The bizarre life of a middle leader in the pandemic

Being a middle leader in the Covid pandemic has been barmy and non-stop – but hugely rewarding, says Philip Mathe

Philip Mathe

Coronavirus: The bizarre life of a school middle leader during the pandemic

6.52am. Ping. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it in today.”

6.54am. Ping. “Mr Brown’s not in today. Do you have cover sorted? Can you just double up?”

6.56am. Ping. “I’ve got Mr Brown's cover. I’ve not had any cover work yet. Can we just play football with them?”

I’m not even dressed. I’ve still got my toothbrush in my mouth, the kettle's boiling over and the children have 20 minutes to be up and out of the door. 

Ping, ping, ping! Three more emails arrive between putting on my socks and ushering the children into the car.

The head wants an update on how much budget I’ve spent in the first term, there is a leak in the pump for the swimming pool that means no FS2 swimming first thing, and one of my GCSE students has completed a past paper overnight and asks if I can mark it by lunchtime for them…Ah, the bizarre world of the school middle leader in a pandemic.

Being a middle leader is surreal

Now don’t get me wrong, dear reader, I love being a middle leader in school. I embrace the role and I love my department and every single bonkers one of them.

I love that I can still teach, which, after all, is why I retrained as a teacher all those years ago, but I also love the opportunity to think strategically, to plan, to project manage and to lead. It has to be the best job in education.

It's also by far the most surreal and strange – it's frustrating at times and exhausting all the time.

I’m a head of PE, so most of my experience comes from that alternative world that only PE teachers really understand, but I’m sure the crazy moments that make you stop and take a deep breath are the same the world over.

After all, the past 12 months or so have been unique in education and this has been no different for middle leaders.

Online team meetings to navigate

Take team meetings. Now they are run online, there are all kinds of new dynamics to enjoy

Muting your team like they are naughty children to stop them talking over each other is immensely satisfying, and seeing grown adults with their hands in the air waiting to speak always makes me smile. Never pick the one with their hand up – it infuriates them!

At one point, one colleague on a conference call sat through a whole meeting with their cat on their lap, looking like Blofeld from James Bond.

Rewriting schemes of work and programmes of study has been interesting, too.

Working out how to deliver rugby passing skills when the pupils have just a tennis ball and a plastic cup for equipment has been a particular highlight.

You can see why so many teachers have resorted to madcap running on the spot and star jumps for their lessons.

One poor teacher found herself trapped 5,000 miles away from school at the start of lockdown. The time difference meant she would be starting her online teaching at 4am each day, bless her. Supporting her became a priority for me, because the alternative was risking her teaching in her pyjamas.

Overseeing new teaching styles

Managing the different attitudes to distance learning has been a real challenge for middle leaders.

Some teachers have morphed into educational Ridley Scotts, delivering complex and Oscar-worthy performances in front of greenscreen landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood.

Others have not so much as checked they’ve opened their bedroom curtains and at least once I’m sure they’ve been in bed while recording their lesson.

Teachers across the world have embraced the opportunity to use all that natural creativity that exists within our profession, but I can guarantee that every department leader will have seen at least one thing that’s made their toes curl.

Overall, though, being a middle leader over the past 12 or so months has never been so rewarding.I feel like my team has never worked so well together and we’ve definitely become a closer, more supportive unit as a result.

Pulling together

The fact that throughout it all, our sense of humour has not failed us has been critical. There have been times when it’s been stressful enough to make even the most hardened teacher sob, but the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other has pulled us through.

It's been barmy and bonkers, brutal and bruising, but, despite it all, some of the best times of my teaching career so far.

Philip Mathe is director of sport at Brighton College Al Ain in the UAE

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