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Reflections on Middle Leaders Leading Change

As a novice to the teaching profession you will be quite rightly smothered with support by way of university input on educational pedagogy, student placements for bitesize tasters, then your probation year allows you to really get to grips with the day-to-day task of being a teacher, all within this protected bubble surrounded by lots of networks to ensure you succeed. However, the same cannot be said for any promotion thereafter. As soon as you are in the profession there is little offered to help as you move from step to step up the hierarchical chain of command. Whether the top is your end goal or not, all you officially need to get the promotion is to nail the interview. Clearly, it’s not that simple, I know, but it does raise the point that we are expecting people to do jobs they have not had any official training for. In any profession, would that make sense? Particularly in education, when the outcome of what we are doing is so very important for a variety of reasons.

I remember my first day in my promoted post to a middle leader role. I remember sitting at the desk and thinking ‘what do I actually do?’. I’d convinced myself in the build-up to this event that I was good enough to do the job, and I convinced the people who interviewed me that I could do it. Sitting in that chair on the first day of that job, I can tell you I felt like a fraud. Where did I even start? I felt out of my depth and it took a lot to dig deep down into that confidence bank to get me going. Enthusiasm and willingness were not the issue, I was super keen to impress and do well, but the issue was I didn’t really know what I was expected to do. The training for the post was non-existent and it really was trial and error. I asked a lot of questions and kept asking the questions until I thought I knew what I was doing, and then asked again just in case. How else do you learn? Finally, I started getting into a rhythm and it started to click but clearly there has to be a better way. If I hadn’t been such a go-getter with nerves of steel, then perhaps it would have seemed like too much of a hill to overcome or the learning curve would have been too much. Perhaps this is what my bosses saw in me at my interview, but really? There has to be a better way to prepare people for middle leadership roles!

After completing the Teacher Leadership Programme with SCEL (now Education Scotland PLL team) along with a few other leadership courses through the local council the year before, I decided to sign up for the Middle Leaders Leading Change course. Of course, it means more work - which is never ideal when you take on a new role - but it seemed the best way to really get on top of the work I was being expected to complete. The TLP was great and allowed the opportunity to develop my leadership role but in this job, I needed to know the basics of how to actually do it. With three engagement days in the year and some tasks to complete on the side, this course seemed achievable with a little effort. The course focused on a few things but most of all was an opportunity for you to self-evaluate your abilities versus GTCS standards for leadership and management. Now, don’t get me wrong, the GTCS standards aren’t the most thrilling to read and can in fact make you more anxious thinking what you haven’t done yet versus what you have achieved. However it acted as a great basis to understanding the key aspects of management in education. As a cohort on the engagement days, we would look at the suggested roles of a middle leader and identify where our own strengths and develop areas would lie. It was lovely to acknowledge that the roles around the room in primary and secondary were different but the core theme was that we all felt that we wanted to do more leadership and ‘blue sky’ thinking but in fact the day-to-day management and organisation roles tended to dominate. However, the main connection was that we all felt we were very student focused above all else, and what else could you want from teachers in the profession?

We talked about leading in a time of change and what change theory is. We looked at what changes can take place and the impact of these changes on workload, staff moral and our remits as middle leaders. We thought about the changes we would like to make in our schools and how we might go about this. The best thing about all this was that we were talking, together in professional dialogue with others who were also keen to make changes for the better. Talk is said to be cheap, but in my view if it provides the boost that is needed to spark ideas and really reinvigorate you back into action, then it is invaluable. Of course, you have to action it thereafter, but this is a great start.

Another key element of the programme was focused on coaching as a technique to be an effective leader. As a sport phobic, coaching was never part of my repertoire of skills but with a little encouragement and a lot of practice it is now. Coaching as part of leadership is not about telling people what to do to get results – no one really likes being told what to do, do they?! Coaching is about asking the right questions which allow the coachee to come up with their own answers. I think the old proverb, ‘give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach the man to fish and he feeds himself forever’ is very apt here. When you are supporting staff in your role as a middle leader, coaching is the technique which means that you will need to invest a little time initially with your coachee but done correctly, they will then become more and more self-sufficient, adopting positive solutions to their own issues. This is how to upskill your staff so they build their own capabilities and this in turn creates a stronger more efficient team to work with.

All this was great but when would I be told how to do my job? Sadly, I wasn’t; but all this helped with some of the fundamentals of being a middle leader. With all this newfound confidence and equipped with the knowledge I decided to make a change too. I decided if training was not being provided for my middle leader role and I felt it was necessary then how about I create that training myself. The change project I decided to do alongside this course was therefore based on creating a CPD training course to upskill staff in school who might want to move into my role. So, the course worked. I saw the change that was needed, and I worked out the solutions for myself. Actioning this change will provide an opportunity for me to hone my leadership skills and to ultimately make a positive change in my school.

None of this is rocket science but all these small changes make way for bigger changes which make education and schools a better environment for learning and development for pupils and staff. We spend so much time trying to develop pupils’ skills, I think we need to start really pushing to develop the skills of our staff. There is so much untapped potential and with a little support and guidance provided from courses such as Education Scotland’s Middle Leaders Leading Change and the Teacher Leadership Programme, leadership in a time of change doesn’t seem so scary.