Middle leaders: The forgotten stratum

willow tree, Denmark, Western Australia

School leadership is full of tensions and complexities. As I discovered while reviewing literature for my PhD, middle leadership is the forgotten realm of research in education. There is plenty of research on pre-service teachers (no doubt these participants are easy for those working in universities to recruit), a lot on teachers, and loads on principals. There is much less on those in the middle. The principal, even when not touted as the charismatic hero, is the focus of much school leadership discourse, despite the popularising of distributed leadership and teacher leadership. Of course, the principal of any school is central. They set the tone, lead the vision, directly manage senior leaders, deal confidentially with sensitive issues, and much more. But a school’s leadership culture does not begin and end with the principal. Those in the middle manage up and down, in and out, and are often sandwiched between being advocates of the teams they lead and a cohesive voice of management. They are pressed upon from below and above.

If school vision is to be enacted or school culture is to be shifted, middle leaders who directly lead teams of teachers, are key. These middle voices are often ignored in scholarly literature and in media narratives. This gap was why it was important to me (having been myself a middle leader in schools for many years) to draw on the voices of middle leaders in my doctorate.

In my last post I outlined what my school is trialing for teachers in terms of development options within the organisation (complimentary to, but not to be confused with, professional learning offered within the school and also outside of school through courses and conferences). Below I outline the options we have available to middle leaders. That teacher and middle leaders have similar-but-different options acknowledges their varied needs. Even within the middle leadership stratum, there are a diverse range of needs and experiences, from early-career or new leaders, to very experienced veterans more suited to giving back to the profession. The options this year for our middle leaders are as follows.

  • Coaching with a coach who might be a peer, another leader from the within school, or possibly an external person. Unlike the teachers, who are coached around their teaching practice, leaders are likely to be coached around their leadership.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years). For leaders, this occurs around their role description, and may dip into the AITSL Standards for Principals rather than only the Standards for Teachers, as appropriate.
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant. This is likely to be most relevant for instructional leaders such as Heads of Faculty.
  • An internally-designed leadership development programfor aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, senior and executive school leaders running sessions.
  • professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

Additionally, leaders at my school attend coaching training and a once-a-term Leadership Forum (examples from last year include presentations from Dylan Wiliam and Pasi Sahlberg, a panel of local principals, and an internal session on goals and strategy). These initiatives are intended to develop leaders’ knowledge and skills, and also a shared culture of how we approach professional conversation, our own learning and collaboration with one another.

This approach to staff development, one that is bedded in the organisation but also flexible to individual needs, reminds me of a quote from one of my middle leader PhD participants. Theirs is a metaphor that sticks with me as I go about my work in staff development and professional learning.

“I see the vision as more like the trunk of the tree; it’s the main thing that we all sort of hang off, and we do.  But we’re all going to be branches that come out from that trunk, and we do have our own little sub-branches occasionally that we can then look at as well, but we still are connected to that trunk of that tree.”

The notion of a school as a tree is resonant with the concept of holonomy (see Costa and Garmston, Koestler, or other posts on this blog). Deep roots, a strong shared trunk, thick team branches, and spindlier individual branches diverging out in idiosyncratic directions. Individual and school are simultaneously together and apart, different and one, part and whole, connected and separate. It is my hope that in my work I can at once support the growth of individual and school, as well as their complex and symbiotic interrelationship.

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One thought on “Middle leaders: The forgotten stratum

  1. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 23rd February - Friday 2nd March - Douglas Wise

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