The Engine Room: Leading experienced colleagues in your new team

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


The Engine Room: Get yourself a mentor!

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.

“Congratulations! We would love to offer you the job of Head of Department.”

Of course, you accept. You have earned this. You have raised your head above the parapet and have demonstrated that you have the aptitude, determination and work ethic to be awarded this opportunity.

But then there’s the niggling self-doubt. Have I simply got this because there’s no one else? Have they made a mistake? How long do I have before I’m found out?

If you were anything like me, someone who possessed the requisite ability, but with a penchant for premature career self-sabotage, this may sound familiar. 

My first head of department role was where I learnt my chops, where I learnt to navigate the rough waters of middle leadership. But it would have been much more straightforward had I had some guidance. A mentor who had been there, done that.

Mentoring is not the same as line-management. Although in practice, within schools, these are often conflated. And for good reason – time is precious, expensive and quite simply there may not be staff within your school who have the necessary expertise. 

Whereas line-management is often linked to drafting and meeting targets, or being measured against school Key Performance Indicators, mentoring, in my experience, is more fluid, more ‘human’. There is a need for both, and great line-management should of course be celebrated. The purpose of this piece, however, is to encourage people to embrace mentoring, to find that guide who is, perhaps one step removed from the day-to-day, and who can give you a perspective, based on experience or a disassociated analysis.

I have been both a mentor and mentee. Where it has been successful, I have, in both roles, listened, questioned, and challenged. Specifically as a mentor, I have advised. The last part, I feel is important. Mentoring, in my mind, is not coaching. I am a big fan of coaching, be it rapidly improving classroom practice through the model of ‘instructional coaching’ or whether it is the ‘executive coaching’ variety, whereby someone guides you through your goals to fulfil their potential. As a mentee and Head of Department, I wanted to learn from someone else’s experience, access the knowledge (and skills) they have gained to help me develop and grow. For a new middle leader, or perhaps an experienced one feeling a little stuck, a mentor provides a sense of perspective. When leading a department, I found this increasingly difficult to get this perspective as the year progressed, and my focus turned to assessment, exam preparation, curriculum development and cover. In the years where I had a mentor, the role felt much more sustainable. I was encouraged to pause and take stock, at moments when I was in danger of disappearing down a rabbit hole of perpetual ‘doing’.

Choosing a mentor is not a straightforward process, and I have to confess, a little haphazard. I did not advertise and/or interview (although maybe that’s a consideration?!), nor were they allocated. I found them through training courses, friends of friends, subject-specific Teach Meets and online forums, and oddly enough going for interviews in other schools! Nor were they apparent as mentors when I first met them. I did not simply ‘know’. For the majority of them, all I knew is that they had at times been heads of departments who I wanted to emulate in some capacity. I may had admired the way they motivated their teams, or instilled and celebrated a love of their subject. One of my mentors had a fantastic understanding of the curriculum, and his ability to succinctly explain it to both novice teachers and teachers outside his subject, was something that I genuinely admired. And this is the key thing – they didn’t have to be the perfect middle leader. I’m not even sure that this exists. In all cases, this appreciation of a specific mentor trait, led to some great further conversations, regular check-ins and ultimately the formation of a mentor-mentee relationship that sustained.

The relationship is very rarely formal. This is difficult for teachers as, by the nature of the profession, we are structured: we plan, deliver and assess our lessons at particular times; we supervise break duty at a predetermined moment; we go on holiday when we are told to during the year. We even go to the toilet and eat our lunch during specific windows! It is not a profession that one feels has a lot of flex built in. And yet, mentor/ mentee conversations, whilst could be scheduled in, are often dependent on the ebbs and flow, the stresses and strains of being a middle leader at seemingly unplanned moments during the school year. As we adapt, change and continue to develop the profession in this post-Covid era, it is crucial that we learn to embrace this. Mentoring middle leaders when they need it most, not just at arbitrary regular intervals.

The format of a mentor meeting is not prescriptive. And nor should it be. This is an opportunity to discuss areas of professional life that could traverse a variety of topics. The key thing here is a willingness to have that conversation and engage with the dispensed advice, even if it’s ultimately rejected. Remember, this is not coaching. 

Does the mentor need to be trained? Well, it depends on your definition of a mentor. If we are talking about someone who is providing instruction, and has limited time to diagnose the problem and help the colleague find a solution that they can work on – then, of course, a clear and precise model, expertly driven by someone trained in providing instruction, is of huge benefit. If it’s more of an advice-seeking conversation with someone who has been in your shoes and has valuable knowledge to impart, then training will, in all practically, be quite difficult. Remember, we are not training novices educators here. We are providing a level of bespoke support to middle leaders that schools do not always have the capacity to provide themselves. National Training courses of exist, and they are of course valuable, in the medium to long term. However, picking up the phone and speaking to someone you have chosen to build a strong relationship with, when the problem reveals itself, is often of greater value- at least in the moment, when you are faced with those all consuming challenges.

The final part of this piece is a plea: pay it forward. We are a profession with some amazingly generous individuals. When recruitment drops and staff migrate to other professions, the pressure on middle leaders to simultaneously hold the fort and keep striving for their pupils is immense. Supporting our middle leaders in these moments will undoubtedly have a knock on effect – not just to the individual concerned, but to the departments they lead, the students they teach, and anyone who thinks middle leadership might be for them. The latter is perhaps the most important for our profession. If our teaching and non-teaching staff see a middle leader being well-supported by a mentor, then they will be more likely to see those positions as something desirable, something to aim and build towards. We have a retention crisis in this profession – let’s do everything we can to encourage people to stay. Mentoring won’t be the solution on its own, and will be further down the list after pay and workload considerations, but it could definitely play a positive part in supporting educators who, despite the odds, have dedicated their immediate futures to this valuable vocation.