Ten takeaways from ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’

Middle leadership is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been a Head of Department for two years now, and those years have been dominated by Covid, CAGs/TAGs, and lockdowns. But, despite all that, it is an incredible job and I genuinely love going to work every day. I spend summer missing school – missing my department, missing the kids, and missing being in my classroom. But at the same time, some days, it can be hell.

It comes from that very term: middle. Having people above and below, and being that funnel between them, is really tough. Even when you have a great LT, and an amazing line manager (which I do) it is still difficult. It’s also a job that can consume you, completely and utterly. When I first got the job, I was incredibly excited, but also surprised that there aren’t really many middle leadership books on the market! So I was super excited when I heard about this one!

I really enjoyed ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’. I particularly think that people new to the role would really benefit from it (I wish I had it two years ago!) as the earlier chapters, which focus on curriculum design, are ones which are often needed when you first take on a department. What I found particularly useful were the chapters on pastoral issues, leading teachers, and wellbeing. I love books which I then need to think about – I finished the book some time ago now, and I think I’m ready to share some thoughts. The book is currently (at the time of writing!) £15.98 on Amazon, and I would recommend it to aspiring/new/current middle leaders.

My ten key thoughts after reading are below, and will give you a good flavour of the book. Follow the writer, Adam Robbins, on Twitter here.

1. The knowledge and skills debate

I lead a department with a knowledge-rich curriculum. I’m not a fan of polarising education; I think education is far more complex than that. However, I always seek good explanations of the knowledge vs skills debate, one which weighs up each side and explains it clearly. The opening of Robbins’ book does this particularly well – it’s an excerpt I plan to use with my department. The anecdote regarding his own education bring back memories of the classes I taught earlier in my career… “Time to revise Of Mice and Men” I would begin, a year after studying it… and the kids wouldn’t remember anything. My days. What a chore it was re-teaching everything. This is one of my favourite parts of being a middle leader, curating a curriculum that you are proud of, one which serves your students properly. It’s something which, if you’re a lucky middle leader, you and your team have complete autonomy over.

2. Balancing autonomy and direction

I think possibly one of the hardest parts of middle leadership is the spectrum from absolute teacher autonomy and then absolute dictatorship in the department. I think it’s a really fine balance, one which is dangerous if you sway too far one way or the other. Robbins explains this dichotomy particularly well. He makes the point that all members of the department need knowledge of “effective strategies that embody the principles that we are looking for, but we do not want to insist that they follow a specific practice” – it almost seems contradictory, but it is not. There has, at times, been negativity around the idea of department intents – claims they are no more than meaningless slogans – but the reality is that a clear one, created together as a team, can be really powerful in giving a direction for the department and the ethos it holds. This seeps into everything, in particular pedagogical choices, and I have seen the impact this can have. At the same time, I’m still not sure I’ve got the balance right, so it’s something to think more about…

3. Panic time

The chapter on assessment actually scared me. Hyperbole? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It clearly explains how assessment is a problematic concept, taking the reader through assessment theory, reliability, validity etc. I think for those new to a department and with total control over their assessment system it makes a good starting point for throwing out a lot of the current choices around assessment which are based on what’s come before, rather than what’s best. I think it’s hard to cover how to lead assessment in one chapter, and I definitely think there’s room for a longer book on this! There is a final grid of different methods of assessment with pros and cons, which is interesting to look through.

4. The limits of quality assurance

What I found throughout this book is that Robbins’ approach to teaching and learning, and the monitoring of it, is methodical but also considered. I found the section on leading quality assurance particularly interesting, because Robbins sets out all of the limits of attempting to quality assure something, for example, a book scrutiny. These limits, and considering each one, is exactly the king of thinking I go through. I often struggle with it though- it’s easy to list the things that could go wrong and then think “well, maybe I won’t do that then!” But instead, Robbins does a lot of exploring all the limits, then offering a solution which recognises the limits but still aims for the end goal (e.g measuring quality of teaching by book looks). I found this useful, as I have an actual fear of carrying out book looks. I’m not afraid of what I will find, I trust my team, but I’m so new to leadership that I still remember the anxiety that surrounds scrutiny as a teacher, and I hate the idea of placing that on my teachers. It’s something I know I need to work on! The suggestions made in this chapter helped.

5. Considering Lesson Visits

The book discusses the best way to carry out lesson visits, which was useful, and I liked Robbins’ idea of using a simple checklist. What I also found useful was the discussion around how you can utilise your link manager in supporting lesson visits. I think as a new HoD you wait to be prompted on these things, and I am lucky to have a great line manager who has guided me in this – he will ask what to look for, or, if something doesn’t seem right, he will ask me about the context of it. The book explains the problem here, that often line managers are not within subject, and offers suggestions of how to make all lesson visits more productive. There were lots of practical tips here which I took away.

6. How do middle leaders develop teachers?

The chapter on leading teacher development was great, and reminded me of a lot of what I have read recently from Jennifer Webb, Kat Howard, and Claire Hill. The more I think about CPD, the more I consider how it’s so easy to get it wrong. Robbins explains this well, and I think this chapter would be useful for many members of LT running CPD. It goes beyond what middle leaders can do. However, if offers some great suggestions for how we can develop teachers at a department level. I have been on a subject knowledge crusade for some time now, and Robbins explains how his school protects fortnightly meetings for departments to discuss upcoming topics. I am lucky enough this year to have time on my department timetable where all Year 11 teachers are free, and plan to use this for Y11, beginning with subject knowledge each time. I feel that this is, as middle leaders, the most important way we can develop teachers.

7. Fear of delegation

In the chapter on decision making there was a useful section on delegation which I definitely wish I had read two years ago. I struggle with delegation in everything, not just teaching, and I think it got worse when I became a Head of Department. I have a more than competent second in department who is more than willing to work, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it all myself (this is not me being a martyr – I know it’s stupid, and I now know the damage it can do!). Robbins’ explanation of this as a scale helped me to recognise I have definitely moved down the scale since becoming HoD, but I’m still not at total balance yet. I do think this takes time. It’s not just about trusting others, it’s also about trusting your own leadership of others, knowing that you have done enough to make sure they are ready to take on certain tasks or responsibilities. It’s hard. There was some useful discussion on it, and maybe some day I’ll be at the right balance point for delegation. Maybe.

8. How do I speak to people?

Despite being a Head of Department, I found the pastoral section in the book one of the most useful. I have a concern that sometimes we try and separate achievement and pastoral too much in schools. The two are inextricably bound together, and attempts to try and see them as distinctly separate entities can often be damaging. I’d love to be a Head of Year, maybe just for a year, because I really think I could learn so much, and become a better Head of Department, by taking on that role. In the book there is a really useful explanation of transactional analysis, with a focus on how we communicate with students. The chapter then deals with parental engagement, which I think is something that is often missed and forgotten for those new to middle leadership. It’s assumed that because all teachers have to speak to parents, a new HoD will know what to do. But because you’re the person things can get escalated to, the conversations are not the same. This is where I think HoDs can learn a lot from HoYs who spend a lot more time engaging parents. I also thought that some of the transactional analysis stuff is useful for speaking to staff both within and outside the department. I’ve since recommended the book to people in pastoral roles in my school, on this chapter alone.

9. The elephant, the rider and the path

I don’t think I fully understood the idea of managing change until I moved school and became part of a big change within my department. Managing change is more complex than leading people, because it includes people, who don’t like change, as well as actual actions that need to happen, and some sort of impact that can be measured. It’s quite obvious when change hasn’t happened. Robbins uses the analogy from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, then adapted by Chip and Dan Heath, of the elephant, the rider and the path. Looking back, I can use this analogy to consider where things have gone wrong for me when initiating change. Robbins explains the power of the first follower, which is something I have been advised to do before, but never really realised why. The idea is that you get some feedback first from some individuals, or explain the plan to them to see what they think, before it is shared on a larger scale. This person will be supportive (hopefully) and start to lead the riders on the elephant and down the path. In theory!

10. What about wellbeing?

The final chapter, on wellbeing, considers not only how to support the members of your team with their wellbeing, but also how to ensure positive personal wellbeing. I found it useful, and the section on managing staff in crisis was particularly good – something else I wish I had read 2 years ago. Robbins acknowledges that as middle leaders we are not solely responsible for wellbeing, and that “as a middle leader you can’t change your school, but you can change your area of responsibility”. He explains that some of the decisions we make will inevitably have an impact on staff wellbeing – one example is the assessment/marking policy the department uses.

I think so much of ensuring high morale in middle leadership is being a person people think they can go to, and talk to, when they need to. A lot of it is being personable and ready to listen to staff – of course, the problem with this, is that it’s hard to do this when you’re the person who has to sometimes have difficult conversations, or change things, or discuss accountability. So much of being a good head of department is building a team around you who trust you enough to be transparent with you, but also to listen to feedback that they may not want, but need, to hear. I think ensuring staff wellbeing within a team is so important in achieving this trust. There are some really good ideas of what middle leaders can do within this chapter, and again, this was one of my favourite chapters for where I am on my middle leader journey. Still so much to learn – but this book really helped.

Thanks for reading! I’ve written ten takeaways for lots of education books – find them all here.

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