How to be a brilliant middle manager

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James and Louise Ashmore describe the difference effective line management can make for everyone in your school community

Imagine this if you will…

It’s 7.30am on the Monday morning after half term and you have just arrived at your desk to begin your day as head of MFL in a secondary school. You’re pretty tired because you only arrived home from the Year 10 French Exchange trip at 10.30pm last night. As usual, you switch on your computer and log into your school’s email system. The most recent message, sent at 11.00pm last night, is from your SLT line manager. Your heart sinks as you read his curt memo asking for the latest version of your department SEF by 8.30 this morning, and notably he makes no reference to the successful trip you’ve just run. You print off the latest version and take it straight to his office.

When you arrive, you hand him your SEF and he passes you a piece of paper – it’s an agenda he’s written for your department meeting, overriding your prepped hour of collaborative planning for Year 11. You remind him that he has asked to observe you during period three and he replies, “I heard the Germany trip went well!”

Later, you are ten minutes into the amazing period three lesson you’ve planned for Year 7, but there’s no sign of your line manager. He’s forgotten, again. Much later, you bump into the head of science, looking slightly harassed. When you ask if everything’s ok, she informs you she’s just been handed a task by your shared SLT line manager to look at wholeschool, long-term homework projects – the same task he gave you two weeks ago. You agree to meet up and pool ideas, and then return to your classroom to run your department meeting. You do not have any contact from your line manager again until Friday and even then it is to cancel the meeting he’d arranged to discuss the SEF.

Sound familiar? Then it’s time to demand a change.

Improvement at all levels

Good line management is fundamental to sustainable improvement in schools. Getting it wrong leads to demoralised staff, increased workload pressures and, inevitably, stalled progress. But getting it right means that middle leaders especially can be the driving force in school improvement, empowered by the trust placed in them and in those that they manage.

OK, now imagine you can go back in time. Let’s see how our imaginary Monday plays out when the line manager is at the top of his game…

It’s 7.30am on the Monday morning after half term and you have just arrived at your desk to begin your day as head of MFL in a secondary school. You’re pretty tired because you only arrived home from the Year ten French Exchange trip at 10.30pm last night. Your SLT line manager appears at the door and presents you with a large box of biscuits to say thank you for last week’s excursion. In that morning’s staff briefing, he invites you to speak about your experiences and publicly thanks you for organising the trip.

Later, you discuss the department’s priorities for this half term and how he can support the team. He has some MFL data analysis he’s done for a last-minute governor’s meeting tonight, and asks if you can check it over to see if he’s missed anything. He knows you have a department meeting tonight and he has every confidence in the agenda you’ve set, asking if there’s anything you’d like support with. He finally brings up your observation, due this week, but suggests it is moved since it wouldn’t be fair coming on the back of your visit.

Later, you’re teaching your lovely Year 9 group. Passing by your classroom, your line manager hears how engaged the class are and pops his head in to congratulate them on their excellent learning, staying for ten minutes to work with students. He then leaves, thanking you and the class, and does the same for one of your colleagues. In the last lesson of the day, you check over the data analysis he gave you earlier. It is obvious he knows the department well and you need only make a few small changes. You then bump into the head of science and arrange a time to meet up to begin your whole-school homework project. After school, you and your team produce some fantastic new resources for Year 11 while sharing the biscuits you were given this morning.

Train to succeed

Quite a difference; and what a difference this second approach could make – to progress and achievement, to recruitment and retention, to happiness and well-being. While it is true that there are some teachers who are born leaders and managers, in reality they are few and far between. However, many of the traits that make us good teachers (being emotionally intelligent, firm, decisive, a good communicator) overlap with the role of a manager and therefore it is more than possible to improve your practice.

Learning how to allocate staffing, analyse data or write an action plan might be skills you can be taught in an internally or externally delivered CPD session, but you should also be looking to learn the behaviours and qualities necessary for successful leadership. For these, observation of interactions is key. The best training is seeing someone who excels at their craft in action. Watching as an experienced leader holds an appraisal conversation, delivers a meeting with a potentially contentious agenda, or simply gives feedback on a lesson offers valuable opportunities to observe a leader thinking strategically under pressure. If this hasn’t been offered to you, ask.And, finally, dare to imagine this…

You’ve made the move into middle or senior leadership and you’re committed to being an excellent line manager.

You make time to meet your team regularly but with a clear open-door policy. You distribute leadership well, sowing the seeds for others to work creatively and independently – you put your trust in them. And lastly, when it all goes well, rather than take all the plaudits, you are happy to hand it out knowing that in reality none of this would have been achieved without you assembling the jigsaw yourself.

Five things that excellent line managers do:

  • Have a strategy of short- and long-term actions; who will you use and how will the jigsaw fit together?
  • Avoid micro-management; put your trust in people, you’ll be amazed at what they produce.
  • Have realistic expectations; recognise that people deserve a life outside of work.
  • Be decisive, but not inflexible; sometimes the ‘rules’ don’t work.
  • Praise your team and make them feel valued; communicate positively.

About the authors

James and Louise Ashmore have 22 years of teaching experience between them, and now run their own education consultancy business. James is also the coauthor of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook (John Catt Educational)