The journey to middle leadership

Sarah Ellis blog pic.jpg

Being asked to write about how I became a middle leader and tips for being a middle leader made me stop in my tracks a little. The main reason for this was that I was never supposed to be a teacher.

Yes, that's right my Mum was a primary school teacher and my Dad a university lecturer, the last job I wanted growing up was to be a teacher. When all my peers loved the anticipation of an INSET day; I knew I would be charged with photocopying the resources for the junior teachers whilst Mum was in meetings. I could back a board by the time I was ten. This is not a rant, but an explanation into why my mantra growing up was: 'Nope, I’m never going to be a teacher!'

The turning point came from a very smart careers advisor who said that I could not do a PGCE with a degree in Sociology. As soon as someone says I can't do something I want to do it.

Fast-forwarding a few years, I had come to terms with the fact I was not the incredibly rich lawyer I had wanted to be as a child; I was a teacher. When a new head teacher joined my school to get to know his staff he met with all of us to have a chat about our teaching, future plans and principles. That dreaded question came up: where do you see yourself in 5 years? I said that all I wanted to be was the best classroom practitioner I could. For me that was it, my Mum had been the English co-ordinator at her school and I'd witnessed how much work she had (she introduced the Literacy Hour to the school). If I could make a positive difference to the lives of a few students I was more than happy. During that meeting my Head, said he could see me in middle leadership and then later in senior leadership. I laughed. That was not going to happen.

Unbeknownst to me that day he had planted a seed somewhere in the back of my mind. Looking back now he watered this seed intermittently with passing comments about joining management, which were always met with a scowl and a 'nope, never'. One such occasion there was definitely some 'super plant grow' added to the water as he said:

‘Just wait, soon you will be looking at current leaders and realising you could do it better.’

My reply... ‘Nope, never!’

From that moment however, I did start looking at how the school was run and thinking about how different aspects could be improved. I kept these thoughts quiet, but that seed had grown beyond a sapling and was beginning to flower and spread in my head.

I was fortunate to be offered a project position for a year to look at the SRE in school and gain Healthy School Status which I loved doing. Was the plant in me producing some fruit?

After a very disappointing Ofsted inspection, there was an opportunity to become the lead teacher for English. The exact job that had turned me off teaching so many years earlier, now seemed possible. I had ideas of how we could develop English within the college and so went for it. Having got through a tough interview I was offered the role and I accepted it straight away. That was over four years ago and I continue to work hard to improve the provision of English for the students.

There have been a huge number of challenges: talking to groups of colleagues (give me a class of rowdy teenagers any day), meeting advisors and inspectors, governor visits, observing colleagues, being observed as a lead teacher and many more, but I have relished every one and grown and developed through each.

I have also cried, stamped my feet, even sworn a little (sorry Mum) and had some very late nights but what I have come to realise is that there is nothing wrong with wanting to move forward. We all have our own perspectives on how to deal with issues and situations and sometimes those 'in charge' quite like to hear alternative views. It isn't a challenge to authority, but a sharing of ideas and good practice. Having a whole school responsibility means you can affect change for more young people.

With this in mind I have not gone for senior leadership, but I am the staff representative on the governing body and have become an advisory council member for NAHT Edge. I like to think that the plant that grew in me was a confidence passion flower. Not that I wasn't passionate about doing the best for the young people in my care, but I am now able to see beyond the classroom and understand how strategic changes have an enormous influence.

A few tips

In the last few years I have picked up a few tips that have been incredibly useful which I am very happy to share. I have five to start with.

Tip one – always start a meeting with goodies

The first is not only my favourite, but is also the most readily received by colleagues. If there is unwelcome news to share the goodies tend to be very chewy toffees so no one can speak. At the end of a long day; an injection of energy always boosts the brain cells and discussions are more dynamic.

Tip two – plan your year

Yes, this sounds obvious and like a huge task, but it is incredibly useful for knowing what to do and when to do it as well as having a fabulous piece of evidence charting all your work. A grid with the months of the year along the top is all you need. Under each month, put the things you know you need to do throughout the year e.g. learning walks, moderation, pupil progress meetings, data analysis and exam entries.

At the start of every year the list of what you want to achieve seems insurmountable, but with the year planner you can spread these jobs out and put them in months where you may not have quite such a busy schedule. For example, I tend to keep April and May free from 'projects' as I am focusing on exam prep and coursework.

Tip three – prepare

That's it really, make sure you prepare for visits from different agencies and for meetings. I have a 'Developments in English' document that is kept up to date with the latest progress rates, changes to the curriculum, accreditation information and whole school processes. Even if you have just had an inspection this file is useful to have to hand. For me it has also helped me to identify aspects of English that may need more attention.

Tip four – enjoy the job

I think the tip that has taken me the longest to recognise for me is: enjoy the job. When I first took on the role I was so serious about getting everything done that I missed what was changing for the better. At my first end of year review I was asked what I had done to improve the progress in English and Literacy within school. I sat like a fish opening and closing my mouth but nothing came out. I knew I had worked harder than I had ever done before, but couldn't actually say what had changed. It took a walk round school to point everything out by my Head and Chair of Governors to show me the difference. It is important to celebrate the good things with your team, when this is done it is easier to tackle the areas for improvement.

Tip five – talk to people

Finally, ask opinions, seek support, ideas and resources. It may be difficult to do this at first but you'll be surprised how quickly you get used to it and the time saved means you can work on something else or even go home earlier than usual once or twice.

So, at the end of this trip down memory lane, I need to thank two people: my mum for teaching me how to do displays (and a bit more) and annoyingly my head teacher for being right and my 'secret gardener' over the last few years. Thanks.


 Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis small.jpg
Sarah is an Edge Advisory Council member and is currently the Lead Teacher for English at a large generic special secondary school in West Sussex. Since being a middle leader, Sarah has instigated changes in the approach to teaching English that have increased the level of accreditation in English alongside encouraging and promoting a love of the written word and storytelling. This year Sarah is taking part in coaching training to enable her and other middle leaders at her school to make substantial and long term differences within the local education community.

Recent blogs