The role of the team or department leader is changing dramatically. Teaching and learning are becoming the key focus for a team leader, as schools distribute the leadership of teacher development.
Department time and subject support are becoming increasingly important for professional learning. This is partly due to a recognition of the limitations of “whole-school” time and approaches – partly due to restricted budgets so that schools are doing more CPD internally, and also an increasing awareness of the importance of subject pedagogy and subject knowledge in CPD.
The Developing Great Teaching report (a review of what constitutes effective professional development conducted by Philippa Cordingley of CUREE, Professors Steve Higgins and Rob Coe of Durham University, and Professor Toby Greany of the UCL Institute of Education) found that for CPD to achieve its full potential it should include both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy and, in fact, often professional development focused on generic pedagogy is insufficient.
Middle leaders often now have an explicit role around professional learning. So what are the key traits for middle leaders to support professional learning? What practices should be put in place across a team? Research suggests that powerful professional development helps children succeed and teachers thrive, so how can we enable team leaders to support the most effective professional learning?
Using meeting time
Schools are increasingly spending CPD time in departments and teams. Teachers are always pushed for time, so you want to be sure that any time spent in departments is used effectively. I’m sure we can all remember department time that has been dominated by housekeeping. It is easy to spend time sharing information that gets lost, with little benefit to students.
In departments where this professional learning time is working best, team meetings are used for high-quality conversations about curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning. Time spent on administration, briefing and monitoring activities is radically reduced, for example through better use of email and online resources, rather than time in person.
Colleagues are encouraged to bring specific examples of work (e.g. tests, homework, and video clips of performances or interviews with pupils) and these are compared and discussed, with ideas shared about how they might link to prior, current and future curriculum aims. Teachers often work alongside teaching assistants to share teaching strategies as well as the most common ways that students struggle, enabling the whole team to learn and develop together.
In one school I visited, every meeting is kicked off with a fairly challenging exam question. Every teacher has a go and tries to annotate where they feel that students go wrong. This is a great way to share ideas, explore pupil misconceptions, build subject knowledge and initiate a conversation about teaching strategies.
Despite restricted budgets in schools, it is important to ensure that there is still expert input and engagement with expertise around professional learning. Many teams invest in linking key teachers with the relevant subject associations. They can then forward updates, articles and ideas and share thinking from the association or from a local subject network. This works well at both primary and secondary level.
It is important to consider how teams can use research to ensure they are carrying out evidence-informed practice. This might be through a key role within the department, through engagement with subject associations, newsletters, summaries of research or engagement directly with the academic literature itself.
Social media can also be a great resource with a wealth of shared expertise and research. Although, beware: you should exercise caution as there are often resources without a strong evidence-base shared on social media too; make sure you identify where the evidence has come from.
Where groups of schools collaborate, this can also be an opportunity for discussing pedagogy, sharing ideas and practice, and gaining some external perspective and expertise. This can be particularly important for smaller teams or subject areas, where learning from other organisations and contexts can be very powerful.
Line management or appraisal
Team leaders often have a pivotal role in informal and formal line management. There is a welcome trend to move away from rather inflexible and clunky annual performance reviews to having more regular discussions about how things are going and where support is needed.
Some of the best middle leaders explore coaching strategies to help them encourage colleagues to reflect and to add just enough challenge to keep everyone moving forwards.
It is also helpful to ensure time is given with each colleague to explicitly discuss and review their professional learning. This can cover a wide range of topics including career development aspirations, subject knowledge development, wider reading and engagement, training in systems and procedures, working with colleagues, and developing ideas, resources and policies.
When focused on pupil outcomes, it is important to explore this in detail, with a focus on specific pupils and a discussion during which the desired outcomes are explored in detail. This will help colleagues to adapt their practice and evaluate its impact.
Middle leaders should not neglect their own professional learning. Some schools have formal “buddying” systems where two or three middle leaders meet regularly to share and reflect on their own leadership and team management. Many schools have opportunities for middle leaders to meet and these should also be focused on professional learning, sharing practice, discussing approaches and reflecting on the impact of these.
In other schools this happens more informally. Many middle leaders will explore local subject or phase networks or develop informal links with leaders at other schools. Where groups of schools work together this can be powerful. Social media can also be a strong source of support, with many subject and specialist discussions and blogs acting as a source of inspiration and support.
It is also helpful for team leaders to talk openly about what they are reading and learning, to invite others to offer them advice and demonstrate a willingness to seek challenge and take risks. This form of leadership is strongly associated with improved outcomes for teams as it helps to break down defensiveness and improve communication.
Planning and reviewing
Finally, when it comes to professional learning, there is a lot to think about. While every middle leader spends a long time thinking about planning pupils’ learning, they can often miss the same strategic focus when it comes to their team’s learning.
It can be helpful to use the new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development to review practice as a leader, adapting some of the whole-school leadership ideas to the team level and ensuring that teachers and external experts work together in harmony.
Powerful professional learning helps transform student outcomes, but also supports teachers and teams in their roles. Where professional learning is working well, you see stronger retention of staff, more confidence and self-efficacy among colleagues, and a thriving and successful team.
Middle leaders are sometimes described as the engine room of schools, they are the lynchpin within a large school. Where these leaders are well supported and are able to support and develop their team, we can see real transformation and impact for both staff and pupils.
- Bridget Clay leads the TDT Network at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former maths teacher and works with schools on developing their CPD processes. Follow her on twitter at @bridget89ec and the charity at @TeacherDevTrust