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Leading Through a Pandemic: How Can We Support Middle Leader Wellbeing?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 3rd October 2020

In my article  Are Schools Asking Too Much of Middle Leaders? I examined how the current COVID crisis is leaving many middle leaders exhausted and disillusioned with some close to burnout. Since the article was published last week, I have been contacted by middle leaders from around the world who relate to the issues raised in my article and wish to share their own stories with me, as well as others who work alongside middle leaders and are concerned for their wellbeing. They describe how middle leaders feel squeezed and under appreciated and describe their position as increasingly untenable

It is clear that the middle leaders’ role has brought increasing challenges in recent years as discussed in  Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?. The additional demands that leading through a global pandemic brings are causing overwhelming levels of stress for some. So what can be done to support our middle leaders during this time and ensure that they remain committed and effective? Below I outline a six-point plan for reducing stress on middle leaders and placing their wellbeing at the forefront of the school’s agenda.

  1. Establish an Understanding That Middle Leader Wellbeing Matters

I cannot emphasise enough how much middle leaders in some schools feel overlooked and abandoned. Senior leaders can make a significant difference by simply acknowledging the crucial role middle leaders play in schools, the challenging nature of their role and the importance of middle leader wellbeing to the success of the school. This alone helps middle leaders feel seen, valued, understood and supported. Taking time to address these issues with middle leader teams and individuals will pay dividends as schools grapple with the current crisis. and should be a should major priority for all senior leaders.

2. Make Middle Leaders Equal Partners in Decision Making

The relentless pace of complex decision making during the pandemic makes is more challenging for senior leaders to include middle leaders as true collaborators. Senior leaders must not lose sight of the fact that it is middle leaders who are responsible for implementing plans on the ground and that this implementation will be more effective if middle leaders are brought into the process earlier. Senior leaders need to ensure that school culture allows for middle leaders to be open and honest in their opinions about what will and will not work and that their views are taken on board before decisions are made. It is crucial, therefore, that senior leaders establish systems for collaboration and consultation with middle leaders on at least a weekly basis.

3. Build a Middle Leader Team Identity

Just as heads and principals experience structural loneliness in their senior roles, middle leaders are vulnerable to feeling isolated. Forcing teachers to implement unpopular decisions or holding them accountable to unrealistic expectations, usually set by SLT, can drive a wedge between teams and their leaders, leaving middle leaders feeling alone and adrift. While senior leadership teams have a clear identity and can rely upon each other for support, schools often fail to establish an identity for their middle leader teams, missing out on an opportunity to create a self-sustaining support mechanism for team leaders. Senior leaders need to facilitate bringing middle leaders together to discuss common concerns and build relationships within the team so that individuals feel part of something meaningful within their middle leader role and have a forum for seeking support and advice. Where possible time should be provided during the school day for this to ensure that middle leaders are not overburdened with after school meetings.

4. Provide Sufficient Non-contact Time for Middle Leaders and Ensure They Take It

Despite a recent increase in scope of the middle leader role, the amount of leadership time provided for middle leaders has remained consistent over the last decade or more. While some schools grant 20-25% release time to HoDs, many team leaders are provided with only 1-2 untimetabled periods per week to fulfil their grade or subject leader role. This is woefully inadequate and is further impacted by the reluctance of many middle leaders to ask colleagues to cover for them or leave their students in the hands of a supply teacher. Schools need to immediately review the amount of non-contact time provided to middle leaders during the COVID crisis, provide an adequate budget to ensure this time can be taken and check in with team leaders to make sure they are taking the time offered. Where schools remain closed, it is much more difficult to monitor the working hours of middle leaders and ensure they are taking time for themselves. The best senior leaders can do is raise awareness of the importance of work-life balance and act as role models in this regard by ensuring emails are sent and meetings scheduled only during “working hours” and making public the efforts they go to in order to maintain their personal balance.

5. Make Coaching Available to All Middle Leaders

The creation of a coaching culture brings benefits to educators and school leaders at all levels but it also takes significant time to develop. Schools that have already provided coaching training and set up a system for peer coaching need to ensure that this is being fully utilised during the current crisis. I know of several schools that have made a considerable investment in coaching PD and left staff to their own devices to establish coaching networks that have quickly fallen by the wayside through lack of oversight and accountability. Those schools without an embedded coaching culture, should seriously consider the provision of professional, external coaches for all senior and middle leaders during the current crisis. The best case scenario for all schools is that coaching and collegial support comes from within the institution but where this is not possible, professional support for leaders needs to be seen as a major priority. It is common for professional coaching to take place by phone, Zoom or Skype so the current situation does not preclude coaching taking place for those working from home.

6. Providing Middle Leadership Training Tailored to Current Needs

Middle leadership training is overlooked by many schools and until recently, there has been a paucity of options available to train middle leaders but this is changing. Comprehensive middle leader training for entire middle leadership teams is greatly valued by middle leaders and should be a priority for all schools. Schools that have already addressed this need, quickly see the benefits as middle leaders become upskilled in a range of areas directly related to their roles, feel valued and appreciated and are supported in establishing a team identity and dynamic. Where such PD has not already taken place, schools should seek out targeted training to provide middle leaders with a set of tools to support their work during the current crisis. Where face-to-face interactions are not an option, there are a wealth of online training providers offering support to school leaders at the moment. It is essential, however, that such training takes place in as a group, rather than on an individual basis, otherwise much of the benefit is lost.

While many of the suggestions I have made above require funding, many need only a shift of thinking in order to be successfully implemented. Funding for improved support of the middle leader role is crucial, however, and needs to be viewed as a necessity for all schools. Middle leaders are the linchpins that hold our schools together and overlooking this will ultimately have a negative impact on student learning. Addressing the needs of middle leaders will enable schools to cope more effectively during the current crisis and provide a launchpad for future growth.