How to keep the plates spinning as a middle leader

When everything is going wrong, middle leaders need to be able to carry on and hold everything together. This literacy lead shares her advice for staying on top of things

Fiona Ritson

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Remember the Carry on... franchise? They were a series of films that graced our screens during the 1960s and 70s. These films offered absurd slapstick humour on a low budget. Sometimes, it can feel like the same levels of absurdity exist within school staffrooms. There are days when everything is going wrong that I half-expect Sid James to pop up next to the photocopier with a stack of marking to be done by yesterday and instructions on how to redo all of your seating plans on a new system.

When these moments do happen, Carry on… Don’t lose your head. When the very people who are supposed to keep things together are making last-minute changes, there is a new fad somebody is convinced that Ofsted wants to see and a different data entry system to fuel the constant, ongoing pressure for high standards, it is up to middle leaders to keep all the plates spinning.

And spin they must, as dropping them is not an option.  Here are my, possibly obvious, but nonetheless top tips to avoid those “Ooh, matron” moments as a middle leader.

1. Have a shared department calendar

A good place to start is to have a departmental calendar running alongside the main school calendar. There are several decent blank versions online for free. Fill the calendar in with deadlines – and all-important dates for your team – working backwards to set realistic timelines. Revisit and update these deadlines each half term, pinning up the new version of the calendar. If the timelines aren’t reasonable, morale can drop quickly.

2. Wait to send those emails

When sending emails, it’s far more helpful and productive to have all the information in one email than to make people search through their inbox to piece it together. Hold that important email off for a day to make sure you cover all bases before you hit send. Staff will feel more confident when they’re not double checking every decision because they can’t find answers easily. And avoid same-day deadline emails: teachers – unless you’d forgotten – are teaching.

3. Face those difficult conversations

No matter how organised you are, there will always be issues with deadlines being met. There could be countless reasons why staff miss a deadline. Talk to them and find out what these are. If deadlines are an ongoing problem, ask staff to buddy up to provide extra support. Nobody wants to be constantly admitting to colleagues that they can’t meet deadlines.

And if you find that the timing problems were caused by something you could have dealt with in advance, annotate your calendar to avoid the same stress the following year.

4. Make meetings matter

Make sure department meetings are used effectively. If that means spending time on CPD for new staff then it’s time well spent. Use department meeting time for collaboration within your team, let experienced staff lead with their knowledge, but also listen to newly qualified teachers: they will be able to offer fresh and exciting ideas. Lean on each member’s strengths and build relationships based on teamwork.

5. Plan for disaster

Finally, have a plan B for when it goes wrong in style. Try new strategies. If they don’t work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t right, just that they weren’t right for now.

Don’t take things personally, but listen to your staff. Teachers all share the same common goal: to raise standards. If you can keep this at the forefront of your mind then you have every chance of being able to carry on, no matter what goes wrong.

Fiona Ritson is an English teacher and whole-school literacy lead for a school in Norfolk. She blogs, is on Twitter @AlwaysLearnWeb and is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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Fiona Ritson

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