on.
GMW: You’ve taught second grade; then you were at the high school; now you’re here. What is so great about this age group?
MC: Something that’s really wonderful is about this community is that it values arts just as much as it values athletics. You have kids who are athletes who are also onstage performing or engaged in clubs and activities. It’s wonderful to see that. Because one of the challenges as kids get older is that they often have to choose between one or the other. We have such a wide variety of offerings, and coaches and advisors who are flexible enough to allow kids to do more than one thing. I see that starting here—we have afterschool activities, and it’s exciting to see that wide variety for students, and the opportunity they have to try these things in a very non-threatening, low-stakes atmosphere.
GMW: If all the principal positions at all four Wilton schools were open, what would make you choose to be principal of Middlebrook?
MC: Something about this age group that I love is the sense of wonder. The fact that they are not interested in hiding that. They’re just so enthusiastic about what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s just the age—I think it’s also the teachers that inspire them. The kids are so excited to be here, they’re so enthusiastic. They’re so interested in learning and they’re old enough to have these really intellectual conversations, and they’re enthusiastic about what they’re doing—there’s a playfulness about it that’s very pure at this age.
GMW: It’s great that you add that about the teachers. Watching the teachers at Open House this year, you see the spark that each of them has and the passion they bring to the job. I don’t remember my middle school teachers being that way—as encouraging to ‘Be who you are, do the things you want to try.’
MC: That’s nice to hear!
GMW: Just for fun, some Vanity Fair-type questions. What is something people would be surprised to find out about you?
MC: I’ve been to the top of Mount Vesuvius. I was traveling with my family.
GMW: What’s one of your hobbies? What do you like to do on the weekend?
MC: I love to read. I love to bike. I like to do yoga and cook—but I’m not a very good baker. It’s too precise for me. I love baking, but I’m a much better cook than I am a baker.
GMW: When you were in middle school, what was your favorite thing to study?
MC: I really liked English. I really liked all the subjects. I was a pretty conscientious student—I liked doing the right thing. [laughs] I think I really particularly enjoyed English and language arts.
GMW: What extracurricular activities did you do?
MC: Well, I went to parochial school so there weren’t a lot of extra activities. I played the clarinet and I danced.
MC: Jazz dance. And I played soccer too.
GMW: Are there things that non-parents and other members of the larger community can get connected to at Middlebrook—performances or concerts?
MC: There’s WEF’s Career Day, we have our musical performances that are open. It’s really a nice treat to come in and listen to some wonderful music and some enthusiastic performers. I’m so impressed with the skill level of many of these kids. Of course, Wilton’s Children’s Theatre—it’s not directly affiliated with our school, but a lot of our students participate and those performances are always a treat. This year they’re doing Shrek [Nov. 22-24].
GMW: Let’s talk about I-STEM! What an amazing new program—what does it mean to the school to have it here?
MC: It’s been very exciting for us. I-STEM, as you know, stands for “Introduction to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.” The students have the opportunity to learn and apply the design process and apply science, technology, engineering and math in really meaningful, hands-on ways. There’s so much going on in that class, it’s very exciting. The students are problem-solving daily, and communicating their findings, and they’re thinking about how to apply their math and science skills to these real world problems.
I was in the class the other day, one of the students approached the teacher and had a mechanical slingshot that she had built at home. She was so proud to show the teacher and share it with the class, she was pointing out the elastic that she used, and said, “I should have used a rubber band it would have been better.” So she’s already evaluating and thinking critically about her design, and the materials that she used. Those are the kinds of skills we want students to develop. It’s exciting to see all the students so engaged and really thinking critically about all parts of the design process.
GMW: Personally, I have to say it’s great to have a woman in charge of a STEM program. It’s phenomenal to have a woman role-modeling this for girls, empowering them to be interested in engineering and practical sciences. It’s just thrilling, and such a positive addition.
MC: We’re really lucky to have such a dedicated teacher, like all our teachers. Terri Isidro is truly a scientist, and she’s getting students to think scientifically, mathematically and creatively about engineering and design.
GMW: Anything else?
MC: It’s been a wonderful start to the year. That’s really because Middlebrook is a wonderful place. All of the adults are so caring, teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, campus supervisors, they’re really invested in helping the kids. And the kids are wonderful. They come in and of course we have strong partnerships with the parents. We couldn’t have as much success as we do without the support of the parents and them being so invested in their children’s progress. We’re lucky and grateful for that.
And I’m just looking forward to talking to you in May and saying, ‘Wow, it’s May already!’