Middle leadership: The importance of reflection

Written by: Jamie O’Keefe | Published:
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As a middle leader, Jamie O’Keefe relies heavily on reflection to maximise his performance. He urges us all to take that step back now and again and offers key questions to help

Entering middle leadership can be challenging even in the best of circumstances, and most certainly in the worst.

After only having been a teacher for two years, it was daunting stepping up to become curriculum leader for computing and ICT.

With absolutely no leadership experience, I dived straight into the role at Ormiston Shelfield Community Academy as of September 2014. When I arrived the ICT department was in some disarray. The department had not kept up with curriculum developments and had been coasting on qualifications that were outdated.

Staff morale was poor due to an increased level of scrutiny from senior leaders which was a result of extremely poor examination results in the previous year and three members of staff were on teacher development plans.

My short-term vision was quickly established with the department in an attempt to overturn potentially awful results for the key stage 4 cohort. Regardless of the obstacles that I found myself facing, I made a clear plan for my first academic year as a middle leader.

Schemes were overhauled and increased methods of quality-assurance were introduced to maximise the accuracy of data entries. I implemented a climate of support and staff morale began to increase.

During this time, I enrolled on the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme, which gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills at a quicker pace. The Impact Initiative process has provided me the opportunity to focus on a particular aspect of my responsibility and implement plans specifically in-line with my vision. The facilitation, coaching and reflection opportunities have allowed me to develop as a critically thinking leader.

A very simple tool, particularly encouraged by the coaches, is merely to reflect on your aims for the year – how are you going to achieve them and what potential obstacles will you need to overcome and what do you need to put into place in order to meet your aims?

Pupil attainment is always at the front of my mind when it comes to implementing changes, strategies and vision in my department, as I’m sure it is with other middle leaders. It isn’t always so easy, however, and as a middle leader, you will face several mammoth challenges.

Some challenges may be similar to those I faced when I first came into post and others may be significantly more difficult to solve. As a new middle leader, I find that in order to overcome challenges, an outcome-focused and solution-driven initiative is required.

I’m always drawn back to asking myself one question and I pose it to you now: What is your vision for your area of responsibility?

If this question cannot be answered timely and succinctly then it is likely that you will be continually set back in your journey to success.

There are endless useful practical tips and advice which can be implemented within any department that are likely to increase performance and, although some may seem rather obvious, they are often forgotten or adopted in an inadequate way.

As mentioned, one unequivocally important tool in the arsenal of a middle leader is reflection. In the same vein as the questions above, the list of questions below has undoubtedly given me scope for reflection as a middle leader and has offered some guidance in an ever developing and changing educational landscape:

  1. Do you have a clear and succinct vision for your department?
  2. Is your team on board and clear of your vision and direction?
  3. Have you got the right strategy in relation to staff deployment (are people in the right places)?
  4. Are the quality-assurance principles used in your department fit-for-purpose?
  5. How are you celebrating departmental successes (even the smallest causes can boost morale)?

By no means are these the only questions you should ask yourself but they will provide a scaffold which can be used to assess your departmental priorities.

I am now entering my second year with the Teaching Leaders Fellows initiative and the impact that has been made is best illustrated in numerical terms.

The year I arrived at Ormiston Shelfield the percentage of pupils achieving GCSE A* to C in ICT was 8.8 per cent. My first year as a middle leader with no leadership experience equated to 35.5 per cent A* to C.

At the end of my first year on TL Fellows and the academic year 2015/16 the achievement of pupils within ICT was 98.4 per cent A* to C. Furthermore, all pupils on the Level 3 BTEC achieved a distinction star and all students on the A level applied ICT course achieved either a grade B or C.

The results of this academic year have shown that even as a relatively new middle leader working in difficult climates, success can still be achieved. At the heart of effective leadership is reflection – how are you using it to inform your departmental priorities?

  • Jamie O’Keefe is curriculum leader for computing and ICT at Ormiston Shelfield Community Academy, a large secondary school in Walsall. Jamie is also a Fellow with the Teaching Leaders middle leadership development programme. In November, Teaching Leaders is joining forces with the Future Leaders Trust to create one organisation tackling educational disadvantage through school leadership. Visit


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