4 ways to supercharge a school's engine: middle leaders

Middle leaders are the engine of a school – those in charge need to do all they can to empower them, says Ian Thurston
25th November 2020, 11:27am

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4 ways to supercharge a school's engine: middle leaders

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/4-ways-supercharge-schools-engine-middle-leaders
How To Fire Up The Engine Of Your School: Middle Leaders

We are all aware of the analogy of a school as a vehicle.

The headteacher is the driver, choosing the direction, the admin team are the mechanics, ensuring that everything runs smoothly, and so on.

However, the source of the engine can sometimes be unclear. For me, though, the engine represents middle leaders, and for any school to "speed up", they need to supercharge the middle leadership engine.

How to empower your middle leaders

Here's how we can achieve this

1. Expectations

High expectations have to be set from the start. "middle leadership" means a lot of different things in different schools.

A clear job description is important in making middle leaders (and senior leaders) recognise the individual tasks that they will be responsible for (and there should be many!).

Make it clear that this is a leadership role and, as any team leader, they are responsible for the actions and output of their team; they should have a vision of what they want to achieve and clear, measurable steps on how they will achieve it.

They need to build a different relationship with the teachers in their team - if the team is not functioning, they will need to recognise it and address the issue.

2. Training and mentoring

While I appreciate that you can hire experienced middle leaders, training is still essential.

Everyone needs to learn the role in your school and your context; a middle leadership training programme is important for not only raising standards but also ensuring consistency.

Yes, there are courses people can go on, but developing your own bespoke system allows you to tailor modules to the job description that you've laid out. Furthermore, by delivering it, senior leaders can see first-hand what each middle leader can do and where they need support.

Middle leaders should be able to analyse data, create improvement plans, lead a meeting effectively, budget and - the one that most struggle with - have tough conversations with team members who are underperforming.

Middle leaders will need a mentor who will support them when times get tough and when they make mistakes, because undoubtedly, they will - the key is to learn from the mistake and not to make it twice.

The final piece of the puzzle is in supporting them to the next stage.

Generally, they will one day aspire to senior leadership and you need to show them that there is a pathway to this goal in your school by recruiting from within where possible and introducing them to senior leadership issues; this will ensure they perform to their best capabilities in order to be at the front of the queue should an opportunity arise.

3. Accountability

Quite simply, a leader is responsible for the results (whatever that may be) that come out of the team, be it a headteacher leading a school, a teacher leading their students or a middle leader leading their team.

I use the term "results" in the broadest sense, not just academic results; it encompasses the standard of teaching and learning, the meeting of deadlines or more students in enrichment programmes.

Middle leaders need to know their targets and should report against these targets termly, presenting the current situation, identifying current strengths and areas for development and, most importantly, creating an action plan for how these areas will be improved.

Submitting a department improvement plan that is measurable, reporting on the progress being made each term, identifying any barriers to success and being part of the whole-school self-evaluation means that they are accountable for their area and kept on their toes.

4. Empower

Middle leaders need to feel empowered and have enough autonomy to develop their areas without always having to ask, or being told no.

They need to be backed by senior leaders and allowed to get on with their work, rather than having others constantly watching them, criticising things or telling them how to do it.

By giving your trust, you will find middle leaders to be more proactive and invested in the achievement of their team.

They also need the time to do their job properly, so a reduced teaching load that reflects extra commitments is essential.

Give them their own budget to spend on resources that will impact student learning and involve them in the whole-school vision and direction.

Value their opinion - it's not about doing what they say, but often simply the opportunity to be heard is enough to keep people coming up with ideas.

It is vital that a school has a highly functioning middle leadership system in order to promote whole-school improvement - as a school leader, if you can achieve this you can then sit back and watch.

Ian Thurston is head of secondary at Dar al Marefa School, Dubai, UAE.

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