Why middle leaders need to rise up and disrupt

Often the people best placed to hold senior leaders to account are the layer of managers beneath them, says Kaley Riley, who advocates ‘positive disruption’ by questioning decisions and offering alternatives
11th December 2020, 12:00am
Why Middle Leaders Need To Rise Up & Disrupt
Kaley Riley


Why middle leaders need to rise up and disrupt


How often do you openly disagree with your line manager? As a middle leader in a school, there is often an expectation that you will be a "yes" (wo)man to the senior leadership team. In my experience, this is the opposite of what an effective middle leader should be.

Middle leaders are crucial. We are the ones with our fingers in all the pies: we teach, we are form tutors, we oversee curriculum, we plan CPD, we cover lessons, we set cover for cover lessons. The list is endless. It is our job to be a teacher as well as a leader and, as such, we are well-placed to challenge or question the decisions and directives that come from senior leadership.

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating for general disruption for the sake of it here. But I believe that middle leaders have a responsibility to disrupt positively, in a way that actually supports the SLT and makes their job easier, not more difficult.

What do I mean by "positive" disruption? To start with, it is important to recognise that this is not an "us against them" situation. We are all one team and we must all work together to ensure that we present a united front to the whole staff body.

However, middle leaders are also in an excellent position to be able to hold senior leaders to account on a daily basis and to manage upwards. A head's line manager is likely to be an external member of staff, such as a CEO or executive principle - somebody who is not often on site to do the things that most line managers do daily: questioning our thinking, getting us to explain our decisions and directing us towards alternatives. As senior leaders are often lacking this from their line managers, it falls to us middle leaders to fulfil the role.

So what does positive disruption look like in practice? Here are some steps that middle leaders can take in order to positively disrupt leadership within their schools.

1. Manage the message

An effective middle leader is not simply the "middle man" between class teachers and the SLT. We are so much more than that. We don't just carry messages to our teams from the leadership; we must also critique, dissect and analyse those messages. Once our analysis is complete, we should then return the message to the sender and continue this process, back and forth, until the message is right - not only for the leaders, but for the classroom teachers, too.

If we are simply carrier pigeons, what's the point of paying us for our Teaching and Learning Responsibility or our leadership-scale salaries? If senior leaders have messages that they wish to be relayed without being critiqued and questioned, then that's what email is for.

2. Ask the tricky questions

Of course, we have to advocate and present as a united front with our SLT from the minute that we leave the meeting room, but that's not to say that we shouldn't first spend an hour asking them about their decisions and supporting them to see issues from the perspectives of different people in the school.

Sometimes this means posing difficult questions: how will this decision affect the staff body? How will NQTs and trainees handle the directive? What impact will it have on our students? Is this truly conducive to learning or is it a tick-box exercise? Is there research to support the things being put in place, and how are we using that research to inform our decisions, based on our context? How will parents and the wider community receive this change?

These are the questions that our teams will ask us. By posing them to senior leaders ahead of time, we will make sure that we have the answers ready when our classroom teachers want to know the same things.

3. Offer solutions

It is our job to challenge, to disagree and to highlight flaws in a plan, but it is equally important that we offer solutions. Debates must always be solution focused. This is imperative. It is no good simply walking into a room and disputing everything that is said if you have no solutions to offer. You'll aggravate everybody involved - and this is where you become labelled "the difficult one". Nobody wants to work with somebody who they believe will criticise everything they say for the sake of it.

Middle and senior leaders must work together to solve problems, drawing upon our shared expertise. Nothing puts faith in staff more than seeing leaders who share the same vision approaching matters as a united force.

4. Break down a 'toxic' hierarchy

For a united approach to work effectively, senior leaders must be willing and able to accept that there is no place for hierarchy in a meeting room. Just because the headteacher says something, doesn't mean that it can't be questioned. Just because the head of teaching and learning favours one method, doesn't mean the head of Year 11 cannot offer an alternative. Senior leaders should not feel threatened or insulted when their middle leaders challenge them, just as middle leaders should not feel terrified of raising issues with the SLT. Sadly, this remains the case in far too many schools.

We must eradicate the toxic hierarchies that exist by working to build trust on each side. To do this, middle leaders must challenge where we deem it necessary, but we must do so professionally and never personally. We may disagree, but we will always explain. We offer solutions to problems, but not to polish egos. We say no where necessary, but always provide our rationale.

Middle leaders: it's time to stop toeing the party line. We are not here to do as we are told, we are here to support our SLT, to speak on behalf of our teams and to get the best out of them, which, in turn, will help us to get the best out of our students.

In short, it's time to stop being "yes" (wo)men and to start saying "no" - within reason, of course.

Kaley Riley is head of English, media and drama, and whole-school literacy lead, at Shirebrook Academy in Derbyshire

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "Middle leaders, it's time to rise up and disrupt"

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