Episode 6: Middle Leadership

Episode 6 of the Leadership in Focus series explores middle leadership. SLI Director and host Joanne Jarvis speaks with middle leadership expert Dr Kylie Lipscombe from the University of Wollongong and Corinna Robertson, a principal with the School Leadership Institute.

Episode 6

Introduction (Joanne Jarvis)

School leaders play a vital role in providing every student in New South Wales public schools with a great education and the best start in life. They have a positive impact in classrooms and on their staff. They guide teacher development and engage their communities. Here at the School Leadership Institute, our mission is to support all New South Wales public school leaders by providing world-class, evidence-informed leadership development programs and resources. Our School Leadership Institute conversation series will explore the key issues and challenges of school leadership. We'll talk to experts and share their tips and experiences on leading with purpose and impact. I'm Joanne Jarvis, the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. Welcome to the Leadership in Focus series.

Joanne Jarvis

Hello and welcome to our sixth episode of the Leadership in Focus podcast series. I am Joanne Jarvis and I'm the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. Today, we will be discussing middle leadership and the significant role that middle leaders play in leading teaching and learning.

With me today is Dr Kylie Lipscombe, from the University of Wollongong, who has been researching middle leadership nationally and internationally, and Corinna Robertson, a principal with the School Leadership Institute, who is leading the work on middle leadership development.

It's a real privilege to have you join me today, Kylie and Corinna, as we discuss the important role that middle leaders play in public education.

Corinna Robertson

Thanks, Joanne.

Kylie Lipscombe

Thanks, Joanne. It's a real privilege to be here.

Joanne Jarvis

So, Kylie, let's start by exploring what we mean by middle leadership.

Kylie Lipscombe

Well, middle leaders and middle leading practices are complementary, but really not the same thing. Middle leaders in New South Wales public schools are typically defined as a role, such as an assistant principal and head teacher. Middle leading, on the other hand, is not a specific leadership role, but instead about the space from which they lead in the middle between principal and teachers.

Middle leading practices focus on relational trust, collaboration and efficacy in order to lead positively and impact teaching and student learning.

Joanne Jarvis

The School Leadership Institute commissioned a report into middle leadership in New South Wales public schools, which is the largest research study into middle leadership in the world. I was surprised to discover that we have approximately 10,000 middle leaders in our system, and the foreword to the report, which was written by Professor Andy Hargreaves, glowingly described middle leaders as 'the heart, the soul, the backbone and the guts of leadership'. So, they constitute a really vital role in our schools.

Corinna Robertson

That's right, Joanne, they certainly do. And that research report has since informed all of our work on middle leadership, including the design and delivery of the Middle Leadership Development Program, induction, role description and resources.

The research report provided clear recommendations that are guiding the work of the Institute and given that middle leadership as a role and a practice encompasses the largest leadership space in New South Wales public schools and middle leadership is so significant to teaching and learning outcomes, the School Leadership Institute, I think, has a moral imperative to invest in the development of middle leaders.

Joanne Jarvis

Yes, absolutely. Kylie, what does the research tell us about what middle leaders do in schools that makes their work so significant?

Kylie Lipscombe

We know that middle leaders do lots and I led the New South Wales formal middle leadership research study with team members from the University of Wollongong, Sharon Tindall-Ford, John De Nobile from Macquarie University and Christine Grice from the University of Sydney.

And we determined that the 2600-plus middle leaders who participated in the study predominantly practice their leadership across 7 responsibilities: student centred, which is about leading and managing student wellbeing and academic growth; developing staff, which is really around developing the knowledge, skills and capabilities of other educators; organising people, which is things like the organisation of timetables; curriculum centred, which is around leading the planning and implementation of curriculum; supervising staff, which is all around that performance of staff; leading learning and change, which is around leading innovation; and administration, which is around developing and maintaining physical and financial resources and processes.

What was really pleasing, Joanne and Corinna, about the responsibilities that middle leaders enact, is that the most frequent was student centred, supervising staff and curriculum centred, which really indicates that middle leaders are focusing their leadership on the important area of teaching and learning.

Joanne Jarvis

So, they're certainly an incredibly busy group of leaders in our schools, aren't they?

Kylie Lipscombe

They certainly are, Joanne.

Joanne Jarvis

Corinna, how did this research inform the development of the Middle Leadership Role Description?

Corinna Robertson

Well, the report actually recommended the need for the development of a role description to provide clarity for our middle leaders. It also highlighted that a role description for middle leaders would have the capacity to support greater consistency and understanding of middle leaders work and really therefore value the important role that middle leaders hold within the department.

As well as the middle leader report, in developing the role description, we also drew on other available local and international research on middle leadership, as well as the Australian Professional Standard for Teachers at Lead. And together, this provided the lens to frame the role description around teaching and learning and developing self and others.

Joanne Jarvis

Leading teaching and learning is a vital part of the role of middle leaders. Not only do they influence their teams, but they're also classroom teachers. So, Kylie, what do we know about middle leaders impacting student learning?

Kylie Lipscombe

Like any research, Joanne, in leadership, it's really difficult to find a relationship between leadership practices and direct student learning outcomes. This is a result of the many variables that actually impact student learning. However, in our research in New South Wales public schools, we did ask middle leaders to determine their impact on student learning.

And in this survey, 75 per cent of middle leaders perceived they had a high to very high impact on student learning. They also reported that they understood their impact on student learning, firstly through feedback from colleagues, students and parents, and secondly from internal school data and external assessment data.

We also know from an analysis of other research, internationally and nationally into school middle leadership, that middle leaders typically directly impact areas such as teacher capacity and development, school reform and improvement initiatives, curriculum development and teacher motivation and efficacy.

And I'm really excited about this, there's also now some new research coming out that's actually reporting on the direct and positive impact between middle leadership and student learning, which is very exciting.

Joanne Jarvis

Yes, we're really looking forward to being able to read that and use it to inform the work of the Institute as well. So, I'm, I'm equally excited. Corinna, how do you think middle leaders most directly impact teaching and learning in your own experience?

Corinna Robertson

Look, I think knowing their closest sphere of influence is important. For many middle leaders, this is collaborative teams of teachers. And for example, at a stage level, faculty level, or even within a key learning area. In this sphere of influence, middle leaders need to strategically and deliberately ensure that the work of collaborative teams is both focused on and positively impacting teaching and learning.

So, this would include things like setting goals with teacher teams based on student achievement, engaging teacher teams in sustained opportunities to improve their teaching practice, as well as monitoring the relationship between teaching practices and student learning.

Joanne Jarvis

So, Kylie, there seems to me that there are certain conditions that are required for middle leaders to have this positive impact in schools. What would you suggest they are?

Kylie Lipscombe

Look, there's many conditions, but I'd probably suggest the top 3 would be the principal, opportunities for middle leaders to engage in leadership development and feedback, and the role description. So let me unpack each of those.

Regarding the principal, middle leaders need to be working closely with their principal, in order to really strategically plan for and practice shared leadership that's really focused on the school priorities.

And this includes, I guess, middle leaders working closely with executive and preferably being on the school executive so they can contribute to things like the school direction, they can advocate and share what is happening in classrooms and really align the work of teacher teams and classrooms to school agendas.

The second condition is around their own development, and often middle leaders do not have formal opportunities in leadership professional development, and as such, they may be great teachers without opportunities to learn about how to be great leaders.

It is therefore really essential that middle leaders have access to things like networks of other middle leaders, feedback in the form of coaching and mentoring, and also leadership programs where they can develop their leadership practices.

And last but not least is that role description. Our research indicated that role descriptions are almost obsolete for middle leaders, both nationally and internationally. So it was really pleasing, Joanne and Corinna, to see that this is not the case in New South Wales public schools anymore.

A role description provides middle leaders with a legitimate and transparent set of responsibilities. And this is a great start, but the power of the role description is actually in the implementation.

A role description should really provide middle leaders and their principals, opportunities to have conversations about what to prioritise in their leadership so they can make the greatest difference to student learning.

And those responsibilities should then be resourced accordingly so that middle leaders can effectively lead improvement in their school. Principals and middle leaders can work together around the role description to set action plans and goals, for example, that not only lead to positive impact, but also provide middle leaders with training and development opportunities to enact their role effectively.

Joanne Jarvis

Corinna, Kylie really highlights the importance of strong and strategic relationships and interactions between principals and middle leaders. And I know that I valued the relationship that I had with my principal when I was a head teacher for those 10 years. And it informed how I then went on to lead as a principal to empower the head teachers on my staff.

You've also been a principal and a middle leader and have worked with many leaders. So, can you share an example of what these 3 conditions that Kylie has discussed look like in practice?

Corinna Robertson

Sure. I was also a middle leader on an executive team for about 10 years and through many different principals in that time. And the one that I just wanted to, I guess, talk about here is where the principal created the conditions for collaboration.

So, each member of that team was able to put forward their ideas and opinions in an environment where there were high levels of trust. And this also allowed for feedback to occur. There was a shared understanding and responsibility for improvement.

And what I enjoyed about working as a member of this executive team was that I felt my contribution mattered and I was learning with and also from my colleagues.

Joanne Jarvis

Yes, absolutely. That strong collaborative culture that you've just described is, is something to which we would all aspire across all of our schools, wouldn't we?

So, Kylie, what are some of the constraints or challenges that middle leaders face and what advice would you suggest for them to overcome these constraints?

Kylie Lipscombe

I'd probably say the most common constraint reported in our research is increased administration requirements and workload, followed by a lack of time outside of the classroom to lead teaching and learning, increased focus on student behavioural issues and difficulties with dealing with conflict and performance of staff.

And obviously, some of these issues are outside the realms of schools themselves and are struggles that are not only unique to middle leaders, but also all leaders. But there are some strategies that both middle leaders and school principals can actually enact to help reduce these challenges.

The role description that you were talking about before should help middle leaders prioritise their role, or at the very least provide a space for middle leaders and their principal to discuss areas such as the time taken with administration and responding to student behavioural issues.

And such conversations may help provide additional resources to these areas or tighten up processes so they are more efficient, or principals may indeed even reallocate some of those responsibilities to someone else.

Regarding middle leaders dealing with some of those really complex areas of leadership, including managing conflict and performance, this is particularly difficult for many middle leaders for 2 reasons.

One is that most are still classroom teachers and are therefore working alongside the teaching colleagues on a daily basis. So that they are colleagues as well as leaders.

Joanne Jarvis

Yeah, absolutely. It's such a relational job, isn't it? Having improvement in performance-based conversations is difficult for any leader, but it's one that requires a lot of courage and curiosity and I think support to practice and develop the skills and knowledge required to be able to have those kinds of conversations.

Kylie Lipscombe

Yes, you're right, Joanne. Which leads me to the next challenge, which is that many middle ladies don't have formal leadership development in these complex leadership practices and are therefore leading on the job how to manage conflict and performance. And dealing with these complex areas, I believe really starts with self.

Middle leaders need to have a high level of self-awareness of their own emotions and behaviours and values and then know how these impact on others, which is known as social awareness.

Corinna Robertson

And they also need to be continually building high levels of relational trust with their colleagues and providing high levels of psychological safety Kylie.

Kylie Lipscombe

Yeah, what is really interesting about relational trust and psychological safety, is there's a misconception that trust has to be built before the work can commence, and that psychological safety is about providing a space that is relaxed and safe for learning.

And both of these beliefs are actually untrue. Relational trust is built by doing the work well, respectfully, with impact and with competence. It doesn't happen by investing in building trust first, but instead by how you do the work with others.

And psychological safety is actually the opposite of relaxed. It is really about how you, as a middle leader, engage staff in highly cognitive work that is seen as a norm of practice. You know, the way we do things around here. It's non-threatening personally but expected professionally.

So high levels of relational trust and psychological safety make it a lot easier for middle leaders to deal with conflict and performance.

Corinna Robertson

So, Kylie, it seems to me that part of psychological safety for middle leaders is their ability to effectively facilitate learning conversations in teams.

Kylie Lipscombe

Yes, that's right, Corinna. And it sort of goes back to the idea that middle leaders most directly influence teacher teams. So middle leaders do have to have opportunities to develop their facilitation skills when leading teams and develop also their individual learning conversation skills when having one-to-one formal conversations with staff.

I'd say also middle leaders need to ensure that they have the capabilities and access to use data as part of their facilitation and conversation, so they can sit directions and monitor effectiveness of teaching and learning.

Joanne Jarvis

This conversation has certainly highlighted both the significance and the complexities of middle leadership. There's no doubt in my mind that middle leaders are key to school improvement, and we must continue to invest in their development.

As we begin now to wrap up this conversation, what is your best advice to middle leaders and principals as they continue to work together for school improvement, Kylie?

Kylie Lipscombe

One of the areas I'm really passionate about is supporting middle leaders and principals to understand the significance of the positionality of middle leaders.

Middle leaders work across 2 subcultures, teaching in the classroom, whilst leading others, and they need to be supported to leverage this position in the middle instead of feeling like they're stuck or undervalued, and instead that they are key influencers or key brokers in school improvement, where they influence both what happens in the classroom as well as what happens at the executive level of a school.

So, I really encourage middle leaders and principals to really harness this positionality.

If middle leaders work too closely with senior leaders, they can lose the connection to the classroom and their credibility as being able to work shoulder to shoulder with teachers as colleagues.

And some researchers have even referred to this as middle leaders as spies, that if they only work with teaching colleagues, they can lose sight of the organisational and strategic leadership that is so important to ensuring improvements in teaching and learning, are aligned to the school vision and priority and resources.

So, for me, being smack bang in the middle, merging 2 subcultures into one through shared goals that are working towards the school priorities, is a really important and significant position for middle leaders to be in.

Joanne Jarvis

That's great advice, Kylie, as always. Thank you, Kylie and Corinna, for sharing your wisdom and experience today. It's been a fascinating discussion on the importance of middle leaders and middle leadership in New South Wales public schools.

Kylie Lipscombe

Thanks, Joanne and Corinna. It's wonderful to talk about little leadership. I could probably talk about it all day.

Corinna Robertson

And I could listen to you all day. So, thank you both as well.

Joanne Jarvis

And for our listeners, visit the School Leadership Institute website for further resources for school leaders, Google the School Leadership Institute and follow us on Twitter @NSWSLI. Thank you for listening.

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