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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What does it mean to be a leader?

leadership according to the internet

One thing that drives me mad in my social media feeds are the images that accompany articles on leadership. Infographics about leaders often feature male suited figures. An Google image search for ‘leader’ results in swarms of male figures in front of a group or standing atop a mountain. This presents a very limited notion of what a leader is or to what leaders should aspire. The men photographed or illustrated for these images of leadership tend to be white and photogenic, and wearing suits or capes. Leader as man. Leader as hero. Leader as at the apex. Leader as forging ahead.

Some of the academic writing I’ve been doing around leadership, in the form of journal articles and book chapters, has me revisiting my thinking around leadership. I’ve written before about challenging traditional notions of what a leader is and what they do. I wonder how my own approach and journey might play a part in offering alternative narratives of leadership. How does my story allow others to imagine a leader who may not be out in front, or on top, or male, or in a suit, or wearing a cape? How might leaders or aspirant leaders give themselves permission to lead differently, or to aspire to images of leadership that are different: softer, more collaborative, less visible, more joyful?

This isn’t about being a woman or a man, but about everyone being able to access a continuum of ways of being and leading. Or perhaps it isn’t a continuum but a web of possibilities, connected but divergent.

I have always lived the educational cliché – doing my very best, striving for high achievement, immersing myself in lifelong learning. Many of the leaders in my PhD study said the same: not only had they drunk the Kool-Aid of education, but they also felt its essence down to their bones. Leading, teaching, and learning aren’t add-ons or aspirations, but ways of being based on deeply held beliefs.

I have been a school leader since my first principal took a chance on me by promoting me to a Head of Faculty position in my second year of teaching. I was 22 years of age. I was tasked with leading teachers who had been teaching for more years than I had been living. My approach then, similarly to my approach now, was around building trust and relationships as the foundation stones of leadership. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) assert, relational trust is the connective tissue that binds together individuals with the common mission of advancing the education and welfare of students.

Now, my leadership style is based in an understanding of leadership literature, valuing of relationships, belief in the capacities of those I lead, and willingness to listen equally to enthusiastic perspectives and dissenting voices. My PhD and current role mean that I am a practitioner committed to I research-informed and data-rich practice. I also, however, place great value in practitioner experience, the wisdom of professional practice, and the capacity of those with whom I work, to grow, improve, and serve their students and communities.

My approach to school and cultural change is ‘go slow to go fast’. Deliberate, collaborative change coaxes buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. It involves creating a shared need, designing a shared vision, and then energising, mobilising, and building the capacities and motivations of others to propel change. This kind of leadership isn’t about me, but about how to fire holonomy (Costa & Garmston, 2015): the nuanced interactions between ‘me’ and ‘we’, individual and organisation, cog and machine. As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) point out, the group is more powerful than the individual in school and system change.

The reason that I continue to blog, to edit and contribute to books, to act as a peer reviewer for journal articles, to engage at conferences and online, is because I want to be part of shaping narratives of education and leadership. It is my hope that through sharing my voice I can be part of offering alternatives and providing solutions.

I have had two children along the way, and have navigated my way through the decision-making that comes with finding ways to be a good parent, a good spouse, and to do work that I think makes a difference in the world. As a leader I am mindful of the example I set for others in the decisions I make around work, family, and wellbeing.

As a leader, I don’t aspire to embody the hero, perform the all-knowing problem-fixer, or forge ahead with innovation at a rate of knots. I aim to be my authentic self and work to empower and elevate others in what Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle, and Alma Harris (2014) call ‘uplifting leadership’. Sometimes leading means holding the line or being calm in the eye of a storm. It often means giving others what they need based simultaneously on a balcony view of the macro picture, and an intimate understanding of the individual.

References

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Hargreaves, A., Boyle, A., & Harris, A. (2014). Uplifting leadership: How organisations, teams, and communities raise performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Questioning heroic leadership: The visible-invisible hero

heroes

Our notions of heroism change over time. The construction and reception of heroes is dependent on context. Often the heroes of a time and place are only decided in hindsight when their actions and the consequences of those actions are weighed by the collective, the media or Hollywood scriptwriters.

Texts can reflect the values, anxieties and aspirations of their time and place. For example, the Star Wars franchise has changed its notions of the hero over time. Early Star Wars films had some diversity back in the 1970s. Leia was an independent hero who could stand up for herself and played a key part in the Rebel Alliance. But she was still pictured as the pretty woman handing medals to the male heroes. Lando Calrissian was a non-white heroic figure, but a more minor and less honourable character than the two white males, Luke and Han. Diversity and Otherness were also foregrounded by the multiple alien species in the films, from everyone’s favourite heroic Wookie, to sinister or repulsive villains.

Fast forward almost forty years and Rei and Finn, the heroes of the 2015 Star Wars Episode VII (which I have written about here and here), show the shift in the hero’s representation in terms of gender and race.

Meanwhile, Batman is a hero whose representation has evolved over time, from the silly unintimidating comical figure of the 1960s television show, to the tortured, vengeful, imposing figures of recent films. Newer Batmans, including those played by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, are psychologically darker and more complex.

In 2016, heroes like Deadpool and the new Ghostbusters question the traditional portrayal of the hero. Deadpool, like the animated hero Shrek, challenges stereotypical hero behaviour. He is rude, lewd and without a noble cause. The new Ghostbusters expand our vision of how heroes might look. The Game of Thrones franchise, too, agitates reader and viewer expectations of the hero by presenting us with complex, shifting characters who dance along and frequently cross the line between heroism and villainy.

To leadership …

How is the realm of leadership affected by the fluid definitions of heroism, dependent as they are on the time and place in which any real, mythological or fictional hero is created and received?

Today I’ll be speaking at the Rise and Future of Heroism Science Conference in order to explore what insights the data from my PhD has to offer the field of heroism, and what heroism has to offer the arena of leadership.

The questions I ask are:

  • Must the school leader hero be a charismatic, selfless visionary? A beacon of bravery and a moral crusader?
  • Are alternate leadership metaphors and narratives helpful for thinking about contemporary leadership in schools?

My answer, based in the emergent themes from the interview data of school leaders in my PhD study, is that the traditional lone hero on an individualistic quest is not an appropriate metaphor for the school leader. The leaders in my study reflected notions of servant, distributed, caregiver or transparent leadership.

Participants offered up their own metaphors for heroic leadership, revealing that heroism when leading others can be fluid, deliberate and imperceptible.

by Deborah Netolicky

In my PhD thesis, I applied the literary character of the Cheshire Cat to emblematically articulate the visible-invisible school leader, who deliberately appears and disappears, showing only part of themselves depending on the needs of those who they lead. The Cheshire Cat leader empowers others to find their way through their professional Wonderlands. Sometimes they are the encouraging grin, the glimmering eyes, the disappearing tail. At times they are the disembodied voice, mentoring, coaching or guiding. Unlike the autocratic and unlikeable Red Queen, the Cat is a mysterious guide who operates from the aerial view of the tree, with an understanding of the bigger picture.

The image of leaders posturing as white knights of school improvement, wielding swords of change and self-promotion, is seductive but unhelpful. Heroism in school leadership can be deliberate, fluid and at times imperceptible. School leaders can focus on the collective good and intentionally navigate visibility and invisibility (although I wonder to what extent deliberately imperceptible leadership can feel like being an under-appreciated Santa Claus, and how leaders feel when their machinations to build the capacities of others go unnoticed).

My PhD suggests that leadership that serves a community or organisation, and the individuals within it, need not be highly visible. Heroism in leadership can be about deliberate invisibility, the barely discernible swish of a tail and the disappearing gleam of a Cheshire grin.