I remember attending a Teaching Leaders workshop where we had to sit around a table and off-load some of the most stressful moments of our week.
I would usually sit trying to embellish something that had mildly bothered me so that it could be useful for others in the group – who wants to hear everything is fine?
But after my first week as subject leader of a team that I had grown up in and knew better than my own family, I had enough stories to fill double the sessions I had attended that year.
However, one underlying message that has guided me through it all – it’s all about the kids.
I had been working at Paddington Academy, part of United Learning and Academy Group, for two years when in 2011 I was appointed subject leader of English.
The department was young and ambitious. With a work ethic second to none and a hunger to be the best we could be as teachers, we rapidly became closely knit – something which did not make for an easy transition into the position of subject leader.
My most disabling fear was not fulfilling each of the bullet points in the job description. It was the idea of leading a team I had become bosom buddies with that terrified me the most.
I knew them too well – we have laughed until we cried and often cried until we laughed, we had gossiped, we had danced shamelessly, argued and debated and shouted each other down over the silliest/most incredible pedagogical ideas, and respected each other as teachers. But how would this translate into leading them?
Somehow it did. But there were certain things I did which made this transition easier and certain things hindsight has taught me that I should have done.
Listen and ask
Rather than creating obstacles, our closeness meant that we knew each other well enough to be frank with each other.
Walk into the English department office at any time, and you will hear what you would swear is the beginning of World War III.
The level of passion within the room has often led to several heated debates. Just because I lead the team doesn’t mean I stop being challenged and questioned about my own practice. Nobody views it as a threat to my authority or leadership because I don’t see it that way, and I know they don’t mean it that way.
Your team will have a wealth of knowledge and opinions which matter. If you don’t harness it and if you stop asking questions, you run the risk of alienating yourself and this makes leadership much more challenging. You don’t suddenly get your ears cut off the moment you are made a middle leader.
The kids are alright
At Paddington Academy, the core of decision-making lies in whether changes have a positive impact on the student body.
As a middle leader, it is hard to juggle the viewpoints of everyone who speaks to you. Students, teachers, parents, vice principals, headteachers – but keeping the students central to any discussion or decision has made my tendency towards indecision fade.
When I was appointed subject leader, I sat with every member of the team and asked them what they imagined the perfect Paddington Academy English student to have achieved by the end of year 11.
I used this to create a mission statement which we apply to each of our units of work to ensure we are all moving in the right direction for our students. Due to the fact that it is rooted in the ideals we set, it has not been difficult sticking to the vision, and everyone walks the same path.
Have a presence in lessons
Making the leap from teacher to middle leader is not just about leading your team, but leading the students too. Completing Learning Walks, although undeniably awkward at first, go a long way in asserting your focus on the teaching and learning of your department and seeing the result of the office discussions too.
Remember what this teacher was saying about that activity, and try to pop in to see them in action. Conversations afterwards should focus on the learning, but sending a quick email to the department about the great practice you saw sparks more debate, and generates more interest. It ups the game with minimal effort.
Equally as important is ensuring that students know that you are evaluating their learning, and that if this is not up to the standard the teacher and I expect, a conversation will follow to ensure that next time they are more responsible.
Try not to step on the toes of the teachers – but let the student know with a look that they need to improve.
Keep your integrity
By and large, my experience shows that nobody wants you to have a personality transplant either. Integrity is about doing the right thing, staying true to yourself and the beliefs you espouse. While some form of change is needed in stepping up to middle leadership, it should not be a change in your personality or values.
For example, if you have to drive through an initiative with your team that you are not completely sure about, then ask those who set the initiative to explain the value in it; to show you exactly how this change will have a positive impact.
Promoting anything to your team that you do not have real belief in is very tricky, and the chances are that if you – like me – have grown up with your team, they will see through your fabricated enthusiasm.
Get behind it, believe in it, and then the sell is easy. And you don’t have to pretend to be someone else to do it!
Those difficult conversations
Finally, there will come a time when you must have that dreaded 10-minute talk with the one person you are particularly close to. In my experience, this is always going to be a toughie.
Nobody is going to waltz out of this feeling on top of the world, but I have found there are ways to minimise the squirm factor. Be yourself; this means that your colleagues will view it as an earnest and respectful conversation – which it absolutely must be.
Rather than ask questions in the mentoring fashion, I have found that outlining the way things are and then giving time to talk it through as a conversation, rather than staged interview, gets a better reaction.
Always have evidence in case things get slightly out of hand – it usually helps to calm people and encourages them to see the logic of a situation rather than the emotion.
This week I was asked to deliver a speech for the new cohort of Teaching Leaders. Just like most people moving into middle leadership, they also have the challenge of re-establishing themselves in a different role within the same team. My advice is going to be simple: it’s all about the kids.
Further informationTeaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. For more information, visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk.To read previous articles for SecEd by Teaching Leaders fellows, visit www.sec-ed.co.uk/article-search/author/130
Pete Matershaw is head of English at Paddington Academy in London.