Moving from Middle Leadership to Senior Leadership

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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So, if you’re a Middle Leader, what motivated you to move to that role? It may be that after spending some time as a classroom teacher you felt ready for a freshchallenge, and wanted the opportunity to extend your sphere of influence into other classrooms in your subject or pastoral area. It may be that the chance to work with and through other people, to support and challenge, encourage and inspire other staff, in addition to trying to get the best from students, constituted an appealing new area of responsibility. I’ve previously written about why you might want to move to a Middle Leadership role and how you might start to prepare yourself.

"Perhaps the head and senior leaders look to you as a clear example of good practice and strong leadership."

It could be that this Middle Leader role is where you want to stay. You enjoy the fact that you still have a significant teaching commitment and that your focus remains on the subject, or the area, which motivates you most (and may have been what drew you into teaching in the first place). You may very much like the fact that your time and energies go into improving your particular domain, and making that area the best it can be without worrying too much about what is happening elsewhere. You may have built a strong and successful team and relish working with them, helping to get the best from them, and developing them to take on their own new challenges. 

You may feel you have a significant impact on the life of the school through being a beacon of excellence in your area, and that you are actually able to drive change from this position. Perhaps the head and senior leaders look to you and your area as a clear example of good practice and strong leadership. What you achieve within your team influences what happens within the school more widely because you show what can be done and those lessons are applied elsewhere. This may all be enough for you.

Or…

Being an effective Senior Leader is, in my view, not a different proposition from being a strong Middle Leader. It’s still about getting the best from those you lead, through a judicious balance of support and challenge helping them to be the best they can and, through them, reaching more students. The difference is the scale. Suddenly it ISN’T just about your particular domain. Suddenly it’s about whole-school issues and a wider perspective. How can we improve behaviour across the school? How can we ensure we make the most of opportunities for constructive feedback to pupils in all subjects? How can we further improve the quality of teaching and learning overall – and can we do all this without unreasonably adding to workload so that teachers are just expected to pedal faster, work harder and handle more pressure? Can we look after the staff, better to enable them to look after the pupils?

Do these challenges appeal? Do you sometimes, as a Middle Leader, feel frustrated that you don’t have more autonomy, and you think that with the ‘clout’ of a Senior Leader you will be able to make an even more positive difference of the life of students and of staff? You really want the opportunity to work to develop the whole-school assessment processes, or the system of parents’ meetings, or assemblies, or the way in which the school prepares for and copes with inspection. You’re ready to get your teeth into a new challenge.

"Consider which elements of your current role give you the greatest satisfaction."

I have known Middle Leaders who felt ground down by their responsibilities, who saw Senior Leadership as an escape route out of this. If you feel that Senior Leaders and heads have an easier life, I’d suggest you do more thinking and research. If you ever have the opportunity to shadow a Senior Leader or a head for a day, it can be eye-opening. If you are finding your Middle Leadership role verytough, and don’t feel you’re achieving success, climbing higher up the leadership ladder is not the solution. My advice to Middle Leaders who are finding the role very heavy-going is to try to consider whether this is because of the nature of leadership responsibility simply does not suit their skills and temperament. They may be an excellent classroom practitioner, but supporting and holding others to account is not where their strength lies. 

If this is the case, it really is worth considering stepping back into a classroom teacher role. If, on the other hand, you feel it is just your current context which is making you frustrated, and you do have the leadership capacity to make a success of a Middle Leadership role, consider applying first for a Middle Leadership post in another school, to see whether this is, in fact, the case.

If you are a successful Middle Leader, but feel ready for the next step and a wider school perspective, then looking for Senior Leadership opportunities, within your own school perhaps but also elsewhere, is a sensible next step. Consider which elements of your current role give you the greatest satisfaction, and where your particular skills and passion lie. This should enable you to decide what kind of Senior Leader role would be right for you. What can you contribute to a school and how can you continue to develop your leadership expertise, and your understanding of whole-school initiatives?

If Senior Leadership definitely appeals, for all the right reasons, and you know what kind of senior role you wish to apply for, consider what you can do in your current role and school to begin to build some whole-school experience to give yourself the best possible platform for making strong future applications. You will need to ensure that you have the capacity to do so, but can you be involved in a project which requires you to work beyond your domain, using and further developing your current skills and showing you have the motivation, determination and energy to take on a whole-school responsibility. 

Can you build on the experiences and achievements you are proud of for the benefit of other departments/areas of the school? Can you read more widely, and connect with others beyond your school (for example through Twitter and blogs) who are working in those areas in which you hope to make an impact in the future? Can you show you have what it takes to move up a gear and make an even greater contribution to whole-school success?

Good luck in the on-going journey.

Are you in Senior Leadership? Share your experiences below.

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