Middle leaders are often the people with the most on their plate. Not only do they have to deal with matters inside the classroom, but they have to also deal with things as a whole, and are responsible for many things outside the classroom too. Middle leaders are always very capable people, but it does help to have some extra guidance.
Middle leaders need to have a clear objection and then form an action plan that lays out how they achieve their goals. You need to monitor how your plans go and make sure you are making adjustments to make sure you stay on track. Middle leaders may have specific areas they cover including being a subject leader, course leader, department leader etc, but many skills are transferable between them all. A lot of being a middle leader is performance management and the seemingly never-ending task of doing better than you currently are yet also having to do it with a smaller and smaller budget every year. Here are a few pointers to help you on your quest to become the best middle leader around.
I am assuming that if you are a middle leader, you know how to lead a staff meeting to some degree but here’s some help to make those meetings even more effective. Before the meeting, you must understand your priorities and what you wish to achieve in the meeting. You may want to pre-plan several meetings for the term or year as checkpoints so you know you are making the right progress and hitting goals. You must always prepare all your resources, equipment, and logistics and test if everything works. We’ve all been in a situation where something doesn’t work during a presentation or lesson, so make sure everything you need works and you have a backup plan if it doesn’t. You may need to book a room for a meeting and communicate what time and place the meeting is. When you do this, you also have to take into consideration whether the meeting is in person, fully remote, or both. Provisions must be made to suit everybody and all the correct people must be invited. The classic line of “This meeting will be recorded for people that aren’t able to make it” may be spoken, but between you and I, I don’t think people find them very useful or engaging. Share any agendas beforehand, so that the participants have time to come up with any questions or inputs to share in the meeting.
Delivering a successful meeting has many barriers and the more barriers you can preemptively prepare for, the better. One barrier is that meetings are often after the school day is over when staff are tired. This may lead to a reduction in engagement, so it is important to deliver the meeting in a brief and concise nature and get across your points without monotonous rambling (We have all been in those meetings!).
It is important to keep revisiting your objectives in the meeting to ensure you do not go off track; objectives should be shared at the start of the meeting and remain visible if possible throughout the meeting.
There are also some more behavioural aspects of leading a meeting that must be thought about. One of these things is body language, as it has a big impact on how we communicate. The same way that students can sniff out a nervous teacher, body language portrays things such as confidence and competence. Be aware of what you are doing with your hands, your stance, and your eye contact. There is a big correlation between body language and confidence so it is important that we make sure we get the basics right, such as eye contact and speaking assertively.
As with teaching in general, a good way to get a high level of engagement is to encourage audience participation. I’m not suggesting a pantomime routine, however fun that may be (Where’s the headteacher that I’ve been bad-mouthing? She’s behind you!). You should encourage questions and involvement. Another behavioural aspect is your response to any issues in the meeting such as a hostile or tough question. People can appear hostile or blunt; in most cases, it is nothing personal. People will always have grievances or issues, and as you are a leader, these may be directed towards you. It is ok to ask for more time to answer, so you can come up with solutions, answers, and work out the motivation behind the communication. It is very similar to the negotiation process that you will find yourself using a lot in an educational setting.
There is a lot of pressure on middle leaders to make the right choices in recruitment. Most teachers are not in it for the money so there is an emphasis on character, methods, knowledge and experience when it comes to recruitment in an education setting. Of course, there are also other things you may be responsible for in the recruitment process but, from my observations as a teacher, the middle leader would collaborate with their superiors when hiring a new staff member and hold interviews with their superiors present.
Another obscure heading I know, but this is creative writing. Picture this. It’s Valentine’s Day. For most people, it’s a date night, but you have something far better planned. It’s data night (yay, fun!). Data analysis forms a massive part of most decisions made in leadership, whether that be in teaching or any other job. We live in an age where we have more data available than ever, with virtually all information, statistics, results, and progress stored digitally in a system. It’s especially important to middle leaders that deal with matters both in the classroom and outside of it.
Looking at a middle leader’s perspective, the bottom line is to monitor progress by understanding what the information you collect means and then acting on it. A simple example of this is collecting data on grades the students get over a term. You can then analyse the data and find out what students are struggling with and attempt to improve it, you can see which classes and teachers are doing better or worse. You can then make decisions based on the data. Maybe you notice a pupil that was previously flourishing but has been getting unusually bad grades recently. You can then investigate the reason for this as it may be something that you or another staff member could help with. There may also be problems at home, and in that case, it may be good to get some pastoral support put in. You can then monitor if those changes help improve the student’s grades.
Continuous improvement of a school is a big priority for all types of leaders in an educational institution and data analysis is at the core of this. Having worked in a teaching role myself, I analysed data without even realising it when looking at things such as attendance. Noticing a student always missing the same class or, noticing a dip in attendance then prompts me to take action and speak to the student. A middle leader may try a new teaching style to see if it improves grades and understanding and will use data analysis to see how effective it is. Data collection serves as an evidence base for decisions a middle leader makes.
Data isn’t just numbers and statistics (quantitative) but also experience based (qualitative). People will usually assume numbers when you talk about data and often there are many people above your pay grade making the wrong decisions because they have no idea what goes on in the classroom and only see data (*cough cough Department for Education cough cough* – sorry I seemed to have picked up a nasty cough). It’s infuriating as a teacher to see data betraying reality. I have seen incredibly intelligent students that struggle with formats such as exams, but on paper, it looks like they are unintelligent students because of their grades. This often happens with SEND students that can need a different way of learning, or sometimes a bit longer to understand. On the other hand, I have seen data tell misleading stories. During the pandemic, many students got grades that were well above their ability, meaning that they passed the criteria to get onto the next level. This caused many students to struggle with the new level of work.
There are many ways to get qualitative data, and often we are recording the data in our minds without realising. Many teachers will know the ability, characteristics, and grades of most of their students after a certain period of time and we keep this in mind when engaging with them. My role in education meant that I had to write these observations down, especially when setting targets for them. As a middle leader, you may want to use a learning walk to collect data, and it is very important that you prepare for this before you start it. To establish the rate of student progress, it can be a good idea to gain insight from book scrutinies. These can help give some information about the quality of teaching and help to support your School Improvement Plan (SIP). When I was teaching, I often had to ask the academic teachers about how they felt the students were progressing and one way to do this is by having pupil progress meetings. Don’t forget that pupils themselves are not just the subject of the data. They can also give you valuable information and a way of collecting this is by conducting pupil voice interviews. You can gauge their opinions and feelings about various aspects, and that can be very helpful in making improvements, changes, and for Ofsted inspections. As a middle leader, you will be working with lots of different teachers and it can be helpful to hold moderation meetings with them to discuss pupil progress and come up with ideas to improve the teaching process.
As mentioned before, all numerical data in education is digital in today’s era and most likely on the same software and system. Some institutions may have data spread across different systems but in recent years the systems are becoming more and more converged so the data is all in one place. This data will include helpful information such as grades, attendance, punctuality etc. The data is not just about students though, teachers have data assigned to them and that will be looked at by middle leaders as a KPI, along with other factors.
You can collect data on yourself as well and this will help you improve your own way of working and methods as you become aware of what aspects of your professional skills need working on.
Neighbours might be the best soap around, but it isn’t the one we are talking about here. I’m going to mention a word in a moment that will terrify anybody that has worked in a school. That word is…Ofsted! 😱Please don’t panic though, as we have several ways to help you with Ofsted inspections. We mentioned the School Improvement Plan (SIP) earlier and that is a good way to help prepare for an Ofsted inspection. School On A Page (SOAP) is an analysis of the school which shows a clear summary of the most important school data that can support an Ofsted inspection. It won’t help your cause if Ofsted officials have to work hard to find out how your school is doing, so making it easier for them is a no-brainer. Middle and senior leaders can do this, although the responsibility changes depending on the size of the institution or whether it is a nursery, primary, or secondary.
You must be able to use all the data and experience collected to enact change and improvement. The changes may be slightly different depending on the institution but overall the process of enacting change will be similar. A primary school may want changes to the learning process and teaching standards whereas the goal for most secondary schools is higher grades. You can also take various courses and gain qualifications that will help your progress as a middle leader.
The End. Or shall I say: The Middle.