All teachers would agree that teaching is not just what happens in the classroom, but also all the pre-planning, trip organisation, displays, marking and assessment, meetings, parental phone calls, and several hundred cups of coffee (or tea, if that’s your thing) that count.
Sometimes the bulk of paperwork and emails can feel so insurmountable, so extreme, that you think it might have its own postcode.
So, when I took the position of head of department a couple years ago, I accepted the fact that admin was going to be the task I would spend the most time doing. I was wrong.
As I now realise, middle leadership is not all about the paperwork. What I have discovered is simply that middle leadership is about raising standards and achievement in your department.
In fact, I found the transition from classroom teacher to middle leader quite empowering – who wouldn’t want to have an impact on a larger cohort of students?
With a strong vision and a focus on feedback, I have been able to help colleagues develop to become more creative in their practice, while offering the necessary support when things go badly. From my experience so far, I believe there are three key points that make a successful middle leader.
Clarity of vision
It is hard to run a department without having a clear vision – and I was thrown in at the deep end when I first took my leadership post.
I inherited a department without a clear mission and I was determined to change that quickly. However, I wanted to juggle 15 different ideas about what the department needed to be.
This approach was not the right one; I tried to offer choice, thinking that colleagues already shared my goals. But in practice, something was missing – staff were pulled in different directions, inconsistency in classroom behaviour and achievement persisted, and my team started to feel frustrated.
I soon realised that no-one was a mind-reader. I shifted my approach to emphasise the over-riding aim of our department: to drive up student achievement and enjoyment of the arts.
I did not spend time trying to justify smaller tasks or ideas that did not connect to the vision. If it did not raise student interest or progress, it wasn’t happening.
When that mission was in place, the answer to everyday challenges became more obvious, and improvements swiftly followed.
What is outstanding teaching practice is also important for leading a team. Everyone values good communication, but what does it look like? It is a combination of clarity of roles, responsibilities and expectations, as well as the smiles, the “how are yous”, and body language. These latter points should not go unnoticed. In fact, they should be at the forefront of everything you do.
Delivering feedback is sometimes easier said than done and mistakes can be made unintentionally. I remember receiving feedback once in a corridor, between lessons. Although it was a good lesson, I felt completely demoralised.
The lack of time spent feeding back in a confidential space negated the whole feedback session. I know this is an extreme situation, but it taught me an important lesson: how you communicate an idea can be more powerful than what you actually say.
I have combined several different methods for giving feedback or having difficult conversations with colleagues, including different coaching models and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Both techniques stress the importance of effective verbal and non-verbal communication and I highly recommend them.
The cycle of feedback
Feedback is too commonly assumed to be negative, tied to performance management targets and left alone for another year. However, the best departments shift the emphasis to improving practice and empowering staff.
They do this by creating an environment where colleagues feel safe, nurturing an atmosphere of informal walk-in observations, and encouraging teachers to underpin their practice with pedagogy.
My current school is focused on the latter and has taken it a step further with their Aspirant Outstanding Practitioner programme: a series of symposia that encourages the use of contemporary pedagogy to underpin teaching and learning.
Strategies presented and discussed in the group challenge traditional practices and explore alternative models of assessment, lesson engagement, and the role of the teacher. Teachers select triads to support and observe each other’s practice and share the results. By allowing staff members to experiment collaboratively with a range of teaching and learning methods, this process helps to creative a positive attitude to feedback.
These are not new points, but common-sense ideas that I have found work across a range of successful departments and schools. Of course I’ve missed out on other things that heads of year or department should know about: managing upwards, making the best use of data, or even successfully delegating.
However, the three points I have talked about really helped me move forward as a middle leader. Standards are on the way up, with the department seeing measurable improvements in teaching practice and an almost 40 per cent increase in GCSE grades at A* to C in a year.
Just as importantly, colleagues let me know that the department is a positive, supportive place to work. No matter what challenges you face as a middle leader, if you have a vision that is communicated well and used reflectively, you can lead your team to progress.
Teaching LeadersTeaching Leaders is an education charity, whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk
Becky Powell is assistant vice-principal of teaching and learning (secondment) and head of art at City of London Academy in Islington. She is a 2011 Teaching Leaders Fellow and a Teach First ambassador (2008).