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How I Survived my First Year as a Middle Leader

No matter how ready you think you are, the difference is staggering, says Nikki Carlin...

  • How I Survived my First Year as a Middle Leader

This summer holiday is more than just a very welcome break for me, it also marks the end of my first year as head of English.

Results day this August will suddenly hold new meaning; I’m not going to be selfishly scanning SISRA for those kids in my own class. I am no longer just part of a team; I’m leading one. The difference, no matter how much you think you’re ready for it, is quite staggering.

I’ve learnt a great deal about being a leader this year. Never assume that because you’ve got that middle leadership role that you’ve already nailed it, that you’ve got this leadership malarkey sorted. Oh no. All that successful interview means is that someone believes you have lots of potential to be a great leader – now you have to prove it.

And trust me, you can read all the leadership books you want but nothing prepares you for having to have a conversation with a team member about the school dress code or those times when you really need to mark your books but you’re being pulled in 100 different directions by pupils, teachers, the admin team, and SLT.

Despite all the hurdles you will have to clear as a new Head of Department, you must remember that the school chose you for a reason. Everyone finds their own way through it but here are some of the ways I coped this year:

Get to know your team

I know some people prefer the ‘keep your distance’ form of leadership and, while that does have its benefits, it does also limit how well you can manage your department. Spending time with your fellow teachers, from NQTs to those who have been there for 30 years or more, means you are far better equipped to get the best out of all of them.

I’m not saying you need to be David Brent (“You’ll never have another boss like me, someone who’s basically a chilled-out entertainer”), but have lunch together, do end of term activities, chat.

You will know how each of them will respond to new ideas, whether coaching is something that will suit them or if mentoring is the way to go and, perhaps most importantly, how to deal with any challenging situations that may arise.

Get everyone involved

Channelling the talents of each individual in your department and giving them responsibilities is the best way to get discretionary effort. Find out early on what their particular passions and interests are. Would the eager NQT like to start a creative writing club? Is there an excellent teacher desperate for a new challenge who could lead some training sessions or mentor a trainee?

I manage a group of 16 teachers and one of the first things I did when I became subject leader was to find out who wanted to lead on key areas in the department. I’m not in a position to create TLRs for anyone but giving your team some in-house leadership responsibilities will prepare them well for when those promotions do come up.

Don’t be afraid of difficult discussions

At my school we like to call these ‘rich and challenging’ conversations… with the emphasis on challenging! Inevitably these will need to happen at some point in your role as leader and there will be a plethora of unexpected problems you may have to tackle.

These will range from minor issues that can easily be resolved to more worrying issues of underperformance or unprofessionalism. They are never easy but if you know your team well you will have some idea of how to approach the conversation.

Sometimes these issues will need to be passed on to an SLT line manager and that’s OK. Ask if you can be present for these discussions so that you can learn how to act and what to say.

Find a vent friend!

My last head of department gave me a sound piece of advice before he left; find someone, preferably outside of your department, whom you can vent to when you’re having a rubbish day.

It’s no good ranting in front of your team about the latest school initiative, the amount of reports you have to write or the Year 11 mock exam results. This will only serve to create stress and resentment for your staff and then no one is going to be willing or able to perform at their best.

Take time out to sit in a friend’s classroom after school and have a good moan, always being sure to listen to their problems too! It will make you both feel better and it also means you don’t carry your issues home.

Once the ranting is out of the way you will be better prepared to speak calmly and carefully about the problem and find a suitable solution.

Being a middle leader is one of the most challenging roles in a school. You have to be all things to all people. You must lead by example and this means still being an excellent classroom teacher, as well as making sure everyone in your department is excellent too. And that’s before we even get to the meetings, the emails, the data reports and the phone calls from parents.

But being a middle leader is also one of the most rewarding roles you can take on. Taking time to pop into classrooms and seeing what my team are capable of, how much my leadership and their commitment is impacting upon the students, makes me look forward to going into work every day.

Nikki Carlin is a head of English. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @noopuddles.

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