Beginning the route to the top

In the first of a series on climbing the career ladder, we look at middle leadership
17th April 2015, 1:00am


Beginning the route to the top

School leadership isn't for everyone. When you start as a teacher, your sphere of influence extends to the pupils in the classes you teach. You want to support and challenge them to be the best they can be. You do so within the classroom and, if you have pastoral responsibility or become involved in the extracurricular life of the school, a little beyond that.

For many teachers, this is the level of responsibility with which they feel most comfortable and happiest. But others set their sights on leadership. They want to expand their sphere of influence and to play a larger role in decision-making. They want to have an impact on a larger cohort of learners. The first step to achieving these aims is middle leadership.

This will usually entail responsibility as a subject co-ordinator in the primary phase, or as a head of department or pastoral leader in a secondary setting. Suddenly, you have the capacity to influence the lives of a wider group of learners than just the ones with whom you have direct contact. Moreover, you can now influence a student's experience by working with and through other staff.

This is a fresh challenge, but getting the best from the staff you lead will stretch you in a way you may well feel ready for after initially focusing on getting the best from your students. Staff, too, need the right balance of support and challenge as you help them build their skills and their confidence. The personal and professional development of those in your team becomes a key part of your role, and this is the win-win - if you help other staff to improve their practice, the students they teach will get a better deal, too.

Sounds great, right? Well, it can be, but before you make the leap you need to weigh up both the potential satisfactions and the challenges.


One of the things that motivated you to enter teaching in the first place might have been your love for your subject. Another reason might have been the desire to fulfil a professional role that would give you the opportunity to continue to learn and build your expertise in that subject, and to communicate your passion and enthusiasm to others.

The good news is that, as a head of department or subject leader, your main focus is still your subject and your work with classes is central to your role. However, the expanding parameters of your role mean that you now work to ensure that all learners, in all classrooms in your subject area, are enthused and interested and their skills develop positively. That can be incredibly rewarding.

It can be equally satisfying when the staff in the team you lead grow in strength and confidence, and you know that you have played a part in that development.

Lastly, you represent the area you're leading and, ideally, your expertise is trusted and depended on by the senior leadership team. This is a privilege and can mean that you are able to bring about real change.


On the other hand, you may inherit a team in which some members are more capable and confident than others. Holding everyone to account can require you to deal with parental or pupil complaints and manage some difficult conversations. You need to take the responsibility seriously - avoiding it or trying to pass it on to others will not enable you to resolve issues and move your team forward.

You also need to broaden your vision. Although you have to be committed to your area and knowledgeable about it, you also have to be able to adopt a wider perspective and to see how it fits into the school as a whole.

Accepting that you are not yet the top decision-maker can be tough, too. As a middle leader you do not always have full autonomy and you may not necessarily get the outcome you want. You can, when this happens, feel squeezed between the team you lead and the school's SLT. You must be able to manage this pressure.

Finally, middle leadership is not easy. Suddenly you have more plates to keep spinning, and you have to be resilient in fulfilling your new role at the same time as teaching your own classes just as well as you did before.

Despite the challenges, I would urge anyone with the passion to do the job to give it a try. Yes it's difficult, but as a middle leader you have the capacity to make an even greater difference, and to begin to make a fuller contribution to the vision of the school and your place within it.

Jill Berry has worked across the independent and state sectors in leadership positions. You can find her on Twitter @jillberry102

The Jill Berry leadership series

Jill will be writing more articles for TESS on other levels of leadership:

Why be a senior leader? (15 May)

Why be a headteacher? (12 June)

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