Leading a support staff team

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School support staff play a crucial role in the success of teachers and students. Steve Burnage outlines some successful strategies to enable support staff team leaders to lead and develop successful and highly motivated teams

All schools are about the teams within them and how they interact – this could be teachers and children, children and children, children and parents, support staff and teaching colleagues and so on.

Successful schools have well-motivated and engaged professional people who form effective and successful teams. Just how can support staff team leaders achieve this?

Motivation – a key driver for success

No support staff team leader should undervalue the importance of motivation in the leadership of their team. All team members need to feel motivated, valued and supported. We can develop this by ensuring our team members feel safe and secure in our leadership and in the systems and structures through which we lead and empower them.

In addition, members of any support staff team need to be made to feel important, to know what they need to do and by when, and to know that what they do, however straightforward, is valued.

Give colleagues ownership of actions

For some support staff team leaders, this can be quite a frightening idea. However, for colleagues to feel fulfilled and motivated to improve, they need to feel ownership of their actions since this gives them control, which enables them to feel safe in their decisions; and accountability, which gives them the opportunity to learn, grow and develop as professionals.

Treat colleagues like children (yes, really!)

In every school across the UK we can observe successful teachers that have clear and well-established strategies for supporting their students. These are usually based around three key areas:

  1. The use of praise as opposed to blame.
  2. Personalised support that meets individual needs.
  3. Clear, positively worded targets that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-referenced).

In leading support teams, you should aim to accomplish these three things through leadership that:

  • Empowers colleagues.
  • Engages them with change.
  • Operates in a no-blame culture.
  • Is appropriate to each individual colleague.

Know yourself as a leader

There are numerous theories about leadership styles. However, whichever theory you ascribe to, it can be argued that all of them boil down to four clearly defined approaches to leadership:

  • The Dictator: Tells others what to do and does not seek their opinions.
  • The Mentor: Shares a breadth of professional and personal experience so that others might learn and gain independence.
  • The Coach: Assumes that colleagues know what to do, uses questioning to check understanding and then monitors progress to ensure task completion.
  • The Delegator: Knows colleagues possess skills and understanding and that they can be trusted to complete tasks without leadership interference.

Lead your team members as individuals

Your team members will benefit from being led in different ways dependent upon two key factors – their capability (how well they can do the job) and their commitment (how likely they are to complete a task set). Let’s meet four fictitious members of a team:

  1. Sally is an experienced member of the team who possesses a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience. She completes any task asked of her to the best of her ability and on time. Sally is highly capable and has high commitment.
  2. Will is also an experienced member of the team. While he has a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience, he is a bit disengaged and can’t always be counted on to meet deadlines or produce high-quality work. Will is highly capable but has low commitment.
  3. Abbi is a new member of the team. She is eager to do a good job and, with careful guidance, completes all tasks to the best of her ability. She doesn’t have a breadth of skills, knowledge or experience yet, but she is eager to please. Abbi has low capability but high commitment.
  4. Tom is on placement with the team and, unfortunately, things are not going well. He has very limited experience and doesn’t appear to care. Tom has low capability and low commitment.

See Table 1, below. Each of our four team members needs to be led in a way that will enable them to flourish since, if they are led in the wrong way, at best, we will stifle their ability to excel and succeed and, at worst, we will set them up to fail and possibly lose them to the profession.

A good leader is like a good teacher

Generally, the idea that whatever works with children will work with your support staff team is a good one to lead colleagues towards effective team-building. See Table 2, below: if you compare those needs and requirements that make children learn well in classrooms and those needs and requirements that make our colleagues effective team players, you can see clear comparisons.

Good teachers will create a learning ethos in their classrooms that is learner-driven. They see learning positively and value mistakes as part of that positive learning process.

Learners are valued for the contribution they bring to their learning teams and are encouraged to shift the locus of control from a teacher-led learning model to one of growing independence in which effective learners have full ownership of their own learning.

So in motivating and empowering your team, support staff team leaders need to do much the same things that good teachers do. Colleagues must be valued for the positive contribution they make to whole-school improvement and development, they must be valued for mistakes that are made as part of the learning process, and also valued for the contribution that they make to our successful schools. In doing this, we shift the focus from one that focuses on us as leaders towards a model where:

  • Colleagues have fuller control over key leadership decisions.
  • They work together effectively in productive teams
  • Are highly motivated towards achieving the shared goals of the school.


Leading a support team in any school is a challenge, just as leading any other team in school is. However, by applying some of the ideas outlined here, you will be able to focus your team on what motivates them, give them ownership of their own decisions (and make them accountable for these), develop your own leadership skills, lead each member of your team in an appropriate and supportive way, and work with each member to build a strong sense of team-work. Putting all of this together will enable you, as a support staff team leader, to continue to work with a well-motivated, engaged and enthusiastic team that sees personal growth, on-going learning, and shared leadership at the heart of a successful support staff team.

  • Steve Burnage has a breadth of experience of leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, support staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit www.simplyinset.co.uk and read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2u1KW9e


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