Middle leadership: if I could turn back time

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Last year I wrote a blog about advice I’d give to my NQT self, apparently it was a pretty sensible set of points. I decided to take a look back at the blog this morning to consider my thoughts a year on. Thankfully I agree with what I wrote with last year but thought it might be interesting to consider the advice I’d share with my newly promoted middle leader self. I was fortunate in some respects to become Second in Department and then Head of Department in very quick succession. In other respects though I was probably not mature or experienced enough to do the role justice in the beginning. One day I went from being an excellent classroom teacher to a middle manager with little or no guidance other than watching how my HOD had done things from a distance. Very quickly I learned what a brilliant leader he was. I only wished there would have been more of an opportunity to observe him more closely. As senior leaders our role is not only to grow our own talent but also to develop our staff by encouraging them to shadow great HODs and HOYs before they take the leap onto the ladder of school leadership. Line managing a department or faculty is not the same as running it daily. SLT have a sanitised view of what goes on but this allows for a more objective perspective. Currently, I’m having to step into the role of HOD a little more, I’m lucky to be working with a department who have distributed leadership and are happy to pick up a lot of the slack but knowing what I know now, how am I going to do things differently? What mistakes did I make then which I’m hoping to avoid now? How am I going to develop a better team than the one which I had an absolutely fabulous time leading some ten years ago? Well here are my top tips to my 26 year old self:

1. Do it for the right reasons at the right time – ask challenging questions of yourself like “Am I ready? Am I good enough yet? Why do I want this? What impact am I going to have on the students and the school?” If you’re not reflective enough to ask this of yourself then find someone who will act as a critical friend to help you answer these questions. A senior or middle leader is maybe your best option in school or a mentor outside of school. If you ask someone close to you then they are likely to tell you what you want to hear rather than what is an honest observation of you at that particular time.

2. Above everything you’ve got to be all about your team – if you’re not into teamwork then being a HOD/HOY is not for you. Some people make excellent classroom teachers but aren’t suited to leading a team – and that’s ok. If this describes you then maybe the HOD role isn’t the best way to develop your career path.

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3. Love the ones you’re with – my ex HOD said on his leaving speech “These students are all someone’s son or daughter, they are all God’s children and we’ve got to love them all because it might be the only love they get.” His sentiments hit home as I realised he’d done the same with his team. Your team are like your family and, at times they will drive you to distraction but you must love them all the time because, like the children we teach, the care they get from you might be the only kindness they receive. Whatever you give will come back ten fold so invest time in them, get to know them.

4. Be up to date with your subject grammar – your team will look to you as the font of all knowledge,  it’s ok not to know everything but they have to have faith in your competency to lead and knowing your stuff goes a long way especially with highly intelligent practitioners.

5. Be a good classroom teacher – you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk. Subject knowledge goes some way into gaining credibility with your team but your practice inside the classroom will give you much more respect with students, staff and the wider community. When you’re asking your team to try something new, don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself.

6. Let go of the need to be the best – I was always highly competitive (and I still am if truth be told), I strived to be the best teacher in the department which was fine as a classroom teacher. However, everything is relative. There’s no satisfaction in being the best of a bad bunch so instead of trying to beat everyone else in the results or popularity rankings (or whatever you use as a benchmark), focus your efforts on helping everyone to develop so that they are as good if not better than you. Everyone should be continually striving to get better no matter where they are in their career or how good they are deemed to be, it’s your job as HOD to facilitate their continual growth.

7. Be organised – look at long term deadlines/requirements and start planning well in advance as these things will creep up on you sooner than you think! We always tell students to be prepared but very often in teaching we end up being lastminute.com which leads to getting stressed, making mistakes and the wheels falling off. Despite all the planning in the world, the job of a middle leader (especially heads of year) is largely reactive so allow some “response time” into your day for fire fighting or working with students/staff who may need a little bit of you that you hadn’t planned for.

8. Network both inside and outside of your school and setting – you are now in a key position of influence so it is important to work cohesively with other teachers, from ITTs to SLT and beyond. Listen to ideas and share yours sparingly, only say something if what you’ve got to say has been thought out, people are much more likely to value it then. Look at the brilliant work that other people are doing in other departments and other schools, see what could work for you and your team. TeachMeets and Twitter are great starting points to look outside of your own bubble. Unfortunately, ten years ago social media was more about sharing cat videos than resources and subject knowledge so this is one piece of advice that my 26 year old self couldn’t use but you can take advantage of it so get networking and save reinventing the wheel for someone else!

9. Don’t react – at times people will be horrible, they will be emotional, they will tell you things which will upset you for all sorts of reasons but the worst thing you can do is respond reactively. Learn to listen without offering advice straight away, instead give yourself time to consider all perspectives before responding. One of the best leaders I have worked with simply listened when I came to him with an issue, problem or rant. Every so often he would chuck in a reassuring or calming word which would bring me to a more emotionally relaxed place in that instant, he would then bring the conversation to a close saying “Leave it with me”, before the end of that school day he would have returned offering wise and well-thought out words. I was also in a much better place to listen to them and respond effectively rather than emotionally. I have learned that not reacting is best for everyone involved, thanks PB!
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10. Be a presence – get into classrooms and assemblies. It’s important to show the students and the staff that you are leading the team. Bobbing into classrooms informally will build a confidence in you so that when formal lesson observation time comes staff don’t feel threatened. Encourage teachers (both within the department and across the school) to go into each other’s lessons, including yours. This creates an open and empathetic environment. You’ll get a much more honest view of teaching within your department by nipping in and out of classes than formal lesson observations and learning walks.

11. Think about pedagogy – so many brilliant teachers can’t explain how they do it because it just comes natural to them, chances are that you’ve been a brilliant teacher and that’s one of the reasons why you’ve been promoted. As a middle leader you are a driving force in the teaching and learning of the school (HOYs you’re not excluded from this in fact you’re vital to it) so you need to start breaking down both how your subject is taught and how effective classroom practice can be modelled. You are no longer just teaching students, you are developing your staff which in itself is a mixed ability group. If you’re struggling to convey what it is that you do which works then think about sequencing. Don’t be afraid of enlisting the help of others who do this well (it’s good for their development too). There should be a conversation about teaching and learning every day and it’s your job to stoke the fire. Every departmental meeting should focus on moving teaching forward (remember we all should be striving to get better) not an information dissemination exercise. Think of other ways to get the protocols out to the team. Make opportunities for informal conversations about teaching to take place. Coffee and cake time once a week, bulletins, sending resources around are a great starting point to ensure continual focus on the important stuff.

12. Talk about the children as though they are your own – this sounds like a no brainer but in the hectic juggling of plates we sometimes forget why we are all here, the students. How you talk about them is important too, it models how you expect your team to talk and think about them. The advice offered at number 3 needs to be practiced by all teachers, they need to care for every child especially the difficult ones. Your team will only do it if they see you leading by example.

13. Be a filter/umbrella – I’ve heard many great leaders talk about this, Jill Berry has some very wise words on this matter if you want to learn from an excellent leader. You will be party to information and conversations that classroom teachers won’t have access to. Your job is to sift out needs to be shared and what doesn’t, sharing everything is not the way to go! Equally, learn to keep counsel, some things teachers tell you need to be shared and others don’t, decide which do and only share them with the people who need to know when the time is right. Being a good listener without it going any further will gain you credibility with your team and the wider school community. Loose lips and all that!

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14. Checklists are your friend particularly if you’re disorganised – this isn’t an endorsement of a system based approach to running a team because we are dealing with people and that simply won’t work. The point that I’m trying to make is that if you’re more of a creative cat than an organised ostrich then a good checklist can help you manage your own time better. Harry Fletcher-Wood has written a super little book on checklists which has some great ideas for middle leaders, go on, treat yourself and put it on your summer reading list.

15. Learn from the best – who are the leaders which provide you with inspiration and why? I consider myself blessed to have had someone brilliant who I could learn from along the way both inside and outside the educational setting. In my first school I had brilliant heads of department and experienced some amazing senior leadership. In my current school I’ve been even more fortunate seeing it modelled right from the top down which has helped me grow into a better leader myself. Beyond my own school experience,  reading the work of people like John Tomsett, Mary Myatt, Jill Berry and Debra Kidd have helped me decide just what type of leader I want to be.

16. Always be humble, take responsibility and learn from your mistakes – everything you do will influence others therefore it is vital that you lead with integrity and humility. If you make a mistake, hold your hands up and admit to it, you’ll earn respect that way. Don’t blame anyone in your team if ultimately it was your responsibility as you’ll only create a blame culture. If someone makes a mistake it’s much better to have a private conversation and see what you can both learn from it than publically apportion blame, this will never win you respect. It’s ok to make mistakes providing we learn from them and prevent their reoccurrence. If there’s a success then celebrate it but remember that it’s a team effort now so everyone has had a part to play in it however big or small. Always celebrate thoughtfully and never at the cost of any other person or department, remember those that you pass on the way up will also see you on the way down!

17. You are always learning – don’t ever think that you know everything because if you get to that point then chances are you’re deluded and heading for a fall! Every day should be a learning opportunity as you’re in prime position with staff and students. If your team see you listening to the students, the NQTs and the more seasoned members of staff who are in their latter years, then they will follow suit. I’ve found the most insight comes from those who have been there and got the t-shirt yet often they get written off as being past their sell-by date. There is no better CPD than experience so don’t take it for granted. Also, the most honest people you will work with are the kids, they haven’t learned to filter yet so listen to them.

18. Try to think like a senior leader – what a crazy notion, not yet wet behind the ears as a middle leader and I’m suggesting that you think like SLT, ridiculous! Most of the mistakes I made were because I didn’t consider the bigger picture only taking into account my own agendas. If you put yourself in the shoes of the people who are leading the school then you’re more than likely to make the right decisions and get the outcome you want. Work closely with your SLT line manager (and the rest of the senior leadership team) as they are the ones who will fight your corner in meetings. It’s also a good idea to learn what it’s like for SLT before you start thinking you can do their job!

19. Lead by example – your team will be created in your image so be what you want to see! I’ve recently written about this in my post on academies and school leadership here, I firmly believe that our teams are a mirror of who we are so you need to ask yourself what kind of team do I want to lead? Trust and integrity are vital, as is kindness and determination if you want a team to succeed. Communication, a strong work ethic together with patience and understanding are key components of effective teams. You can’t get any of these if you don’t start with yourself. You’ve got to walk the walk. Build trust and be authentic, if you don’t put every effort into this then when times are tough they’ll feel a hundred times harder. Be kind and understanding with everyone because we are all human beings first and foremost. Try to understand that not everyone will want to work in the way (or as hard) as you do and that’s ok providing they get the job done well. You can challenge underperformance providing you are effective and work hard, if you’re not doing your bit then you’re not being authentic and you have no place to judge. If you communicate well then people are under no illusions as to expectations, vision or process. Have a clear vision for your team and communicate it clearly and regularly. You will need bags of patience as well as optimism and determination in abundance, you are now not only an advocate for all the students in the school but for your subject/year group and its staff. This will be hard at times but you’ve always got to be the radiator. Everything you do will be infectious, you’ve got to ask whether you want it to be like laughter or some disgusting disease.

20. Look after yourself – you are important especially to your family and loved ones so don’t forget to keep your own well-being at the forefront of your thoughts. Equally, you’re not going to be any use to anyone ill or exhausted so self preservation is vital. The one thing middle leaders don’t do well is put their needs first. I’m not saying be selfish, quite the opposite, I’m merely saying it’s important to maintain a work/life balance. Make sure you have a cut off time and don’t go past it. Take time to do the things which make you happy. Don’t cut corners in your personal life as your family and friends are the ones who are there for you no matter what. Take time to recharge your batteries by having some quiet time. Reward yourself by organising treats, you’ve worked hard for your money so do something of value with it. And enjoy what you’re doing, if you don’t then don’t do it. Life is too short and chances are you’re not doing anyone any favours by simply going through the motions!

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Being a middle leader is the hardest role in a school but it’s also the most rewarding, there’s no better feeling than leading a team to success so take pleasure in every part of it, the good and the bad. This isn’t an exhaustive list, far from it and there many great blogs out there from the likes of Emma Kell and Lisa Pettifer (to mention but a few) on this topic so please look around to continue to learn from the best. Every bit of advice I gave to my NQT self stood true for me as a middle leader and now as a senior leader. It’s always good to reflect on who you were and how far you’ve come because only then can you realise the potential just what you can be.

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One thought on “Middle leadership: if I could turn back time

  1. Pingback: Being a Head of Department | Disappointed Idealist

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