Impactful and transformative middle leadership

I was privileged to speak about middle leadership as part of this year’s ResearchEd Birmingham. It’s a topic close to my heart: with almost six years of being a middle leader across three different schools, I’m now preparing to step away from leading a department. I’m excited about new challenges in senior leadership, but the change in role is certainly bittersweet. I’ll miss the rigour and close-knit teamwork of being a middle leader.

This blog is a condensed version of my ResearchEd presentation, and it focuses on what I believe are the important aspects of middle leadership: leading from domain knowledge, teacher development and subject-specific CPD. If you prefer the slides directly, they can be found here:

ResearchEd Birmingham presentation March 2020

A research-informed approach to leading a successful department

It’s clear that middle leaders are perfectly positioned to be the biggest driving force of change in schools. We work closely with senior leaders, so we see the big picture of school improvement; we work alongside our teams of classroom teachers; but most importantly, we see the impact of what we do on the students themselves each and every day. For me, effective middle leadership is key in transforming schools.

Viviane Robinson outlines five approaches that have the biggest impact on student outcomes:

  • establishing goals and expectations
  • strategic resourcing
  • planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching the curriculum
  • promoting and participating in teacher learning and development
  • ensuring an orderly and supportive environment.

Viviane Robinson: The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: Making sense of the evidence (2007)

I argue that of these, one is the most important in transforming departments effectively and efficiently: teacher development. If we can direct everything we do back to developing teaching, our work is going to be far more effective and efficient in improving education for children. The impact we have will be greater and last longer.

Undoubtedly, middle leaders are the best positioned to be able to develop teaching from the basis of rigorous subject knowledge and context-specific understanding. If we agree with Christine Counsell, that schools shouldn’t focus only on the ‘how’ things are being taught and ignore the ‘what’ is being taught, then middle leaders are the best people to drive improvement; they are the ones with the domain-specific knowledge.

Leading from domain-dependent knowledge

It’s crucial to remember that your role is context specific. Your beliefs and actions will depend wholly on your subject, your school, your team and your pupils. Matthew Evans cites the Harvard Business Review when he says, “if you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context”. The more you know about what it is you are leading, the more you will know what needs to be done.

So, one of the first things a new middle leader will need to do is build relationships and learn from those around them.

Teacher development

Research shows that teacher quality is the biggest deciding factor for student outcomes: there is more variation in teacher quality within schools than between them. Therefore, middle leaders need to be spending the bulk of their time reducing the variation of teacher quality. We need to make sure that all our teachers are great.

And what improves teacher quality?

Subject-specific CPD.

You’ll be avoiding the generic approaches to teaching and learning, such as differentiation, questioning or feedback, and focusing instead on subject-dependent approaches to what it is to learn and teach your subject. You’ll be considering the specifics, such as how are quadratic equations best taught to disengaged year nines? What questions work best when asking children to explore the Holocaust sensitively? What specific feedback would you give for a piece of art work to help them improve?

There’s only one place where this subject specific CPD can take place: in departments. But if we’re moving to departmental CPD, middle leaders need to be ready to facilitate it.

Here are some of the things that help:

The humble department meeting holds enormous potential for increasing the impact of your middle leadership. Avoid admin in department meetings: demote it to AOB or, even better, an email. Here are some things that work particularly well in using department meetings as a vehicle for teacher development.

These subject-specific conversations help teachers get better and get everyone involved on improving the curriculum. Indeed, Dylan Wiliam urges us to be cautious in thinking the curriculum is a stable entity, that once created it’s done. He argues here that it should be developed in a regular cycle of improvement based on how it has been taught and how children have responded to it. The curriculum should be kept alive, and everyone should be involved in developing it. Our middle leadership should allow our teams to discuss both the ‘how’ we teach and the ‘what’ we teach, as Christine Counsell recommends.

I find this element of middle leadership really exciting: I love seeing teachers grow together as a team, and this should be at the absolute heart of what we do every day.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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