Before we consider how we might empower middle leaders, it’s essential we establish that we should.
School leadership is a collective endeavour and if we’re to succeed in our aims, we must surround ourselves with leaders with the capacity to contribute towards the meaningful development of our schools.
Of course, strong deputies and senior leaders are essential travelling companions, but we must give equal consideration to the strength of leadership beyond the SLT.
As they are typically classroom teachers with additional responsibilities, middle leaders drive change in a physical sense.
They’re our proverbial bridge to the classroom, and the lens through which they view strategic decisions will be planted firmly in the day-to-day practicalities of school operations.
They live and breathe our ideas, can relay messages in both directions, and are perfectly placed to support our efforts to be responsive and reflective in real time.
Increasingly, it should be said, they’re an essential cog in a curricular machine which seems to grow year on year.
There are limits to how much subject and pedagogical content knowledge one person can possess and we must place our trust in our middle leaders that they will fill in the gaps where necessary, so that our pupils are in receipt of a rich, vibrant and complete education.
Find the right match
It’s imperative that those we ask to take on middle leadership responsibilities are suited to the role. Leadership isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.
The system might be skewed in such a way that it more readily provides financial reward to those who do move into school leadership, but we should do what we can to try and stem this tide, by celebrating those who want to remain in the classroom, hone their craft and become truly masterful teachers.
At the same time, we should also consider the reasons why the pieces might not quite fit, so that we can take steps to support those with an interest in taking the next professional leap.
Whether our future leaders lack personal organisation, are the primary carer for young children, or lack the passion for a particular subject, our best course of action is the establishment of systems which support them in moving from their current to goal state.
Anyone can learn to be organised and think strategically, children grow up, and some of the most passionate mathematics leaders I know despised maths when they were at school. What astute heads realised in them was the potential for effective leadership and the empathy that comes with understanding the plight of the struggling pupil.
As senior leaders we should pay attention to the smallest of clues that will, in time, allow us to make those connections between passionate members of staff and areas of middle leadership. We should talk to our teachers about what they need from us and what we need from them.
If we make the boundaries of the relationship with middle leadership clear and the operational routines transparent, we’re more likely to see our leaders flourish in the way we hope they will.
Subject leaders are the first port of call for teachers in search of subject knowledge support. Thus, they will need to know the breadth and depth of their curricula to execute this aspect of the role effectively.
The greater the subject knowledge of our middle leaders, the greater their capacity to think in a deep and meaningful way about how they can realise their ambitions for their pupils.
To support our leaders in developing their own subject knowledge, we must initially provide them with access to the relevant subject associations.
The stellar offering from the Historical Association, for instance, is central to the development of any history lead and the same is true for the associations covering the expanse of the national curriculum.
Equally, the wise headteacher understands that there are countless experts sharing their wisdom daily, usually for free, and will know who to follow on Twitter.
For starters, I would recommend Neil Almond (history/geography), Tom Brassington (geography), Adam Smith (religious education), Lekha Sharma (curriculum), Shannen Doherty (mathematics) and Emma Turner (curriculum), but there are countless others who will, no doubt, be engaged in regular conversations with those listed here.
Combine this with the audiovisual content provided through education podcasts, the Complete Mathematics CPD College and at Myatt and Co., and you have a CPD treasure chest with the capacity to drive meaningful improvement at a fraction of the typical cost.
One thing that the teachers listed do so well, and that’s worthy of emulation, is connect classroom teachers with education research.
Providing our middle leaders with the tools to engage with research, such as those highlighted in the panel here, will not only help them develop their understanding of the wider conversation at an academic level, but also encourage them to think critically about their whole-school responsibilities and develop their own opinions on some of the most important debates and themes in education discourse.
Close the loop
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of empowering middle leaders is a closed strategic decision-making loop.
We must avoid creating an inner circle within the hierarchy, for they are guaranteed to eat away at our schools in the long run.
An effective school has leaders throughout, moving things forward or holding them in place, ready to move forward when called upon. When something new is introduced, it’s common to survey the thoughts of our middle leaders, but where are they when the plans are finalised?
We should look to extend the opportunities we give for reflection, discussion and planning – opening the door, perhaps, to our senior leadership meetings, so that our middle leaders might be both present and able to contribute.
We should touch base regularly, have systems in place for doing so, and routines that are refined to the extent that they make the process of leadership seamless.
4 ways to engage with education research
- Take it slow and steady Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your education research prowess will take time to grow too. Employ a little-and-often approach to engagement: five minutes a day is perfect in the beginning. As your knowledge grows, so will your capacity to draw meaningful inferences from what you read.
- Print, read, scribble Nothing beats a printed manuscript and a highlighter! There are thousands of documents on our computers at any one time, what’s to say you’ll get round to opening an article before diving into your emails? Print a paper and build the habit of engaging with education by reading for a few minutes while Windows loads in the morning.
- Check your biases The human mind has evolved a set of checks and balances to protect us from our own consciousness. You might know them better as cognitive biases and while I’m sure they were essential at some point, they’re a hindrance when it comes to engaging with research. You can’t overcome your biases, but you can be aware of them. Ignore them and you might as well not engage at all.
- Abstract, methods, conclusions There are three key areas in every research paper: the abstract, the method and the conclusions. Each in turn outlines what the researchers wanted to test, how they planned to test it and what they think they found. Start with these areas, ignore confusing equations and functions, and ask yourself if the method really allowed the researchers to find out what they claim they have.
Kieran Mackle is a maths consultant and the creator of the weekly Thinking Deeply about Primary Education podcast. New episodes are released every Saturday at 9am wherever you get your podcasts from.