As an asthmatic kid with oversized spectacles, I dreamed of being a heroic captain. I pictured myself as Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s naval adventures, and envied starship-captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Captains in fiction have the privilege of a crew to lead, although their loyalty is usually hard-won. They have a degree of autonomy, because whether they’re on the far side of the world or trapped in the Delta Quadrant, they need to make quick decisions and live with the consequences. Most importantly, they’re at the heart of the action, in the firing line. Admirals and generals are too far removed from the action to feel the excitement and the personal responsibility in the same way.
For me, that is also the attraction of middle leadership in education: if you are appointed from outside, you are handed a talented, experienced and eclectic group to lead, who don’t give a damn about what you might have achieved previously. You have ownership of something and suddenly decisions to make that will affect a much larger number of young people. On top of that, you still have to prove yourself in the classroom every day. It’s thrilling.
Having pride in your team
A constant joy of leadership is the tremendous pride in my team. There are teachers who, either in their first year of teaching or teaching English for the first time, are demonstrating more skill than I’ve ever possessed. The trust they’ve built with vulnerable students, while making blisteringly rapid progress, is humbling. Others on the team possess a wonderful mix of humour and wonder that has resulted in them designing lessons that I will remember for years to come; whether feeding pea and broccoli baby food to a group of level-2 engineers as part of a GCSE-resit lesson, or sharing theories about whether Tupac is still alive with my hair-and-beauty group. I think the best thing is that, like any fictional fellowship, we have a range of strengths and talents that complement each other. I just get to be the one who tells the senior leadership team, or conference delegates, or whoever I can corner, about all their great work.
That’s another winning feature of middle leadership; the capacity to collaborate beyond your immediate context, to disseminate ideas and to pursue projects. I can’t overstate how beneficial it is to have links with other institutions. If you can, get involved with local or national ventures, too. Last year, an Education and Training Foundation project I was involved with helped me to make stronger links with colleagues across my own college and also to learn from welcoming, generous neighbours across the county border.
The freedom to innovate
A current project supported by Shine Trust has been a highlight of my career, giving me time and resources to focus on learners who are otherwise not prioritised by government policy or the way funding is allocated in education. On Monday, my day began with teaching and ended with a Shine event at the House of Lords, and I felt as privileged as Captain Aubrey stepping from the familiar timbers of his ship to the elegance of a cello concert. It was inspiring to hear from headteacher Chris Dyson about his school’s unmatched success with disadvantaged students, and alarming to hear from MP Lucy Powell that not one of her Manchester Central constituents was accepted to Oxbridge this year, despite their academic success.
But middle leadership gives you the confidence to feel that you can really change things. Captains have more freedom than admirals and generals. Of course, you still have to follow orders, but there’s not the same level of collective responsibility and conservatism. In the field, you are free to innovate and experiment. You might eventually have to answer for it in Greenwich or at Starfleet Headquarters, but you’re only a "maverick" if you fail. Roles leading curriculum, or heading up pastoral support or coordinating initiatives across an institution, allow you to make a difference to a large number of young lives. Be bold.
The spirit of adventure
It might be a deficiency of my dulled, adult imagination, but the visions of myself as Aubrey or Janeway are less clear now. The truth is, I can’t imagine myself not teaching. Middle leadership never asks that of me. My greatest pleasure remains the students’ creativity and insight, whether they are comparing baby food to “pungent phlegm” or reasoning why Death Row Records wouldn’t have wanted Tupac killed. Every lesson is an adventure.
If you aspire to middle leadership, remember that you will always be a teacher first and build upon your strengths in the classroom. If you already are a middle leader, remember that you’re in a position to make a positive difference for a large number of young people, so be clear about the change you want to make. If you have progressed to the ranks of senior leadership, remember that your middle leaders are your most valuable resource: they know the students, they know the staff and they still remember the dreams that made us all pick up a board pen in the first place.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a college in the South West and is a Shine ambassador. He tweets @Education720