Best Practice

Effective line management: How to manage your colleagues in school

Taking on a line management role in the school hierarchy can be challenging and requires a whole new range of skills. Matt Bromley offers five principles to help you become an effective line manager
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When a teacher is first promoted to a leadership position, the aspect of leadership they tend to find most difficult is people management – a task which is made even more difficult for internal appointments because they must navigate the additional complexities of managing people with whom they were previously peers.

So, what does effective people management look like in practice and how can new school leaders step-up and lead their team to success? I would suggest this five-point plan:

  1. Model the behaviours you want to see.
  2. Create a shared vision of what you want your team to achieve.
  3. Create a culture of no-blame and high trust.
  4. Prepare team members for change and bring them with you on the journey.
  5. Foster the team’s emotional intelligence to manage conflict

 


SecEd Podcast: How to be an effective line manager in the secondary school. This episode offers a range of tips and advice from two experienced school leaders. Listen for free here.


 

1, Model the behaviours you want to see

People are natural mimics; they reflect the behaviours they see in others. Smile and someone will smile back.

If school leaders want their teams to be enthusiastic, then they too must model enthusiasm. If school leaders want their teams to be resilient in the face of setbacks, then they must show how they themselves bounce back from mistakes with positivity and determination.

Likewise, if school leaders want to be treated with respect, then they must treat others with respect. So, what behaviours should school leaders model for their teams?

To my mind, the best school leaders possess determination, plus an indomitable will and passion for success. They show an interest in every aspect of their team, visiting classrooms and speaking to all staff as often as possible.

The best school leaders stay calm during moments of crisis, and at such times are willing to acknowledge mistakes that have been made and then learn from them. They tell positive stories of resilience to remind colleagues of what’s important and to steady the ship.

The best school leaders exude positivity, especially when communicating their team’s vision and values, and when reminding staff of past success as well as future promise.

The best school leaders have an intellectual curiosity, too, and they lead by example, as a great practitioner and as someone who loves to learn and strives to know more and be more effective.

The best school leaders always seek positive change and keep colleagues focused on the process of improvement by telling stories that describe the journey from the past to the present (what have colleagues already achieved?) and from the present to the future (what is their next challenge?).

Finally, the best school leaders routinely recognise and reward success and these celebrations inspire others and give oxygen to the good and virtuous.

 

2, Create a shared vision of what you want your team to achieve

The best school leaders craft a shared vision for the future of their team – shared not just in the sense that it is communicated but that it is understood and owned by most (if not all) of the team.

Although a vision is about the future, it should have solid foundations in the past. Continuity is important to all those with a stake in the team’s success.

No-one likes the process of change; it is uncomfortable. People like to know that what they have built, what they have worked hard for, what they believe in, will be retained and protected. A vision which refers to what the team already does well and articulates what it hopes to do better in the future keeps all team members happy.

 

3, Create a culture of no-blame and high trust

The best cultures are those built on trust and those which foster collaboration not competition.

In a paper pithily entitled Organisational blueprints for success in high-tech start-ups: Lessons from the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (Baron & Hannan, 2002), the authors propose five different models of organisational structure – the star model; the engineering model; the commitment model; the bureaucratic model; the autocratic model.

The only culture that was a consistent winner was the one built on commitment. In fact, “commitment” organisations outperformed every other type of organisation in almost every meaningful way.

Organisations which followed this model were focused on creating a culture in which people happily worked for the same company their whole careers. In commitment cultures, there is a sense of trust among staff and leaders that entices everyone to work harder and stick together through the setbacks that are inevitable. There are also higher levels of team-work and psychological safety in these cultures.

In Black Box Thinking (2015), Matthew Syed says that the most successful organisations in the world – and he uses the example of aviation – show a willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit.

A no-blame culture, Syed argues, is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.

The best school leaders, therefore, build trust and openness, and develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose – which, according to the book Drive by Daniel Pink (2011) is the desire to direct our own lives, the urge to get better and better at something that matters, and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

 

4, Prepare the team for change and bring them along with you

To bring about their vision, teams must change. Many school leaders enjoy working against a backdrop of continuous change because it makes their jobs interesting, challenging and varied. It gives them a chance to stamp their mark on the organisation, to show what they are capable of. But it is important to remember that not everyone shares this passion for change.

School leaders should start with the knowledge that change can be uncomfortable, particularly for those who feel that change is being done to them and not by them. School leaders should also bear in mind that many staff will resent change and will either refuse to engage with it or, worse, act to prevent it from happening.

Once school leaders understand people's resistance to change, they should begin to engage them in the process of change. As a starting point, it is important to:

  • Be open and honest about the need for change – involve the team as early as possible, ideally involve them in the process of identifying the need for change in the first place.
  • Explain the rationale behind change. On what evidence have decisions been made? What will change achieve and why is this important?
  • Outline the benefits of change for everyone. What is it in for staff, learners, parents, and governors? How will change make their lives easier and more rewarding?

 

5, Foster the team’s emotional intelligence to manage conflict

The best school leaders foster emotional intelligence to either mitigate conflict or manage it effectively when it does unavoidably arise.

In every human brain there is a battle being fought between the frontal cortex and the limbic system. The frontal cortex is the rational side; the limbic system is irrational. The limbic system has been called “the chimp” – by, for example, Professor Steve Peters, in his book The Chimp Paradox (2012) because it is the primitive part of our brain and often tries to control our actions with pure, naked instincts.

It asks, “how do I feel?” rather than “what do I think?” – it seeks an emotional fight or flight response to conflict. The frontal cortex, meanwhile, is the rational side which is concerned with thoughts rather than feelings. It asks: “What is logical?”

The best way to take control of the limbic system is to develop a sense of emotional intelligence.

According to Weare (2004), emotional intelligence is “the ability to understand ourselves and other people, and in particular to be aware of, understand and use information about the emotional states of ourselves and others with competence”.

He continues: “It includes the ability to understand, express and manage our own emotions, and respond to the emotions of others, in ways that are helpful to ourselves and others.”

In his book, Emotional Intelligence (1996), Goleman posits five skill domains that are particularly pertinent to school leadership – both in terms of the attributes that leaders need in order to manage people effectively, and the attributes they should model for their teams. They are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Managing feelings
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

In practice, when confronted with difficult situations, it is helpful to remember to sail on a calm SEA, which means staying in control of:

  • The Situation by putting clear boundaries in place.
  • My Emotions by staying calm and professional, thus giving myself the confidence to face whatever problem comes my way.
  • The Action I plan to take, moving the discussion forward.

 

Making a success of systems and structures

So those are my five tips for managing people. But effective people management is also about utilising systems of performance management and professional development. So, when done well, what do these look like in practice?

 

Performance management

My advice for making the appraisal system work is to avoid instigating a pass/fail system that assumes teachers are either good or bad. Instead, strive for a system that recognises the complexity of the job, accepts that people have good and bad days, that many more factors affect learners’ progress and outcomes than an individual teacher, and that the goal is to help everyone – no matter their career stage – to improve over time (while acknowledging that everyone is human, and no-one is perfect). Therefore, performance management should:

  • Recognise the fact that teaching and learning are highly complex and cannot be reduced to a checklist or rubric.
  • Accept that a teacher’s performance isn’t uniform – they have good and bad days, and an ineffective lesson does not mean they have failed.
  • Acknowledge that learner outcomes are affected by many factors beyond a teacher’s control.
  • Aim to help every teacher in a school to improve, no matter their career stage or training needs.
  • Promote collaboration rather than competition and incentivise team-working and joint practice development.

 

Professional development

Professional development works best when it is worthwhile, sustained and evaluated. As the Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016) suggests, the most effective professional development is collaborative and driven by teachers. Professional development, therefore, should involve responding to advice and feedback from colleagues, and reflecting systematically on the effectiveness of lessons and approaches to teaching.

Whatever form it takes, the best professional development gives ownership to staff and creates the time and space needed for them to work together, sharing best practice, and learning from each other's mistakes.

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist, author, and advisor with 25 years’ experience in teaching and leadership including as a secondary school headteacher. He remains a practising teacher. Matt is the author of numerous books on education and co-host of the award-winning SecEd Podcast. Find him on X @mj_bromley. Read his previous articles for SecEd via www.sec-ed.co.uk/authors/matt-bromley

 

Further information & resources

  • Baron & Hannan: Organizational blueprints for success in high-tech start-ups: Lessons from the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies, California Management Review (44,3), 2002.
  • DfE: Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development, 2016: www.gov.uk/government/publications/standard-for-teachers-professional-development
  • Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996.
  • Peters: The Chimp Paradox, Vermilion, 2012.
  • Pink: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Canongate Books Ltd, 2011.
  • Syed: Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success, John Murray, 2015.
  • Weare: Developing the Emotionally Literate School, Paul Chapman, 2004.

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