Tips for a Middle Management role

Jill Berry

Following a 30 year career in education, during which she taught English and assumed different leadership roles across six schools, Jill finished as a full-time head in 2010. Since then, she has divided her time between studying for a Professional Doctorate in Education, working as an educational consultant and serving as an Associate within the International Division of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. She lives in the Midlands.

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Think about what brought you into teaching in the first place. The opportunity to continue to work with / learn more about your specialist subject, and to communicate their enthusiasm for this subject to others, may be high up on the list of reasons. For those in the primary sector, the chance to teach a range of subjects, and to spend time in the company of younger children, may feature strongly. We may want to build relationships, to make a difference to people’s lives – something which doesn’t really feature in a number of professions. We may see schools as places where we will continue to learn and to stretch ourselves; there will be variety and the opportunity for a wide range of experiences within and beyond the classroom.

"We have to be careful that the most positive role models don’t actually deter us: “I couldn’t do that job because I couldn’t be like him/her…"

Sometimes, the extra-curricular life of the school enables us to indulge our hobbies, and to develop new interests. Teaching is demanding, and there are pressures, but there are also rewards, and you may be exhausted, but it isn’t often you’re bored.

The life of a classroom teacher may suit you, and you may decide this is where you want to remain. But some, perhaps after a few years in this role, start to consider new challenges. As a classroom teacher, your sphere of influence is the pupils in your class, or classes. You may decide you want to go beyond that, and extend that influence, either to ALL the learners in your subject area, in all classes, as head of department or a primary subject co-ordinator, or to a wider group of pupils by assuming additional responsibility on the pastoral or extra-curricular side of school life.

As a Middle Leader you will still have a significant teaching commitment, and will move into the position of being both a teacher and a leader. Your responsibilities, and your reach, will extend into other classrooms and affect the work of other professionals. If you see this as appealing (though it can be daunting at the same time! The two aren’t mutually exclusive!) then you may want to prepare yourself to apply for Middle Leader positions in your own or another school.

Learning from others

Consider the following:

  1. Think of the best Middle Leader you have ever known. What particular strengths and skills made them successful, and what impact did they have on the team they led?

  2. Now think of a Middle Leader you have known who, you would say, didn’t get it right. What particular mistakes did they make? What did they fail to do, which they should have done? What did they do which, if you were a Middle Leader, you would avoid?

I would suggest that we learn from positive and negative role models throughout our lives (and this learning starts during our own school days and extends into our personal, as well as our professional, lives). We have to be careful that the most positive role models don’t actually deter us (“I couldn’t do that job because I couldn’t be like him/her…”). You have to be yourself and do any job in a way that’s true to you, but you will pick up a good deal from those who you admire. Sometimes a negative model inspires us even more (“I think I could do that, and I think in some ways I’d make a better job of it…”) When classroom teachers are frustrated by poor leaders, what schools need is for those teachers to go on and be better Middle and Senior Leaders themselves, not give up and leave. (If they do that, who will make a difference then?)

The opportunities and challenges of Middle Leadership

In terms of opportunities, your subject area and your teaching are still the main areas of focus. You aren’t sacrificing that for leadership responsibility. You will continue to do all you can to teach successfully and to give those in your classes the most positive experience you can. However, you will now also be working more closely with colleagues, supporting them to do the same. This will be a new, energising challenge. How can we work through other adults to reach more children?

You will have the opportunity to develop other professionals – to help them to build their confidence and their competence and, when you see evidence of their growth, that can be incredibly satisfying. If you encourage and inspire others in your team to go on to take on leadership responsibility themselves, that is very rewarding. And even though this may mean you lose good colleagues, you then have the opportunity to appoint others, to spot and nurture potential. This relates both to subject teachers and to pastoral staff.

If you have strong ideas about how your subject or your area should develop, being a Middle Leader gives you the capacity to work on that, and to move the teaching of your subject, or the progress of your pastoral area, in the direction you think is right. Through working with other Middle Leaders, for example in head of departments’ forums, you should also have a voice to make a contribution to the wider life of the school. You will represent your area – you are the specialist with the expertise the Senior Leaders need and rely on. However, you will also increasingly develop your awareness and appreciation of how your area fits into the school as a whole, and how you can work alongside others for the benefit of the learners across the school.

"Occasionally it may require you to manage difficult conversations; you shouldn’t shrink from these, although it’s unlikely that you will ever enjoy them."

There are challenges too, of course. You do not have complete autonomy and there may be times when this causes you frustration; what you think is right for your area, and what you want to do, is thwarted by others who don’t see things as you do. When this happens, you do need to be able to present your case positively, constructively, persuasively and professionally, and often behind closed doors. Try not to moan to your team about your frustrations. You have to know what you can influence and what you have to accept and rise above. Once you’ve presented your case, know when to move on – don’t waste your energies on battles you clearly can’t win. Never give up on doing all you can to make your particular domain effective, though. If you are an example of excellence (both your area, and your leadership) this does give you power and you are often able to lead bottom-up change from this position.

Inevitably, some of those you lead may be more receptive and responsive, and more capable, than others. You do need to support, but not just to protect. You need to challenge your team, too, and hold them to account – and this can be tougher. Occasionally it may require you to manage difficult conversations. You shouldn’t shrink from them, although it’s unlikely that you will ever enjoy them. It is possible to manage such a conversation so that a win/win outcome is achieved for both parties. This will take skill – but, again, can be extremely rewarding when you achieve success.

And you will work harder and longer hours than you did as a classroom teacher. Be prepared for that and ensure you can manage it and achieve a workable balance in your professional and personal life.

So is it for you?

Having read this, reflect on your response. Does this appeal? Even if not now, can you envisage a time when it might? If it does, how can you prepare?

  • There are professional development opportunities for aspiring Middle Leaders, so talk to your immediate manager about this. It may not be a case of going on an external course; it may involve working in your own school but extending your knowledge and experience to prepare you for Middle Leadership applications in the future.

  • Talk to your current Middle Leader about whether there are opportunities for you to lead an initiative within your area which will give your experience and enable you to contribute to the success of the team beyond your own teaching.

  • Can you develop your expertise in your own area either within school (by representing the area within another forum) or beyond it (for example, as an examiner) which will help you to develop your skills and your confidence and show your commitment?

Middle Leaders have impact; they make a great contribution to the experience of the pupils in the classroom and so influence the quality of teaching and learning directly. They also affect the morale of the staff in their teams; there is evidence that the greatest influence on staff’s willingness to expend ‘discretionary effort’ comes from the attitude of their immediate line manager – in a school context this will be the Middle Leader. This is a privilege and a responsibility. If you feel you’re up for the challenge, go for it – and good luck.

Are you in a middle-leadership position? Share your thoughts below.

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