Case study: Delivering excellence as a middle leader

Written by: Rachel Crickmore | Published:
Image: iStock

Effective middle leadership has become a crucial part of successful secondary education. Middle leader Rachel Crickmore discusses some key aspects of good middle leadership

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choices, not chance, determines your destiny.” Aristotle

Reading this quote caused me to reflect on my journey so far in teaching: learning the craft of being a successful teacher, taking on my first responsibility of second in department, and then my present role as department leader.

My focus has gone from developing excellence in my classroom practice to developing excellence in my team’s practice. Two very different situations but both requiring the same ingredients.

So how do you deliver excellence through your team? What types of systems and processes support this drive to achieving a high-performing team? And how is this implemented across the department?

Vision and purpose

Before I go on to discuss my thoughts and experiences, my starting point is always to draw purpose from our school vision. In our final INSET before the summer break last year, our principal’s focus was to update and relaunch our school vision.

Staff, students, parents and governors were all present. It was a highly energetic INSET with collaboration, challenge and pace.

The result of this session was the bringing together of minds from all perspectives and from this, a vision was born.

On reflection I observed that the buy-in was high and, in turn, so was the feeling of ownership. It allowed me then to align our departmental vision with the new school vision.

When organising the curriculum and medium-term plans, I made sure that the first page was the departmental vision and philosophy. This showed a clear and purposeful statement to all.

To put my current situation into context, the majority of my team were NQTs. This is why it was important from the outset for me to make them aware of the expectations within our department.

Leading by example

Leading by example is and always has been one of my core beliefs. I have no doubt that my upbringing has influenced this. My father has run a successful business for 20 years and unknowingly throughout my adult life we have shared situations and found solutions both in his work and mine.

I suppose if I put a label to this, he has been a permanent mentor and coach. And so one way in which I am leading by example is making sure I am very visible to staff and pupils, all the time.

Due to the context of my team, I am currently leading from the front. This requires a consistent and relentless approach to dealing with standards of behaviour, and teaching and learning.

It is also about making sure that I am meeting and greeting staff and pupils, taking an interest in others in order to build positive relationships grown on shared purpose and respect. This provides a platform to influence and support.

Gaining trust

When writing my departmental improvement plan I was able to operationally and strategically plan my department’s journey for the upcoming year. Within this forecast, I made sure there was: change, high expectations, supportive and rigorous processes and protocols that also hold staff to account, and opportunities to delegate and empower.

Teaching and learning will always be on the agenda as this is the thing that will have the biggest impact on progress and attainment. Having a young, dynamic team has meant that I have planned opportunities that allow me to influence the quality of their teaching in the department right from the word go.

For example, I have merged two year 11 groups and teach from the front while the new teacher supports and observes. I have plans in time for this to evolve. I also have in place collaborative teaching sessions with the other two new teachers.

As Patrick Lencioni illustrated through his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, trust is the emotion that everything else is built upon. I have personally found it to be fragile and therefore have been using emotional intelligence and careful questioning to gauge how my team feels.

By supporting my new staff in this way I can influence and gain their trust. The Teaching Leaders programme, of which I am a graduate, has made me aware of my default leadership style as well as the one I have had to adopt at this stage with my new team. I am conscious that as the year continues I will be able to delegate and spread responsibility across the department.

Process and protocols

Before I started the Teaching Leaders programme I didn’t appreciate (or was naïvely unaware of) the importance of rigorous protocols and processes. I hadn’t realised the support they provide to staff, students and parents or the impact they can have on pupil outcomes.

One example of a system I have introduced to my team is around lesson observation to improve the quality of teaching in maths.

My team knows that I observe lessons on a daily basis so they expect the feedback and are now in the habit of reflecting on their practice automatically with me afterwards.

I have also introduced a system whereby all staff observe me when I’m teaching. In order to structure this, I am strategic about who watches me and when. For instance, my top set year 10 teacher is currently watching me teach the top set year 11s because the skills I am using are transferable to that group.

Before observing me, I will give the observer a list of questions, e.g. How am I ensuring children make progress in this lesson? How am I dealing with low-level behaviour? What activities provide challenge and pace?

We will then have a detailed conversation following the observation, led by the teacher observing me. The process of going through this list of questions helps scaffold thinking, makes the implicit explicit and provides a good platform for discussion. If we didn’t have that framework, the informal conversation would not have half the value.

Teachers will observe me once a week for a fixed period of time and I will then drop into their lessons to see whether their reflections have translated into action.

From learning walks I can see that teaching strategies have been reflected upon by these teachers and used or adapted. Staff are using assessment for learning strategies, differentiation through tasks, and following the behaviour policy. I can see that they are growing in confidence.

One member of staff has gone out her way to read literature I have recommended, e.g. Inside the Black Box, and is learning the importance of Bloom’s and SOLO taxonomy.

Concluding reflections

This article has given me the opportunity to reflect on my team at this point in time and there are green shoots. As a middle leader it is very easy to become consumed with what needs to be done as opposed to recognising how far you have come in what is actually a short space of time.

Challenges from above and below will always be there. As long as I keep wearing my solution-focused hat, I can make a difference with my team and the pupils in my school to the best of my ability.

The development and building of a team is always a work in progress. Using the Jim Collins analogy, “it’s about getting the right people on the bus, in the right seats and facing the right direction”.

In middle leadership there is no opportunity to stand still, especially when working in schools in challenging contexts. This is what I love and at the same time find challenging.

But above all I am passionate about striving to raise the attainment of our pupils by building a culture of high performance in my staff, so that in my absence the department can run itself.

  • Rachel Crickmore is the head of mathematics at City Academy Norwich. She is a graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s Teaching Leaders programme.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit


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