I’ve been a middle leader for four years, 2 as 2nd in Science, and 2 as Lead Practitioner in Science, each in very different settings. I don’t claim to be an expert leader in any way. I can instantly think of lots of ways that i’m probably not that great, but I do think that I’ve managed to glean some important truths about being newly in middle leadership that are worth sharing.
Middle leadership in schools is great. You can steer your department and you can focus very closely on your subject and pedagogy. You get to make recommendations and your voice carries just a little more weight in decision making. You get the challenge of setting the example and being the inspiration. I found that in the past couple of years as Lead Practitioner I’ve had to step up my game. It’s been great to research pedagogy and read lots of education books searching for good practice, building it into my own work in the classroom and then rolling out the best aspects to my department while also pointing out where I went wrong and how to avoid certain pitfalls. It is perfectly possible to do these things while a classroom teacher but leading from below is much harder.
Second in department is a bit of an odd position. You are technically in the middle leaders group, you have plenty of extra tasks, but ultimately the final decisions and the responsibility stop with someone else. This can actually have huge advantages. If you do it right, you can learn how to manage the extra duties that fall with you and learn the timings of other tasks from your HoD. When do you need to get people writing mock papers? How far in advance do you start planning trips? What support do your technicians need? How much time does it take for a full inventory? Ordering exercise books? All of these things and more need consideration at different times across the year. As a second, you have a great opportunity to get a feel for the rhythm of a school year and how to plan around all of these different things. If you go straight in as HoD it’s usually into a smaller department, and so you have to get the jump on these things as fast as possible. In any case there are probably experienced staff in your department, or other experienced middle leaders to ask. No one minds you asking questions. It’s unreasonable to expect you to get everything exactly right all by yourself from the moment you step up.
The difficulty comes starts when there’s a staff member who isn’t completing tasks or failing to meet deadlines or otherwise not meeting expectations. For new middle leaders, it’s highly tempting to take over and just do things for yourself, but that’s an invitation to that staff member to keep dropping the ball and for them to rely on somebody being there to make up the slack. Sometimes there are just difficult conversations to be had. I generally start with asking why there are problems completing, offering some solutions and setting a firm deadline. I’ve even gone as far as using a non-contact period to sit with someone and talk them through the process of how to upload information into a spreadsheet and to help them. The key assumption to make is that they are on your side. I have fortunately never worked with someone who isn’t willing to meet expectations, and if you’re a new middle leader I would find a colleague to refer up to or seek some coaching on the issue.
Where possible, I would recommend to new middle leaders that they find someone who is able to coach them. This isn’t the same as mentoring, in that you shouldn’t expect to be told what or how to do things, but instead you are using a more experienced teacher as a sounding board. Take issues and problems to them and a skilled coach will guide you into unpicking the issues and narrowing your focus onto the key problems and coming up with targeted solutions. Eventually you won’t need their support so much, but will be able to pass on what you’ve learned to others. Coaching doesn’t only provide practical support and advice but gives you someone to vent to. There’s a distinct pressure that comes with being in middle leadership that you don’t necessarily feel as a normal classroom teacher. Having a space to let of steam is really important, especially if they are from outside of your organisation.
Ultimately I see being a middle leader as being an enabler. Unlike SLT, who are there to set the whole school agenda and to give a direction of travel for the institution, it’s the middle leadership that get to say how their department are getting there. Middle leaders should be there to get the absolute best from the staff in their department. I am terribly lucky as a science teacher to help lead a fantastic team. We are ambitious and more than a little competitive. We share ideas and resources and systems as widely as we can and work closely with SLT to ensure that we are on track and delivering in a way that supports the school. If you want to remain a classroom teacher and focus solely on your own practice and how to make a difference for children face to face that is a great thing. I would never tell anyone that you absolutely have to rise through the ranks, but my choice was to step up a little way so that I am able to have a wider impact and to support my department in being as successful as we can be. As a middle leader you won’t necessarily know better than anyone else, but you do have to be a bit of shield between whole school pressures to do with outcomes and budgets and standards and your staff who are simply trying to do their jobs, and do them well. That will occasionally mean taking a lot of flak from both directions, SLT down to you, and teachers up to you. Either way you are leading in that department and you need broad shoulders.
My most important tip works for classroom teachers through to experienced middle leaders and it is simply this: When prioritising tasks when you have a lot on your plate, do the ones that other teachers need first. This comes up more often when you are a middle leader because you are setting up tasks for your department, but also feeding information up the chain to SLT. You will find that more people are relying on you to finish work so that they can get on with theirs. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting on someone else to finish a job when you have a deadline that relies on their work. Don’t be that teacher that slows everyone else down as they focus on their own projects.