Becoming a middle leader

Written by: Dave Stephenson | Published:
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Becoming a middle leader can be a daunting prospect, especially if you are still a relatively young teacher or new to the school. Dave Stephenson has recently made this step up and offers some basic advice

In June 2018, I was appointed head of year for the incoming cohort of year 7 students. This came at the end of my NQT year, the opportunity arising earlier in my career than I had anticipated.

It meant that I had to learn a lot of new skills very quickly to ensure the smooth transition of the students from junior to high school.

Since taking up the post, I have been managing a team of 11 form tutors. This was one of the most daunting aspects of the job as most members of the team have been teaching for much longer than I have.

Indeed, three of the form tutors have worked at the school for more than 20 years each. Although outwardly confident, a little voice in the back of my mind wondered how my colleagues would respond to being managed by someone with far less experience than them.

My worries were unfounded. The form tutors in the year team are diligent practitioners who have been uniformly supportive of me as I take my first steps as a middle leader. Our students have made a very positive start to year 7 and this is down to the hard work and dedication that their form tutors have displayed.

Towards the end of last term, I approached members of the team to discuss what constitutes effective leadership, while at the same time using these conversations to reflect on my own practice. This article sets out some of the middle leadership qualities that we discussed.

Have two ears and one mouth

It is essential for heads of year to listen to the opinions and concerns of form tutors. They are on the front line when it comes to the pastoral care of students and will know the children in their form better than the head of year can hope to, especially early on in their time at secondary school.

When dealing with an issue involving a student, I endeavour to ask the child’s tutor for advice to gather as much information as possible before proceeding.

Each child is unique, therefore each issue requires a unique solution. The best way of identifying this solution is to listen to their form tutor’s advice.

Would you do it?

Whenever I ask the team to complete a job, I ask myself if I would be willing to do the task myself. I was a form tutor for just one year before becoming a middle leader, meaning that I have to be hyper-aware of the implications of what I am asking the team to do.

I always consider whether the request is reasonable and whether the tutors will have time to complete the job to a high standard.

It is essential that team leaders consider the impact of their requests on the wellbeing of their colleagues.

If you don’t know something, admit it

Since taking up the post, there have been times when I have been asked questions to which I don’t know the answer. As in the classroom, it is tempting to try to appear infinitely knowledgeable out of a fear of looking incompetent. However, I have found that saying “I don’t know the answer, but I will find out,” is a more effective way of dealing with these situations.

As a colleague pointed out, trying to bluff your way through will make you sound silly and does nothing to help the team member who is seeking your advice.

Praise

Life in school is often hectic and it is easy to neglect very simple things like saying “thank you” when a colleague completes a job that you have asked them to do. I try my best to praise the members of the year team as often as possible, as this lets them know that I appreciate the heavy workload and high pressure that comes with being a form tutor.

A member of the team said to me: “I have been teaching for nearly 20 years but still get a little thrill when someone says I’ve done a good job.”

As my experience of leadership progresses, I hope that I never forget the importance of giving praise when it is due.

...But not everything is awesome!

Although praise is crucial, it is also important not to overstate things. I am guilty of liberally using superlatives to express my satisfaction with the performance of the students and staff within the year group. However, a colleague with almost 30 years of experience gently pointed out that this can have the adverse effect of devaluing the words. “There’s nothing wrong with something being good,” he said. “Not everything is awesome.” Such exaggeratedly positive language should only be used when appropriate.

Communicate effectively

When interviewing for the job, I based my presentation around the importance of communication between all school stakeholders. Since becoming a middle leader, I have tried to make openness and honesty the cornerstone of everything that I do, with the tutors in the year team responding to this positively.

Communication between heads of year and tutors must be consistent and quick in order to ensure the wellbeing of the students.

Don’t overload your colleagues with work

Our school’s form time lasts for 20 minutes a day. With one day a week set aside for assembly, this means that form tutors have just 80 minutes a week to complete all of their necessary administrative duties, while also providing pastoral care and dealing with other issues that may arise.

Form time is carefully structured to ensure that this time is used meaningfully and productively. However, in the run up to Christmas, several members of the year 7 team raised concerns that they were being asked to do too much during form time, mostly due to additional activities based around the festive period.

I discussed this with the senior leadership link for the year group and she listened to the team’s concerns. By working together, we were able to streamline the additional duties the tutors were being asked to complete and come to a solution that was mutually beneficial to everyone.

Don’t micro-manage

Micro-management is a pet hate of mine as it effectively betrays a lack of trust between colleagues. Leadership at all levels requires faith in colleagues to complete tasks to a high standard and within the allotted timeframe. I try my best to empower the colleagues that I manage to complete their duties without checking up on them inappropriately.

Conclusion

The year 7 team is now well into their second term as tutors to the new starters. We are seeing the students grow in confidence as they become settled in their new environment. The team is working together smoothly, with each member going above and beyond to ensure that our students receive the best pastoral care possible. I am proud of everything the students in our year group have achieved so far and look forward to more triumphs as their time at the school progresses.

Have I made mistakes so far? Certainly. However, I will continue to seek advice from the members of the year team and try my best to stick to the principles laid out in this article, always striving to be the best team leader that I can be.

  • Dave Stephenson is a teacher of history at Honley High School in West Yorkshire. This article was compiled with thanks to Janine Carter and Noel O’Connor for their insights and reflections.


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