The buffer in the middle

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Pat McDermott answers your leadership questions

I took on the role of subject co-ordinator this year and feel completely out of my depth. I don't really know what to do. I don't get the support from my department (I'm younger than everyone else and meet resistance with everything!) or from my line manager. I really thought I could do this but think I should give up graciously before I am pushed from the job. Can I resign from my post as co-ordinator and still be a teacher at the school I am in?

The short answer to this is "yes". However, whether this is the right thing for you to do is not so easy to determine. Let's suppose that you resign and then examine some of the feelings from this decision. What would it be like for you to operate as a teacher in the same school after this? How would you feel? How would your colleagues feel, particularly those who appear so unsupportive at the moment? But don't be surprised if your headteacher is not too keen on letting you do this. He or she will want to know the answers to these questions first:

* Why did you really want to be a subject co-ordinator?

* Why do you feel out of your depth?

* What support do you require from team members or your line manager?

* Have you given yourself enough time to adjust to your new role?

Your head will regard you, along with the other middle-level leaders, as central to the improvement of educational standards. Therefore the head will want you to be successful and happy in your new role. Traditionally, subject co-ordinators have been the most experienced teachers in the department and have led by example. This no longer has to be the case, so you should not feel that your age is against you.

Subject co-ordinators have taken on the routine administration of the department. However, the new way of regarding subject co-ordinators is that they are team builders and sustainers. In short, the view today is that you should be a leader of people rather than a manager of resources. Building and sustaining an effective departmental team requires a different portfolio of skills. Maybe you are better suited to filling this role but are judging yourself against the old standard.

Another common problem for middle leaders is role conflict. You may feel that you are the "buffer" between the demands placed on you and your team by the leadership team of the school and the expectations of your colleagues in your team. The following questions gnaw at you when you take up this new role: whose side am I on? whose side should I be on? The real question to ask yourself is: why do I feel that there are two sides?

To help you develop common ground with your team, try some different activities when you meet. Instead of asking how many textbooks are needed in Year 8's stock cupboard next Wednesday, try using your meeting time to:

* share good practice and analyse what makes it so good;

* plan lessons;

* target-set for individual pupils, and;

* Scrutinise pupils' work.

Don't give up just yet. Talk over the role that your head wants you to fulfil in the school with them. Over the rest of this year try some of these practical suggestions out with your team.

Leadership is not easy but it can be very rewarding. Stay focused on teaching and learning. Maintain high expectations of others as well as yourself at all times. Give clear leadership about a pupil-centred approach to the delivery of your subject area and you will begin to enjoy the fruits of your labours and grow in confidence in your new role.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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