Middle Leadership is the engine room of all schools. Middle Leaders form the core of all school communities driving curriculum, pedagogy, and standards. But for those who are Middle Leaders, it can often be a difficult balance to manage both their teaching capacity and their leadership role.
In my own experience, I found myself abandoning my leadership role on a day-to-day basis as my teaching role took over. In this article, I hope to share some key takeaways from my own experiences and research to help others consider how to ensure effective team leadership when juggling both roles.
In any leadership role, you must know what you want to achieve. Your vision sets out your core goals. Without a vision, your actions can become reactive and isolated. Your vision is always the goal, the philosophy, the end result. It should shape every strategy that you implement.
I developed my vision for the History Department focusing on the difficult balance between challenge and accessibility. This vision drove our strategies through curriculum planning, class groupings and driving high expectations and standards. My team knew my vision, they knew the purpose of changes, they could see and articulate the rationale linked to the vision. Without this vision, the team would have seen isolated changes that had no purpose, which would ultimately, I believe, lead to a failure to recognise the importance and thus, these strategic changes would have failed.
This is the perfect time of year to review where you are in your vision. It allows you to evaluate and then plan for the next academic year’s actions to drive your department.
- Modelling Leadership
One of the most important features of leadership is understanding how others perceive you and then using this to adjust your leadership style/skills. I often talk about ‘leading by example’ but it was not until I asked questions about my leadership to my team that I understood what ‘example’ I was setting. It is important that, as leaders, we ensure that the leadership model we want to present, is the one that is being seen.
We often talk in education about modelling behaviours to our students. My own behaviour team always talk about modelling ‘warm-strict’ to students. But, as Middle Leaders, we also need to model leadership to the teams in which we lead. We must ensure that we consider the skills and attributes of an effective leader (such as; being authentic, being empathetic and having self-awareness) and strive to model these to our teams. Since broadening my own research into leadership theories (not just in educational leadership), I have learnt so much about leadership and I would strongly recommend anyone in leadership roles, including Middle Leaders to embrace their own professional development in leadership.
A lack of self-awareness can cause irreparable damage to a team and therefore, to any vision, strategy or change you wish to implement. Self-awareness, and leading by example are the key foundations to building teams.
- Motivating your team
As humans, we are naturally motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically by different factors. Not everyone is in education for the same reason and whilst it may surprise you to begin with, it is important to recognise these differences. For some, money is motivating. For others, it is a desire to help and support people that drives them.
As the Middle Leader, you must consider the diverse factors that motivate your team and use knowledge of these to drive strategic change and development in your team.
To do this, we must ensure that;
- the vision is communicated clearly and returned to frequently
- opportunities for team collaboration and different opinions are considered
- give positive feedback often and accept feedback yourself
- give your team space, time and autonomy where appropriate
- The art of delegation
I have to be completely honest here, I am a complete hypocrite if I write that I have mastered the art of delegation. My own team will be laughing when they read this! As I have now moved into an SLT role, I have been forced to let go and allow others to grow and develop in areas I previously managed. I am slowly learning that this must happen for the benefit of myself and my team. As a Middle Leader, you cannot and should not do everything. It is important to trust other colleagues to develop the team/subject with you. We have to do this for three reasons;
- For our own workload and mental health
- For the growth and development of our team
- To empower our teams to take ownership
Allowing others to perform tasks and lead changes can lead to more successful outcomes. The feeling of empowerment and ownership can motivate your team which will drive the project/change to a more successful outcome. As humans, we are more likely to put effort into our work if we have ownership. We are less likely, if we feel we are being done to, than done with. The same can be said for the students we teach. If we allow them responsibility and give them the encouragement and support to lead things themselves, this can often lead to them thriving.
- Managing Relationships
Forming positive relationships with your team is incredibly important to a successful team. Strong professional relationships increase trust, creates positive working cultures and allows for effective risk-taking and innovation. However, there is a danger that the professional and personal relationships can impact on your team dynamic.
It is important that as leaders, we maintain professional relationship that help our team to function positively. I have learnt that for leaders at any stage, it is essential that we are self-aware, this may include using feedback on your own leadership to help you develop and considering how much of yourself you reveal to your team.
Both concepts are challenges I have had to overcome. Initially, I believed everything about myself should be hidden from those in which I lead, as I believed, they would be seen as weaknesses. This could not be further from the truth. For example, when I became a Middle Leader, I had just become a single parent to two children under 3. For a while, I had hidden this from my team, for fear of it weakening their trust in me to do an effective job. Over time, I realised that, revealing this to them was important for them to understand aspects of my leadership (my working hours, my availability after 4pm and my overwhelming tiredness!)
Being authentic and open can help develop your team’s trust and understanding in you as a leader. However, there is a balance that needs to be made between professional and personal relationships. When difficult conversations need to happen, there must be an understanding by both parties that this is important for the good of the team.
When I started as a Middle leader, I often returned to my feelings as a Y7 seeing a group of Y11s and thinking ‘I cannot talk to them, I am not cool enough’. It sounds so silly reflecting now but I saw my Senior Leadership Team as a group of people that I shouldn’t form a relationship with because they were too important. How I was so wrong!
It is important that we all break down this barrier between SLT and Middle Leaders. Ultimately, we all need each other and neither team can function without the other.
Effective school leadership requires leaders at every level to genuinely function as a team and with the same features of a smaller, subject-based team. As such, relationship-forming with the Senior Leadership Team is vital for a positive professional culture in our schools.