Ten Years a Middle Leader

LEadership pic

Picture of meerkats from Google Images, labelled for non-commercial reuse.

I am now coming to the end of ten years as a Head of English. I’m also in the process of offering some support to a colleague who’s applying for a Head of Faculty position. Here are some reflections on the role, the challenges, and ways that I’ve handled the position.

Don’t be mean.

A common interview question* for any TLR or SLT position goes along the lines of: “tell me about a time when you’ve had to have a difficult conversation with a colleague.”

This is designed to evaluate our ability to handle situations in which a colleague isn’t performing his or her professional duties – there are thousands of examples of how such situations can arise. What never ceases to bother me is the way that some middle- and senior-leaders pride themselves not on having difficult conversations, but on making conversations difficult. It’s endemic, in some schools. I’ve worked as an AST, across several Bristol schools, and I will never forget the AHT who prided himself on “telling people about themselves.” This translated to delivering character assassinations at any given opportunity – no wonder their school was imploding.

I try to start with the assumption that nobody comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. That applies to ITT students, right through to the Head. Finding out the cause of the problem before jumping to assumptions and baring your teeth will yield healthier working relationships. I don’t think that there’s ever a reason or excuse for a derogatory tone or aggressive approach in a professional conversation. Also, if you ever find yourself pointing at somebody, or storming off, then you need to step back and reflect on what you want to achieve and how your work is affecting your own wellbeing.

Link SLT and your team by maintaining open channels of communication.

I meet with my SLT line-manager regularly (if you don’t, then perhaps ask about this!). I try to always remember that most of my team don’t have this window into the whole-school strategy. What happens in SLT line-management meetings can seem to be one of Life’s Great Mysteries to less experienced staff members. The reality is far from mysterious – usually ongoing data analysis discussions, discussion of pivotal students, intervention strategies, updates to lesson observations and any team issues.

Communicating the points of discussion, where professionally appropriate, does a lot for a team. We might think that the points are mundane, but that’s only because we know what they are! Letting the team members know what was discussed is a good way to promote trust between leadership and teachers. Of course, there will some things that we can’t and shouldn’t pass on – professional judgement should kick in here – but if you can be open about most of the meeting then you’ll help your team to understand the bigger picture and their own roles will fit into place for them.

Lead by example

A cliché, for which I partially apologise… but are your books open for scrutiny? If you wouldn’t be happy for any of your team members to browse through your exercise books at any point, then don’t do it to them. And if you would be happy for this to happen then make sure your feedback for students is in line with school policy and doesn’t exceed it.

Also remember that you have extra frees for your leadership role. If you don’t, then follow this up but don’t grumble about it to your team. It’s not their fault and it doesn’t mean that their workload is any easier. I mention the extra frees because although we have leadership tasks to do in this time, it’s flexible time – we’re not being controlled by a bell. It makes all the difference.

Own your mistakes.

It’s hard, to say, “I’ve made a mess of this. I think we need to start again.” It gets easier, though, and it’s better for your team if you’re transparent about mistakes, no matter how small.

Stoicism is optional

Overheard at a recent conference: “she took the day off for her daughter, again. I swear that kid is always ill!”

Just because we may come to work with a high temperature, or two days after a bereavement, or catch three buses when our cars give up the ghost, or are lucky enough to have a family member who helps with childcare, it doesn’t mean that everybody else should be held to our standards. Don’t expect unrelenting stoicism from your team. We don’t know about other people’s situations, even if we think we do. We don’t know about our colleagues’ mental health issues, even if we think we do. We don’t know the half of it. I think that aiming for loyalty to the team by showing sensitivity to people who have different ways of coping with life is vital. If somebody’s absence becomes an issue, then this will be picked up by SLT. If you’re asked to speak to a team-member about attendance, then this can be done with the offer of support and compassion.

Keep autonomy by being solution-focused

We’re paid our TLR points to lead – not to report problems to SLT. Sometimes, we do need to pass on issues, though. Presenting a problem with an accompanying solution means that we can guide the solution, rather than having a diktat imposed from above. It also saves SLT some work and if your proposed solution isn’t the way forward then at least SLT will understand the direction that you want to move in.

*I know it’s not a question.