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What do heads want from middle leaders?

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Being a middle leader can be more challenging than being a head teacher in a lot of ways. As a middle leader, I enjoyed leading a subject, but I found it difficult to know how far I could go with my vision and what the head teacher expected from me. I look back at my time as a middle leader and feel I could have improved my practice if I’d been more open in asking the head teacher "what is it exactly that you want from me as a middle leader?"

In writing this blog, I looked at some of the research on effective middle leadership and asked head teachers for their views. I also include my experience of what I would ideally like the middle leaders I work with to do to be the most effective. 

Be the lead enthusiast

Sounds obvious, but heads gave this as the top answer when asked what they want from middle leaders.  As a middle leader, above all else, you need to have great enthusiasm for the area of school life you lead.  At my school, we have some great middle leaders, and I often find myself swept along by their enthusiasm when getting a project started.  For me, this is great because, in my role as head, you can sometimes find yourself distracted by other concerns and might need a boost of enthusiasm from those around you. Having a passionate middle leader with great enthusiasm, a willingness to try new things and the ability to lead others, therefore, has a great impact on the school. 

Be the lead learner

An interesting study into the effectiveness of middle leaders in schools by LKMco, an education think tank, found the highest performing middle leaders are highly likely to engage with developments in educational policy and research.  This could be their research as part of a master’s degree, or through reading blogs, Twitter and journal articles. As a member of NAHT Edge, I found the regular research round-up emails a useful way to stay up to speed with the latest evidence.     

Set a clear vision

Middle leaders need to set out a very clear set of targets for the long term and year ahead. This needs to be agreed with the SLT and shared with all members of staff to be effective. Do all members of staff understand your vision? 

Have professional courage

When speaking to Michael Tidd on the subject, he cited "professional courage" as something he values in middle leaders.  What seems apparent is heads want middle leaders to have a good professional judgement to make decisions and "get on with it". Knowing when to get on with something independently or seek consensus is a fundamental skill of middle leadership, and it is one that will take time to master. 

Show initiative

Showing initiative came up often as something heads want to see from middle leaders. Heads felt that effective middle leaders were self-starters who showed initiative and very self-motivated. In my school, the middle leaders are proactive in sourcing good continuing professional development and making links with other schools. The early years lead (@EY_Play) has also managed to improve the outdoor environment greatly despite budget cuts by showing initiative and finding funding in a range of creative ways. 

Always be aware of the school's wider goals

To be an effective leader and support the school leadership team, you need to do all the above with a constant eye on the school's wider goals. In my school, for instance, middle leaders are very keen to make changes and start new initiatives. They know, however, they must consider the impact this will have on teachers' work-life balance, which is an on-going whole-school target.

Why not have an open conversation with your head or SLT about what they want from you as a middle leader.  

James Field

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James Field is head of St Robert Southwell Catholic Primary School in Horsham and a member of NAHT's national executive.  James has led maths, computing and assessment as a middle, and he was a member of NAHT Edge's national advisory council. 

First published 14 May 2018