The power of the middle leader

James Ashmore

James Ashmore is the coauthor of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook. He has spent 11 of the last 13 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a specialist leader of education. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.

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Originally published on 21st November 2016. Originally published on 21st November 2016.

Do you feel powerful?

Because the modern, effective school middle leader is powerful, an incredibly powerful member of the school community. Not powerful like Darth Vader is powerful. I’m not suggesting you wave your hand to magically make minions do your evil bidding. I’m talking about being the powerful agent for change that the role of middle leader has become. In your hands, you have the power to design a creative, rich curriculum; the power to motivate and inspire a team of teachers and support staff; the power to drive advances in pedagogy; the power to make decisions that will change children’s lives.

Essentially, the middle leader of today is a kind of mini-headteacher, because when things go right, when things improve, you can confidently say, “that’s because of me”. If you’re British, like me, and I really don’t mean to stereotype but here goes anyway, then you’ll find actually saying stuff aloud like this slightly uncomfortable. I’ve always struggled with the notion that it’s okay to talk up your achievements, and find it equally uncomfortable to sit and listen to someone rattle on about how amazing they are. That, to me, is just a bit weird. The only contexts that I could comfortably allow myself to behave in this way, to indulge in a spot of self-aggrandisement, are on interview for a new position or in those faculty review meetings. Because who else will speak for me if I don’t? Here is where I’ve needed to step up – for me.

And do you know what? This is incredibly empowering. For both interviews and any meetings you have with your SLT, you prepare, right? You rehearse and practise, and you ensure you have answers to questions, you are armed with hard proof and evidence, and you command the room. Because the power you wield here is earned, hard-earned and fought for, so you want to do some showing off.

Let’s take those results meetings you have with your headteacher around September time. Ultimately, you are accountable for the results achieved by your team and your students which is why such meetings take place."I’ve always struggled with the notion that it’s okay to talk up your achievements." But you must also believe you are responsible for them, too. You must take the credit when those results are positive. Yes, you will have teachers whose lessons are innovative and creative, who put in the extra hours of intervention, and who can engage even the most disengaged and difficult to reach. Yes, your students will have responded enthusiastically to those amazing lessons, attended all those intervention activities, and turned it around when they needed to. But be under no illusion; if you are harnessing the great power at your fingertips then this won’t have happened in spite of your leadership, it will be because of it.

Central to this is the vision. To create this new gold dream, to crystallise your long-term, strategic vision, you will need to empower others – your team – to ensure that, together, you are crafting something shared, achievable, ambitious yet realistic. Get them all together, probably in early September time, and work through a series of activities you’ve designed that tease out where you want to collectively go and how you are going to get there. You will need to encapsulate it in a way that can be easily communicated and is the foundation stone for each and every initiative you implement - “we’re doing this because…” - and link it to the shared vision. And you need to make sure that each aim is accompanied by a performance indicator of some kind, preferably a numerical one, so you can measure your progress and then celebrate when you achieve it.

Next, share the power. Distribute leadership among your team so that everyone can contribute to the success of your vision. Go beyond delegation of specific tasks to allocate areas of responsibility – and let them get on with it. If loosening the reins feels uncomfortable at first, that’s natural, don’t worry about it. You’ll get used to others seeing projects through to their successful conclusion and taking the praise, because you’ll be at the front of the line dishing that praise out.

Finally, look around you once in a while and smile at the impact your powerful actions are having. One of the great privileges of middle leadership is the chance to influence the direction of your school while still having tonnes of classroom "Tease out where you want to collectively go with your team and how you are going to get there."contact with students, so you are not one of these sitting far from the reality of your decisions, you’re living them day to day. You implement a new feedback policy; you’re putting it into practice the next morning and seeing first-hand if it’s a positive move or an overwhelming complication. You ask someone to redesign a unit of work for the Spring term of Year 8; you’re teaching it on the first day back in January, sharing resources and lesson ideas with your team. You put in place a range of positive behaviour initiatives; you’re the one leading the celebrations in a prize-giving assembly at the end of the year, seeing your own classes applauding alongside those of your team’s.

This is what makes the role of middle leader so special. This is the power of your position.

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