Leading when you're not in the driver's seat

21st March 2014 at 00:00
It's hard for middle leaders to be commanding when they don't have ultimate authority. We show you how best to crack the whip

Being a middle leader in a school is a bit like being Schrdinger's cat: you're both in charge and not in charge simultaneously. Sure, you can make decisions and have control over certain aspects of school life, but ultimately someone else can change them. And to do anything significant, you will have to go further up the chain to ask for permission.

This can make middle leaders feel a little lost when it comes to behaviour management. Should they be a kind of behaviour sifter, judging which students are worthy of higher discipline while swatting the lesser offenders away? Or should they be the school leader incarnate - taking a lead on forming and enforcing behaviour policies so that the big boss doesn't have to bother? Or perhaps they should offer a kind of consequences purgatory: a little more scary and official than the classroom teacher but not as scary or official as the head of the school, a last chance for salvation before the real ramifications start? It's a difficult situation to judge, but here are five things middle leaders definitely should be doing when it comes to behaviour.

1 Modelling

Not in the Kate Moss sense but in terms of showcasing the behaviour management approach that the school wishes to project. In the majority of cases, this will involve a calm, relentless pursuit of excellent conduct. Middle leaders who are overly emotional, with a tendency towards outbursts aimed at either students or staff (or both), will quickly find themselves forgotten: people will simply look for help from the next rung up on the ladder. You cannot demand that teachers deal with behaviour calmly and then start shouting and screaming yourself. Consistency is the crucial element. Act in the way you expect others to act.

2 Riding shotgun

You are not the driver, you are riding shotgun - the skill here is knowing when to hold your tongue. Allow colleagues to make mistakes, then let them adjust their strategies and reflect on the incidents. Demonstrate that you trust them to lead restorative meetings, plan interventions with individual learners and manage communication with home. Support them in all these endeavours, of course, but don't do it for them. Only step in when it is absolutely necessary.

3 Walking the floor

Behaviour management cannot be properly supported from behind a desk. "Walking the floor" should be an essential part of the middle leader's daily ritual. Even the most finely crafted referral system is beaten hands-down by having a visible presence in the faculty. A dependable approach is essential: you should be nudging learners towards their next lesson, cajoling the stragglers, beaming smiles at the dedicated and sustaining a convincing disappointed look for learners in time out.

4 Head of celebrations

A strong middle leader seeks out learners who demonstrate determination and perseverance and rewards them. Such a leader will deliberately give their time to those who show personal discipline above those who constantly crave attention. An irresistible atmosphere of success is easily built through the use of regular phone calls, positive notes, awards and public recognition. Likewise, middle leaders who catch their teams doing the right thing and recognise it are the ones who build sustainable improvement. Those who micromanage with a pointy stick prevent great teachers from flourishing.

5 The buck stops here

As a middle leader, you are not a just an interim station en route from the classroom to the school leader's office. The buck should stop at your door. Students must realise that they are not going to be passed from office to office and that situations get resolved on the middle leader's turf. Communication should be streamlined so the student is in no doubt about what is happening and why they are there; and the range of consequences should be capped so that outcomes are clear. This benefits the student as well as the teaching staff above and below the middle leader. Knowing that he or she is willing and able to deal with the full range of behaviours eases anxieties about responsibility and hierarchy, and does not allow students to play divide and rule between teaching staff.

Follow these five tips and, regardless of whether your principal is a control freak or so laissez-faire that you have forgotten what he or she looks like, you should feel secure in your role. Middle leadership is challenging, but it is a crucial cog in all schools and has the potential to make the life of every member of the community much easier.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at UK training company Pivotal Education and the author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour

What else?

Dear Theo. TES Connect's careers guru gives advice on seeking a leadership role.


Take the role further: this TES Connect article explores how middle leaders become troubleshooters.


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