I’m not a new middle leader, in fact I’ve been a Head of Department for over 5 years now, but I certainly would still describe myself as striving and sometimes even struggling.
The learning journey on a leadership pathway is still as winding and undulating as any other professional journey in teaching.
You never quite know what you will meet around the next corner so how can you prepare yourself for the next challenge? Here are my top tips for anyone who is new to a middle leadership post or just a striving middle leader looking to to improve.
1. Get to know your team
It doesn’t matter if you are completely new to your team or you’ve known them for years. Leading and managing groups of people is tough and can throw up all kinds of challenges. Spend some time getting to know each person. Making individual connections is important. Find out about their previous experiences, likes and dislikes and what makes them tick in the classroom. You don’t have to become the next expert on emotional intelligence but knowing them a little better can help you to make better choices about how to handle specific situations in the future.
This is probably the most important tip if you want to build positive meaningful relationships with your team members. People need to feel that they have a voice. And that their voice will be heard and considered. Don’t misinterpret this advice – you do not have to do everything your team suggests. But it is important to involve them in key issues affecting the department and reach an informed decision on the next steps forward. Team members feel more valued if they have a degree of autonomy and can work collaboratively to shape the future of the department.
The format for this ‘staff voice’ opportunity will and should vary, depending on individual circumstances. For example, some discussion could take place in a whole group format at a department meeting, which is beneficial if you need to consider everyone’s thoughts and ideas within a short time frame. However it is not always the most effective method if you want to hear true opinions and consider the perspectives of every individual within the team. Some characters may dominate the discussion and some may sit back and not get involved. Your team may benefit from having some information and questions to consider beforehand to allow thinking time and a more purposeful discussion. There may be some members of your team who find it easier to communicate their ideas more clearly in written format or one-to-one discussion. Choose the ‘listening platform’ depending on the needs of your group and yourself.
3. Say thank you
The power of gratitude is underestimated and underused in schools. It is important to get the right balance. Don’t say it enough and people start to undervalued. Say it too much and it loses the intended impact (to motivate and encourage more positive and professional behaviour). Everyone in your team needs to be recognised and feel like they are making a valued contribution. So say thank you. And mean it!
4. Ask for help
It took me a long time to learn this one but asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It actually reflects a strong level of self-awareness and maturity to identify areas that you need further support with, especially if you are able to identify and articulate specific problem areas. Don’t struggle or strive alone. A certain degree of humility is respectable.
The request for help does not have to come from your line manager or SLT. Although they are experienced and well positioned to give you advice and support (they are your line manager after all) there are other sources of advice and wisdom that could give you an alternative perspective and new ideas. Use people like me – fellow middle leaders who have a few more years of striving under their belt or may have experienced a similar challenge, and can share their story and the lessons learned along the way. They may not ultimately solve your problem but they might just ignite a spark in your brain to come up with your own solution, and it always helps to know that there are others out there, experiencing the same struggles as you. Strive together!
5. Be patient
This is the one I have to most frequently remind myself about. It is important to have high expectations and aspirations for the team you lead but don’t feel that every ‘area of development’ must be developed immediately. Identify the ‘quick wins’ that can be achieved with only little time and effort and then focus on one main area of priority that requires more thought, time and effort but will have the biggest impact at the end of the term or year. To rush big changes within a department group setting may mean the change you implement will not be that effective and may negatively affect the attitude and motivation of the group members involved. Take your time to plan and discuss. Pause, breathe and reflect. Then start to build gradually – small steps!