Advice from an Aspiring Educational Middle-Leader to Others

How you’ll have to beg, persuade and possibly shaft others to survive in your job.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I came down with the Chickenpox at 30 — A dark omen at the start of my middle leadership adventure.

Curse you mother for not sending me to a bloody pox party to exchange bodily fluids with the other sick children!

It turns out at that at the age of 30, the ‘pox’ is a decidedly different beast to the one that leaves kids itchy and scratchy. Especially when you are meant to be sipping your way from Blonde to Weissbier to Pilsner, in the wonderful Brussels, not laid up in hostels and hospitals.

Being asked to strip in broken English by Belgian X-Ray technicians is nowhere near as fun as it sounds.

Like a bad dare, I had to travel back to Scotland, from (post-terrorist attack) Brussels wearing a quarantine mask just at the edge of recovery, to make it for my leadership interview.

Such was the auspicious start to my reign as a temporary secondary school middle-leader: pox-ridden and looking like a pubescent teenager.

Despite the grace period given on account of the pox, I was still woefully unprepared.

Accept now: you have pretty much no power

Maybe I grew watching too much Scorsese and Tarantino. Naively, I used to think that some sort of automatic authority came from leadership roles.

At worst, I thought people would grumble but ultimately respect the chain of command.

WRONG! This might be true in other jobs, but not in teaching.

I have been shouted at, sworn at, laughed at and had staff threaten to walk out or pretend to be sick.

It turns out, middle-leaders have a laughably small amount of real power.

My friends in the private sector laugh at how often such behaviours would have gotten them fired. Nobody gets fired by being a dick to their middle-manager in teaching.

The reason for this curious case of affairs. There are no real sanctions for unpleasant, belligerent behaviours.

So how can you hope to get anyone to do anything?

Beg or persuade

It sounds like a mediocre college drinking game.

I’m afraid all you can do is to use your powers of persuasion on people to get things done. If you don’t have these superpowers, learn quickly.

Strong relationships with staff as always, are key. If you know someone really well, they like or respect you then they might just do as you ask.

If you ask really, really nicely.

Others, you will need to persuade to see your point of view. Accept now that this will probably involve you doing 70% of the task overall while they do 30%, but those you might be able to work on those job shares over time.

Meetings can be a good way to persuade larger groups of people to join your cause.

Beware though! Meetings themselves can be about as fun as dragging your genitals over sandpaper. Embedded with broken glass. Sprinkled with asbestos.

Meetings suck, so prepare the hell out of them

Teachers in meetings are more badly behaved than children ever are in the classroom.

Teachers drawing penises. Teachers playing hangman. Teachers loudly farting. These are some of the immature delights you can look forward to in your own meetings.

One set of strategies I found helped me avoid further meeting misery:

Try Different Hats

Edward De Bono’s ‘Thinking Hats’ can be a useful tool for establishing a tone and setting common ground rules in meetings.

You can follow the order of the hats, or mix it up. For each item discussed, wear each hat to have discussions about positives, negatives and solutions rather than a free-for-all.

Insist that everyone sticks with the hats as appropriate, to stop the naysayers dominating the meeting with their negativity.

Favours are king

Favours are the bottlecaps, the gold dragons…the fuel that drives the school machine.

But what if nobody owes me anything?

You go out of your way to make them owe you.

Your colleague can’t make a meeting because of no maternity cover — no sweat. They will remember that they owe you something small. So will you.

Your staff member asks for a half-day’s cover to get a £300 saving on a flight to NYC.

No sweat, I’ve got it covered. Why don’t I take your classes too?

Getting extra holiday time- they will owe you in a big way. Call in favours at the opportune moment, when you really need support or during a crazy deadline period.

If all else fails, crush them with the timetable

I know, I sound like a maniac.

Remember, I said you have no power. Except for the mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible mess that is…the timetable!

Teachers that need some genuine help and support or are struggling in their personal lives. Give them an easy timetable, it’s in both your interests!

That teacher that was an constant asshole and who made your life a little miserable — Why not give them the more ‘challenging’ classes? At least some of them. Even if you don’t feel that vindictive, why should you give them an easy ride next year? Actions have consequences.

That teacher that was your one pillar of support: reward them with some good classes. Give them time and space to support you again.

Wielding the timetable to your own ends is the one tangible bit of power you will actually have.

Yes, I hated it often. I was challenged, I had to adapt quickly and made a heap of mistakes. It was tricky, messy learning at it’s finest.

My best piece of advice? Try acting roles before you commit to the full time gig, if you can. Enjoy the little bits of power and the tiny pieces of real change that happen, thanks to your efforts. Time for me to rest and reflect on a whole heap of effort.

I never thought that I would consider regular teaching to be a ‘rest’!

Scottish Teacher and MSc student at Edinburgh Uni. All about Whisky, Beer, Board Gaming and Dogs. Getting back into writing after a long thesis grind.

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