The Engine Room is a series of blogposts on Middle Leadership. The name comes from the idea that school middle leadership is the ‘engine room’ of the school, without which schools would not function effectively. Middle Leadership is challenging, and often teachers are thrown into it, without the support and guidance they need. The purpose of this series is to shine some light on some of the challenges middle leaders face, and what one can practically do to address these issues. There is no magic bullet, but I do hope that it helps middle leaders at least feel that they are not alone.
“Have you thought about doing it this way? When I was head of department…”
Stepping up to a middle leadership position is a daunting task. And this is not made any easier when a member of your team has held your position previously, or worse still, held your new position within the same school.
My goal with this piece is to show you the different dynamics that can exist, and discuss ways in which you can begin to establish yourself in this context, and perhaps even leverage this situation to your benefit.
Now let’s talk about expectation. It is more than likely that as a middle leader, you will experience some pushback from your team. The ideal of a proactive, dynamic, super-competent team, hanging on to the wisdom of your every word, is rare – at least initially. You will need to prove yourself. And this may take longer than your recently purchased 90 day playbook suggests! So bearing this in mind, the behaviours demonstrated by members of your team are probably quite ‘normal’. This doesn’t make it any easier, but recognising that these behaviours are typical of a team who are getting to know you and how you lead, will hopefully prevent an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality developing – a mentality that could ultimately prove destructive.
The reality is that you getting the job may not have been the celebratory event for everyone else that it was for you. It is likely that a member of your new team applied for the role, and may now be considering their future within the school in the medium term. Re-motivating someone in this position is tough! On rarer occasions, the outgoing popular middle leader may have been removed from their role, which means that you could be seen by your team as a Senior Leadership ‘stooge’ – a label that takes a while to shed. This could be made worse if the said former middle leader is now in your team, unhappy and underutilised.
So that’s the scenario, or at least that what it seems at surface-level. Delving a little deeper, it is worth thinking about the various contexts within which your team operate. For example, do members of your team have other roles within the school? Or perhaps they have parenting or caring responsibilities outside of the work day. Are they struggling with the workload? Or have they any illnesses that you are only just finding out about? As a new leader you will understandably want to build your own vision and develop your own strategy for your department. But as you learn about the individual contexts of your team members, you would be better served waiting, listening and getting to know how to motivate them, rather than trying to immediately make your priority their priority.
As a middle leader you are often having to negotiate between school priorities, as espoused by your Senior Leadership Team, and requests coming from the chalkface, via your team. Sometimes these align. Sometimes they don’t. It can be more complicated if you have a member of the Senior Leadership Team in your department. This can be tricky for all concerned. They are often increasingly busy and may genuinely not have the time or capacity – which is OK. You should not expect the same amount of dedication to your subject/department/team as you may do from a more novice teacher. Instead provide clear direction. They won’t always have time to plan schemes of work etc., but recognising their workload will help to build a mutually beneficial relationship. For instance, non-attendance to department meetings is common, which can be problematic if you are trying to initiate a department wide strategy, but is not insurmountable. Catch up meetings with non-attenders is the easiest fix, and gives you an opportunity to highlight to a Senior Leader what you are doing with your department time. At worst, it can lead to interference, especially when that Senior Leader is also the line-manager. In this scenario, team members who are not yet on board with your vision, have an opportunity to circumvent you to someone they may feel is more sympathetic to their needs. In my experience as both a Head of Department and a Senior Leader line-manager, this is not actually that common, but it requires both parties to reiterate the correct manner and protocol to raise concerns.
In the first few weeks and months, you will make mistakes. And being human, you must be allowed to make them. Our most effective lessons learnt are from our failures, and it thus becomes complicated when well-meaning team-members step in to guide and consequently prevent you from learning these lessons. They may have had the experience or coveted your job, but you are in role, and the key thing to remember is that the buck stops with you. So, have those conversations with individuals (not public) ahead of meetings to ensure they are aligned with your vision. Consider their advice, thank them for it, but on this occasion you are going to pursue a different course of action. Say it with a smile, and above all be polite. The Senior Leaders and former middle leaders in your team may not agree with your strategies, but they will admire your professionalism.
Joining a department that is already established has benefits. Aside from yourself, there is no bedding in from anyone else. They know what the day to day entails, and so can usually be trusted to get on with it, whilst you take some time to establish yourself, build your routines and develop your relationships with other supportive middle leaders across the school. This is why one should ‘steady the ship’ first. Unnecessary initial changes can backfire as it takes your colleagues out of their well-established routines. This is of course necessary at times, the need to course-correct in schools is not uncommon. But please do build upon any strong foundations you find fully intact.
Expecting to cascade SLT decisions to your team can be particularly challenging for an inexperienced leader. Be clear, transparent and simplify your rationale. Practice in the mirror or with a peer (someone not in your department). Above all own any decision. No matter how tempted you are to position your Senior Leadership Team as the enemy, as a way to rally the troops, it will ultimately backfire as the school priorities will begin to differ from your department ones. If your team contains a member of the Senior Leader Team, this applies doubly!
Finally, it is important to give team members specific roles. Senior Leaders and experienced colleagues are a valuable resource. Utilise them properly. For instance, could one of them mentor (officially/unofficially) a trainee or an Early Careers Teacher? Could they perhaps present at a department meeting on a part of the curriculum that others struggle teaching. Could they plan a unit of lessons or organise a trip? Everyone wants to feel useful and valued. Lean into your colleagues strengths.
Ultimately, what we do is for our students. If members of the team, even the persistent naysayers, see how the action can support our wonderful students, they will get on board. It may take time, but it will be worth it. With experienced teachers retiring from the profession, and the climate for recruitment being particularly tough, the reality is that if you lose a teacher, they may not be replaced. And rarely with anyone with years of experience. Hence, it is prudent to ensure your new team comes to your way of thinking, through an approach that respects their experience, their time and their expertise