Middle leaders: Great teaching and CPD

Written by: Bridget Clay | Published:
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​Middle leaders now have a key role in developing great teaching across their teams, which of course involves securing effective CPD – but what are the best ways to achieve this? Bridget Clay advises

The role of the middle leader in primary schools varies enormously. The most obvious reason for this is the difference in size of schools – very small schools may not have clearly defined middle leaders. However, this often means that colleagues lead subject areas or have experience of leadership earlier in their careers than their secondary counterparts. Add in curriculum change and the importance of subject-specific pedagogy and the role of this middle tier of leadership is increasingly important. What steps support middle leaders in leading great teaching?

Collaborative time

Teachers are always pushed for time, so you want to be sure that any collaborative time is used effectively. That time might be a team meeting, where all staff teaching a certain key stage come together, it might be joint planning, or it might be part of a wider staff meeting focused on a subject area. It is easy for all of these to slip into more administrative tasks or unfocused conversations.

I am sure we can all remember meetings that have been dominated by housekeeping. It is easy to spend time sharing information that gets lost, with little benefit to students.

Where meeting time is working best, team meetings are used for high-quality conversations about curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning. Time spent on administration, briefing and monitoring activities is radically reduced, for example through better use of email and online resources, rather than time in person.

Colleagues are encouraged to bring specific examples of work (e.g. tests, pieces of work, and video clips of performances or interviews with pupils) and these are compared and discussed, with ideas shared about how they might link to prior, current and future curriculum aims. Teachers often work alongside teaching assistants to share teaching strategies as well as the most common ways that students struggle, enabling the whole team to learn and develop together.

An example I have seen is where every meeting is kicked off with a key question pupils will be addressing. Every teacher has a go and tries to annotate where they feel that students go wrong. This is a great way to share ideas, explore pupil misconceptions, build subject knowledge and initiate a conversation about teaching strategies.

Similarly, joint planning should be focused on pupil learning, anticipating possible responses from different pupils and planning accordingly. The discussion around planning should focus on specific pupils, rather than particular resources or ideas without linking them to the intended benefit for children. This can of course be extended further to deeper collaborative enquiry, such as Lesson Study.

Expert input

Despite restricted budgets in schools, it is important to ensure that there is still expert input and engagement with expertise around professional learning. Many schools invest in linking middle leaders with the relevant subject associations. They can then forward updates, articles and ideas and share thinking from the association or from a local subject network.

It is important as a middle leader to consider how research can underpin evidence-informed practice. This might be through seeking out and sharing research yourself, through engagement with subject associations, newsletters, summaries of research or facilitating other colleagues to engage directly with the academic literature itself. Social media can also be a great resource with a wealth of shared expertise and research. Although, beware – you should exercise caution as there are often resources without a strong evidence-base shared on social media too. Make sure you identify where the evidence has come from.

Where groups of schools collaborate, this can also be an opportunity for discussing pedagogy, sharing ideas and practice, and gaining some external perspective and expertise. This can be particularly important for smaller teams or subject areas, where learning from other organisations and contexts can be very powerful.

Line management or appraisal

Middle leaders often have a pivotal role in informal and formal line management. There is a welcome trend of moving away from rather inflexible and clunky annual performance review to having more regular discussions about how things are going and where support is needed. Some of the best middle leaders explore coaching strategies to help them encourage colleagues to reflect and to add just enough challenge to keep everyone moving forwards.

It is also helpful to ensure time is given with each colleague to explicitly discuss and review their professional learning. This can cover a wide range of topics including career development aspirations, subject knowledge development, wider reading and engagement, training in systems and procedures, working with colleagues and developing ideas, resources and policies.
Where focused on pupil outcomes, it is important to explore this in detail, with a focus on specific pupils and a discussion where the desired outcomes are explored in detail; this will help colleagues adapt their practice and evaluate its impact.

Leading learning

Middle leaders should not neglect their own professional learning. Some schools (where large enough) have formal “buddying” systems where middle leaders meet with each other regularly to share and reflect on their own leadership and team management. These opportunities for middle leaders to meet should also be focused on professional learning, sharing practice, discussing approaches and reflecting on the impact of these.

In other schools this happens more informally. Many middle leaders will explore local subject or phase networks or develop informal links with leaders at other schools. Where groups of schools work together this can be powerful. Social media can also be a strong source of support, with many subject and specialist discussions and blogs acting as a source of inspiration and support.
It is also helpful for leaders at all levels to talk openly about what they are reading and learning, to invite others to offer them advice and to demonstrate a willingness to seek challenge and take risks.

This form of leadership is strongly associated with improved outcomes for teams because it helps to break down defensiveness and improve communication.

Planning and reviewing

Finally, when it comes to professional learning, there is a lot to think about. While every middle leader spends a long time thinking about planning pupils’ learning, they can often miss the same strategic focus when it comes to their team’s learning.

It can be helpful to use the new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development to review practice as a leader, adapting some of the whole-school leadership ideas to the team level and ensuring that teachers and external experts work together in harmony.
Powerful professional learning helps transform student outcomes, but also supports teachers and teams in their roles. Where professional learning is working well, you see stronger retention of staff, more confidence and self-efficacy among colleagues, and a thriving and successful team.

Middle leaders are sometimes described as the engine room of schools, they are the lynchpin within a staffroom. Where these leaders are well supported and are able to support and develop their team, we can see real transformation and impact for both staff and pupils. 

  • Bridget Clay leads the TDT Network at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former maths teacher and works with schools on developing their CPD processes. Follow her on Twitter at @bridget89ec and the charity at @TeacherDevTrust

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