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Step 1 Middle Leadership

The role of the middle leader is one of the most challenging in any school. It is often presumed that great teachers will be great leaders and managers, but there is little evidence to back this up, so it is important to look carefully at the additional skills required in fulfilling the middle leader role. 

This may be the first step up into a leadership role, or an opportunity to stay as an exemplary class teacher with some leadership responsibilities. 

The expectations of a middle leader vary enormously according to the setting. A middle leader in a big secondary school may have a significant team to lead, usually a subject or a phase. In a primary school you may be leading a subject area across a school, which may entail leading staff who are senior to you. In a special school setting you may be leading a team, which might include a significant number of support staff. Each setting provides its own rewards and challenges. 

The nature of schools and their leadership roles, means that teachers moving into a leadership role need to transform themselves, almost instantly, into a leader.  Achieving a balance between the demands of a full-time classroom role and a new leadership role is vital, whilst ensuring a relentless focus on high quality teaching and learning for every student.

It is therefore important to have a clear vision, underpinned by clear processes and structure. These act as an underlying compass, a toolkit to guide and prioritise your decision-making process. This is an essential process as you are shaping your leadership role.  

How do Middle leaders contribute to school effectiveness?

The core role of the middle leader is to lead and support their team of teachers, to turn the strategy of the senior leaders into outstanding classroom practice on a daily basis. High performing middle leaders balance the drive for consistent teacher performance in their area of responsibility and work collaboratively across the school to ensure consistency between teams.  

Effective middle leaders:

  • Model outstanding classroom teaching and learning
  • Innovate and lead change 
  • Set direction and plan
  • Motivate and influence others
  • Make best use of professional expertise and knowledge
  • Value and demonstrate inclusive practices
  • Foster teams and teamwork

They do this through the process of

  • Curriculum leadership to meet the needs of the pupils
  • Data driven analysis to identify gaps in attainment
  • Lesson observations with constructive, developmental feedback
  • Building effective relationships within and beyond their team
  • Holding staff to account for their pupils’ progress
  • Identifying, supporting and evaluating staff professional development

Focus for middle leaders

Learning on the job as well as maintaining and modelling their classroom practice can be difficult to balance. 

Strategy– middle leaders will need confidence and a clear sense of direction, as well as a strategy for addressing underperformance. They will need to be able to influence and inspire the team to come on board with their ideas. It is the middle leaders who drive the school forward, by supporting and implementing the strategic direction of the school.

Leading and managing people– this can be one of the biggest challenges for middle leaders. They will no doubt have colleagues of varying abilities and motivations, each of whom may need a different style or strategy to manage, to nurture, to challenge and hold to account. Moving up to lead former professional equals, possibly friends can require excellent social awareness and skills.

Delivering school priorities – as identified by the senior leaders, this is undertaken by middle leaders through; detailed monitoring, evaluation of data, observing lessons, work scrutiny and the implementation of school policies, discussion and feedback.

Impact- measuring and evaluating impact is a cornerstone of the role and is a key factor in determining pupil progress and attainment and subsequent life chances.

HOW do you know if you are ready for stepping into a Middle Leadership role?

Teaching – Is your classroom practice good enough to give you credibility to challenge and support others?Outstanding teachers do not always make outstanding’ leaders, but your team will always appreciate being led by someone who has credibility in their current role before looking to step up to whole school responsibilities. 

Research your move – What area of leadership are you interested in? You may want to focus on special needs, assessment, pastoral or a subject area. Look at roles and responsibilities in your school and others. What skills, attributes and knowledge do you need for these roles? Create a dialogue with other middle and senior leaders around you, find out what they feel are the rewards and some of the challenges.

Professional Development – Does your school have a development programme for aspiring middle leaders?  Will they support your professional development as a middle leader? If you are an ex-pat, it is useful to look at the professional development recognised in your own country, for example UK programmes such as NPQML (National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership) and NPQSL are available in the Middle East.  Undertake a 360 review to help you identify gaps in your skills. Get good learning habits as you start your role.

Who inspires you? Who is your educational hero? Read their books, access their videos. My own heroes are Simon Sinek and Richard Boyatzis. Check them out.

Support– Who is there in the school to help guide you on the next steps of your career? It could be your line manager, a trusted colleague or even someone that you have previously worked with. They should be able to spend the time supporting you in identifying your strengths and areas for development to help you realise your potential.

Commitment-The majority of school leaders, particularly those in middle leadership roles, have a substantial teaching commitment to balance alongside their other duties.  As leaders they may find they have risen up the ranks because of the skills they’ve developed and demonstrated in the classroom. When entering a pressurised leadership role, however, this is the first thing that can slip in quality

Compromise– Middle leadership can be one of the most challenging roles within a school because, as the job title states, middle leaders are in the middle which is why these leaders often feel in limbo between their teaching and leadership roles, and between teachers and senior leaders. Middle leaders are accountable both to the Senior Leadership Team and the staff they lead. Managing both of these responsibilities will take time to master, don’t be overwhelmed by the ‘tyranny of stuff’ that comes your way. 

Network- Meet with other teachers and middle leaders, both face to face and online. There are many online forums for the exchange of ideas. Look for educational influencers. Nothing beats face to face, so middle leaders should be encouraged to attend conferences, courses and network meetings, where they can take time out with other school leaders, reflect on the issues of the day, or just share a moan in a safe space!

Manage your expectations. Mastery of any skill takes practice. Don’t expect to get everything right straight away. Practice, ask for feedback, learn from others, learn from your mistakes. Be resilient!

Future thinking –Middle leadership may be the first step on the leadership ladder, so it is important to develop good knowledge, skills and understanding of the theories and practices underlying leadership.  As you develop as a middle leader, keep your eyes on the skills needed for the next level, as a senior leader.

Middle leadership isn’t easy, but it is an exciting and rewarding step, and if you are ready to make this step, it offers you the opportunity to make a difference on a scale unlike any you’ve known before. 

By: Jeni Ling

Jeni has extensive experience in the Education Sector. She has been a successful Headteacher, a School Improvement Partner, at NCTL she was Senior Manager, Consultant Leader, certified Coach and Lead Facilitator. She was a National Facilitator, and then led the Middle Leadership Development Programme (MLDP). Then she led the design and delivery of The International Development Programme as the Associate Director, leading the project across India

As International Leadership Development Advisor with Best Practice Network, Jeni  delivers a number of leadership programmes, including NPQML and NPQSL  in the UK and Internationally. As an Educational Specialist with Tribal, she has written leadership programmes and has been a lead Inspector and team member for inspections in Dubai and the Northern Emirates in the UAE.