Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?
Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 10th March 2019
The demands on middle leaders in schools are increasing, accompanied by increased levels of stress. In the past, the middle leader role was often defined in one of two ways, coordinator or head of department. A coordinator was tasked with managing the administrative needs of the subject area, ordering resources, keeping the stock cupboard tidy and organising field trips. A head of department has traditionally been an expert in their subject, with exceptional knowledge and teaching skills, who was tasked with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, monitoring teaching and learning and advocating for their subject area in budget discussions.
That is rapidly changing as the role of the middle leader has shifted to focus much more upon people and change leadership, with an emphasis upon trust and culture building. Middle leaders are expected, not only to act as models of exceptional classroom practice, but to inspire others to realise their potential and create healthy and collaborative team dynamics. The distribution of leadership from senior to middle level has raised the expectation of what middle leaders should achieve and passed down many elements of leadership that were previously the responsibility of the senior leadership team. This attempt to empower those in the middle, while mostly well intentioned, has led to increased stress being experienced by those in middle leader roles, much of which is going unacknowledged.
While there is a paucity of research on the stresses of middle leadership in schools, what we do know is that there are a number of significant factors that are bringing greater pressure to bear upon middle leaders. The first is role ambiguity. In many schools, senior leadership teams have redefined the role of their middle leaders, while poorly communicating this to the middle leader team and providing little guidance or clarity on what is now expected. The intersection of roles between senior and middle leadership, or between different roles at the middle level can also lead to confusion.
The increasing complexity of the middle leader role leaves many middle leaders wearing a range of hats, many of which are new. Middle leaders may still be expected to fulfil the traditional coordinator or head of department role, placing orders and managing budgets, while also taking on fresh responsibility for people leadership and complex change management. With the limited amount of time available to carry out the middle leader role, this can lead to exhaustion and the feeling of being overwhelmed. This may also lead to role conflict, with middle leaders failing to balance the demands of their classroom teaching with the expectations of the leadership post.
Middle leaders often find themselves being pulled in two directions, managing both up and down, trying to meet the needs of their departmental colleagues, while at the same time fulfilling the expectations of those above. SLT may view the middle leadership team as a buffer between themselves and the wider teaching staff, able to translate the school’s vision and implement it in the classrooms, effectively doing all the hard work while the senior team pulls the strings. Seldom are middle leadership teams included in the vision building process. This can result in middle leaders implementing strategic goals with which they do not agree and into which they have had no input. Conflict between the middle leader’s values and those that underpin decisions taken at a higher level might arise, which can cause enormous stress for some.
Building collegiality is now considered a key component of the middle leader’s role, a process that requires trust building and an understanding of how to tap into human emotions. Creating a highly effective and collaborative team from a disparate group of individuals, many of whom may not get along with each other, is a highly skilful process, requiring training and years of experience. Trust and collegiality may also be hard to build while middle leaders are at the same time expected to monitor the work of their colleagues through their involvement in the appraisal process.
Middle leaders are increasingly responsible for leading and implementing change, encouraging colleagues to jump from the known to the unknown by adopting innovative teaching practices and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Senior leaders fail to acknowledge that they are tasking those who have the least authority in the leadership hierarchy with this complex and demanding process. Without this authority, middle leaders are left to rely upon their relationships and the people skills they have acquired to bring people on board with change. Seldom are they provided with training in how to motivate, nurture and support others. This skills gap can lead to unpleasant and stressful conflict with team members, which may erode trust, collegiality and motivation.
While the push to distribute leadership is often well intentioned and rooted in current research, schools are at risk of creating teams of middle leaders who feel isolated, overwhelmed, and unsupported and who may be simply unable to fulfil the expectations of the role. If leadership is to continue to be distributed for the benefit of the organisation, then middle leaders should be provided with time and training and support to enable them to flourish in their roles.