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Leading Through a Pandemic: Are Schools Asking Too Much of Middle Leaders?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 26th September 2020

The COVID crisis has brought new and unexpected demands for already overburdened middle leaders in schools around the world. Middle leaders are the linchpins holding our schools together but a significant number are struggling to cope with unprecedented challenges of the current situation, leaving them feeling trapped between the expectations of their principals and the demands of their team. Many feel exhausted and disillusioned, while some may be close to burnout as their own physical and emotional needs go unmet.

In my article from 2018,  Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?, I highlighted the increasing demands experienced by middle leaders over recent years and the accompanying stress that this has brought. The role of the middle leader has transitioned from that of Coordinator, managing administrative tasks, or Head of Department, charged with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, and overseeing the budget, to the more complex role of leading teams and managing change. Since the onset of the pandemic this has become compounded by the even greater demands placed on middle leaders. 

Over the last 8 months, senior leaders have been tasked with daily, complex problem solving, in a highly volatile environment. They are managing the expectations of boards and parents as well as addressing the needs of students and staff through often rapid decision making. While some schools have robust systems in place to include middle leader input, the process does not always allow for a high level of collaboration with those in the middle, despite the fact that it is middle leaders who are on the front-line, managing unforeseen implementation challenges. In other schools, middle leaders may represent merely a convenient buffer between SLT and the teaching staff, translating plans into practice and fielding staff criticism. It is not unusual for middle leaders to be asked to implement ideas that they do not support, which they know will not work and which may be contrary to their values. This can be highly stressful for middle leaders, caught between wanting to support their principal, while at the same time doing what is best for colleagues and students and remaining consistent with their own values. The stress is compounded further for some as a push to implement unpopular ideas leads to alienation from their colleagues and social isolation. 

Physical exhaustion among middle leaders is another real concern. Most carry a 70-80% teaching timetable, while in some schools, very little release time is provided for the role. Especially during online learning periods, where it is hard to separate work and home, it is tempting for many to work relentlessly in order to fulfil the role expectations. Many middle leaders teach online classes during the day and then work well into the night, communicating with senior leaders, addressing the needs of their team, responding to parent concerns and catching up with lesson planning and student feedback. Some are consistently working 16 hour days in order to keep on top of everything. I know that while many have thrived in the face of recent challenges, despite the long hours, others feel they are failing in all elements of their role – failing students, failing their team and failing to impress their leaders.

I want to address the role that middle leaders play in supporting the emotional needs of others and the impact this may be having on their own wellbeing. The global pandemic brings anxiety for everyone at some level. For a small minority, however, who may have a history of mental health issues, it is very frightening and in schools we are witnessing the impact the crisis is having on those individuals. While senior leaders play a huge part in supporting the emotional needs of their community, the current situation is taking many away from front-line work, leaving middle leaders to shoulder the burden, especially in large schools, where principals do not have time to understand and address the wellbeing needs of each individual on staff. Instead, it is middle leaders who are providing emotional support to colleagues, whose issues may be complex and severe. This is particularly the case in international schools where most teachers do not have a traditional support network of local family and friends to rely upon and may not know how to seek professional help or cannot afford to pay for it. Most middle leaders feel a huge sense of responsibility towards colleagues in their team and want to do their best to support their needs but few feel equipped to do so effectively.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of parents and the additional burden currently placed on middle leaders fielding parent complaints. In some schools the responsibility for addressing parent concerns falls to senior leaders but in others, issues are referred to grade leaders or HoDs first. The sheer volume of the referrals that schools are seeing at present can be overwhelming for middle leaders already juggling multiple roles. Parent concerns often stem from unrealistic expectations of what school should look like at this time or are precipitated by a parent’s own anxieties about living through a pandemic and can, therefore, be hard to address. It is particularly demanding for middle leaders to address concerns that are borne out of decisions they have not been party to and do not agree with but are expected to take responsibility for. This is made worse when parent communications are angry or offensive, leaving middle leaders wounded and disillusioned.

It is easy to see how, in addition to feeling exhausted, some middle leaders are currently feeling disillusioned, cynical, critical or experiencing a lack of satisfaction from their achievements at work – all indicators of occupational burnout.  While most are highly dedicated to the role and many are ambitious to make their mark, the high levels of stress, combined with poor financial remuneration are leading some to question their ongoing commitment. Senior leaders are fighting their own battles at present and it is understandable that they may wish to push problems down the line to middle leaders, couching this in terms of distributed leadership and empowering others. Teachers struggling to cope with the constant changes thrown at them, cannot be blamed for focusing their disquiet on team leaders or looking to them for personal support. Parents need to have their concerns addressed and should be able to receive timely, constructive communications from middle leaders, where they are tasked with this role. However, school communities need to reflect on whether they are simply asking too much of their middle leaders, whose most important role, after all, is to look after the students in their care.