During this year, I have had the opportunity to be a part of a bespoke training programme with @ASCL_UK about the role of middle leaders in school. This blog is about some of the key points and highlights. In truth, the sessions have left me feeling positive and they have provided me with more clarity on many of the issues surrounding my role as a subject leader. Unfortunately, I could not attend all the sessions, so these reflections are about the sessions I did manage to attend.
As with any CPD, I was a little apprehensive about how the sessions would be delivered as I don’t enjoy being talked at for long periods of time. However, the sessions were full of discussion and dialogue, where everyone had an opportunity to share their views and ideas on the topics and points presented. This was a refreshing approach in my opinion and I would like to thank the speakers for their input and management of the sessions. They were without doubt very informative and gave me crucial and welcome time for positive reflection.
Another aspect of the sessions I enjoyed was the open forum, and at times there was lively, passionate and honest debate and expression of frustrations shared by many staff and this created a healthy, meaningful and reflective environment that challenged our core beliefs and practice.
The first session began with a few core questions for us to discuss in groups.
- What is a middle manager?
- What additional responsibilities do you have?
- What skills do you need to carry out the role?
These questions led to lively discussion and culminated in the realisation that being a middle manager is a vast role which is very demanding. It is often fraught with difficulties and frustrating issues and a role that sits between the demands, policies and expectations of SLT/ESTYN on one hand and on the other managing the workload of department staff under our care . This understanding and recognition which acknowledged the difficulties and issues facing middle managers and their important in the development of a school was a great start for me. It is a key function in the leadership of the school. The rest of this session went on to explore some of the main aspects of the role and set the stage for further sessions to include time management, managing difficult situations, tracking, progress, intervention, marking and feedback.
Below is a summary of the key points from the sessions that I will be using to guide my development during the next academic year and I hope you find them as interesting and challenging as me.
One of the themes we kept coming back to was the importance of a clear vision at all levels, including within the department. It is a way of setting out the priorities and practice and should sit within the whole school vision and ethos. Surprisingly, the message I have taken from these session is the student should be the the focus and purpose of our endeavour. We should only do what is effective in helping students to gain knowledge, skills and the ability to reflect on their learning. We should not be driven to tick box practice to supply evidence for others that isn’t part of our normal practice or effective in the development of learning in our subject. This can be very difficult in schools that have been judged negatively during inspections or consortia standards bodies as the school needs to show progress quickly. Developing effective practice is about moving students forward and not using a particular strategy because it is in fashion. Another aspect of vision which came through very strongly was high expectations of students and staff. This is another vital aspect to a shared vision and praising effort and endeavour regardless of academic outcomes should be prioritised such as with Growth Mindset. The challenge for me is to consider how to establish a vision through engaging staff and students in the process and ensure their ownership of the vision. Once established, this needs to be communicated effectively through ethos and practice. A key question for me is ‘What is our vision?’
Good communication within an organisation is key to its success and needs careful consideration at all levels. During the training, there were some aspects to communication, which although are commonly used in schools these days, can be counter productive and create further workload and stress. One example we discussed at length was the use of email. Just because an email has been sent does not mean the job is finished. However, for the sender, it is so easy to say things like ‘But I sent you the email last week.’ because they assume that sending the email is enough. I am sure we can all relate to the dreaded moments of opening our mail box to discover a fresh batch of requests, information, questions and school leaders most important demands. It is so easy for the communication to be lost in the prioritising of the demands of the day. Email is a very difficult entity to deal with, let alone the time it takes to wade through and respond or complete the work created by the email. I must confess there have been times when I have just hit the delete button because I could not face another request which removes me from the key tasks of providing feedback for students and planning lessons. Every important email sent to department staff must be followed up with a one to one conversation to clarify the task, ask questions and understand the priority factor. The problem with email as the main route of communication is that it is too convenient to assume the communication is completed when the send button is pressed. The challenges for me are to consider the following questions – Would it be better to discuss this at a meeting? Do I really need to burden staff with a request which means more work for them at stressful times like exams or report writing? Are my emails concise, clear and to the point in intent of the communication? Am I sending this email because it’s just more convenient for me without considering how the recipient may receive it and how much additional work it may mean for them? Is this the best way to communicate my request or is there a better way of communicating the information I need to share? So much time can be saved through getting communication right and this is another vital aspect in managing staff within the department.
- Dealing with difficult conversations
This session was very interesting indeed as difficult conversations are inevitable. Situations like missed deadlines, poor practice, difficult observations and judgements, not adhering to established departmental policy, behaviour and workload are all too common at times and must not be avoided as they need to be dealt with. At the heart of managing these situations effectively is communication and vision. There needs to be consideration on the part of the manager on how to deal with these situations to ensure a positive outcome. The first step is to talk to the member of staff and see if there are any underlying reasons that might be causing the issue and to show compassion and understanding with regard to workload issues or personal circumstances. Another strategy is to show and not tell. Sharing examples of what needs to be done can be far more effective than just highlighting an issue. Consideration of possible support/team teaching, timely reminders before deadlines and taking an interest are usually far more effective than blunt challenge. Of course, there may be cause for further intervention and discussion, but these avenues should be explored first. The challenge for me in this area is to firstly recognise if I need to address any issues with staff and then think carefully about it and act supportively to bring the desired change. In reflecting on this, I am afraid that in some cases, I have not responded in this way because I don’t like dealing with difficult situations with staff and have either ignored it, tried to cover it up or dealt with it badly. I have decided to seek a coach in this area as it is a development point for me.
- Effective practice and managing change
This is a frustrating topic for me because I value ethos above strategy. Teaching and learning has been bombarded relentlessly with fads, fashions, strategies and theories, entertainments and all manner of dodgy ideas over the past few years. In response to my frustration, I have dived into Twitter and reading blogs by teachers and decided to try a few ideas. Having found these ideas to be very effective in promoting progress, such as RAG123 marking and DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time) activities to close the gap in understanding, I now find myself trying to make these strategies fit current school policy. There are so many things that we have been told to put into our lessons because Estyn want it that these effective and proven strategies don’t allow fit. Due to the demands of literacy and numeracy starters, self and peer-assessment, plenaries, thinking skills and reflection time, I find myself teaching less and less of my own subject and this cannot be right! I am not for one minute saying these strategies don’t have their place but the reality is they may not always be appropriate in a given lesson and doing things just to please an observer or adhere to a school policy is ridiculous if it’s not effective. Thankfully, the session discussing these matters offered a balanced approach and this is paramount. Simply put – if it’s working, don’t change it and if it’s not working, try something new! This is superb and sensible advice as the focus should always be on the development of the students, not policy or specific strategy out of fear of a poor lesson grading. The priority should always be the progress of the student over time because each student is an individual and may learn in different ways. Good teachers know this well. They develop meaningful relationships with students and utilise the whole range of approaches when appropriate to ensure this happens. The challenge for me is not to implement too much at once, allow enough time to embed new practice and continually evaluate the impact and the views of students. Additional aspects like literacy, numeracy and thinking should be mapped into the SOW and infused into lessons when appropriate to the subject content. Where new opportunities for addressing additional aspects arise, these need to be discussed and included in the SOW. Staff should not be pressured into teaching using particular strategies or approaches that are not appropriate and counter productive to achieving progress over time. Activity and new approaches should be embedded as normal day to day practice and never used to tick boxes on a form.
- Student voice
I am including this section because it was a theme that ran through all the sessions-‘Have you asked the students about this?’ I have not been a massive advocate of pupil voice in the past mainly because I did not understand its purpose. By now, I actively seek frequent verbal feedback and have begun to use Google Forms to survey students about the way in which I teach and approaches I use and frequently adapt my practice in view of their opinions if they are constructive and sensible. One recent example was students told me they wanted their books marked more often. I discovered RAG123 marking and trialled it and have never looked back. Students like it and they are becoming more engaged in the process as they gain confidence and begin to take ownership of their learning through reflection frequent reflection of assessment criteria. However, I expect hard work and attention to detail in return. The challenge for me is to listen to my learners with care and reflect on how I can help them to become better learners for themselves. Student voice can be a valuable source of feedback for the teacher.
This was a challenging session. The main challenge is not the data itself but what to do with it. What is its purpose, how should it be interpreted and are students a part of the process? In the best systems, the focus is on the student. In setting targets for attainment, students need ownership, and must be a part of the discussion and have some element of choice in the target set. In this respect, students should have 1 target and this should be reviewed at least annually. Following assessment or data collection cycles, student attainment should be compared with expected progress and a judgement should be made. RAG works well here, RED below expectation, AMBER as expected or GREEN above expectation. This allows all to see, including the students, if they need support or their target adjusted. Simplicity is desired so all can comprehend and any response or intervention understood. This type of system is also useful to address any under performing classes or teachers who may also need some support to address any issues. Data must be viewed as a tool for monitoring progress over time and to identify any areas which may need addressing and not used as a stick to punish either students or staff. The challenge for me with respect to data is ensuring that assessment data is as accurate as possible and not skewed by pressures of teacher or department performance. Data must be based on actual assessment outcomes if it’s to be a meaningful and effective tool to monitor and improve standards. Accuracy is vital and staff need to feel free from external pressures to do this accurately!
I have been very challenged by the training and enjoyed this opportunity to reflect on aspects of being a middle manager and to seek clarity on how to move forward. Being a subject leader is not easy and to do it well requires honesty, integrity and compassion. Staying true to a shared vision which keeps the students at the heart of practice, decisions and progress over time is a good place to start for me and developing effective communication with staff and students are key to achieving this outcome.