I finally caught up with Kate Stockings’ excellent Seneca Learning discussion on leading a curriculum change – and one of the concepts that she grappled with was how to translate the overall vision and ‘masterplan’ in to the day to day realities of what that looked like in the classroom. For many people, that ‘middle way’ is challenging and linked to individual development planning for Departments, and this is an article that I’ve written that has previously appeared on TES, but I haven’t put here until now. As we start, perhaps, to think about what we’re doing, and how we might start thinking about changing our pathways, I hope it’s of use. You can also read some of my thoughts on how to make that operationally effective here.
You’ve seen Simon Sinek’s talk on TED, and you’ve found your why. You know what to expect in your “First 90 Days”, and you’ve thought about “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Now, you need to implement your vision – and communicate, lead and inspire to success, right?
If you’re a Middle Leader, then chances are that the answer is “no” – because you are caught between worlds.
You have some leadership of your Department, team and subject area, but you have to work within the wider ethos, development agenda and approach of your institution and context. Despite this, up and down the country this September, there will be scores of HoDs and middle leadership teams who are expected to produce a Development Plan to identify how they intend to lead their area forward.
For some Middle Leaders, particularly if you are new to the role, that can be a frustrating experience, and a difficult needle to thread. Here are some stages that I’ve found to be helpful.
What is our destination?
Start with the blank sheet of paper and leadership vision that you’ve read about. As a team, you need to identify the ingredients of success, and what you ultimately want your teaching, learning and Department to look, feel and be like. If you have a stable team, this is about reinforcing the progress and discussions you’ve had before. If you, or the team, are new, this is proper blank page conversations. This is going to be a challenge of ‘realistic dreams’ – how do you have aspirational statements about who you want to be, without becoming fantasy, or straying too far from the context of your school? For me, I try to think about the nature of the subject, the nature of teaching, learning and what we do to support, engage and inspire. This gives me six or seven ‘strands’ of development that I can look to work on – I’ll also include the professional development of my staff as another one, separate to the subject aspects. Whatever you call it – whether it’s a mission statement, or a vision, or a strategic overview – this is the roadmap you want to come back to, again and again.
Where are we now?
The first part of any journey is to know where you are. This is often driven by analysis of results and performance. As a Middle Leader, you’ll be accountable for results, recruitment (if you are an options subject) and relationships – but be careful. Chasing the numbers will only ever be reactionary: you will always have something to look at, and respond to. You will have results analysis data, you may choose to review with students, other teachers, or even make use of your SLT to conduct an ‘audit’ if you’re new to the role. I’ve found that informal conversations work really well in this regard – how does it feel to work in your team, how high performing do your colleagues think your team is? How is your subject regarded within the school? What are the things that they feel are in line with the vision, and where are the biggest issues? Often, these might not be the priorities of the Senior Leadership – but allowing people to grow and develop their own areas of interest is a major part of your role as a Middle Leader, and a huge asset you have at your disposal to get the team working together. Honest discussions, analysis and reflection of your team’s strengths and weaknesses is essential to being able to move forward.
Break up the journey – what are we doing right now?
No matter where you are starting from, achieving your vision will inevitably be too much for one year. You owe it to your staff, to your students and your own physical and mental health to split up your ambition and ideas in to manageable chunks. Having too many priorities means that none of them are ever really the priority – you need to be strategic in deciding what needs to be done first, and most importantly.
For me, the way I have worked through this tension is to create a 3-5 year plan. I use my vision statement to build up the ‘strands’ that I want to work on towards the end goal, and then I try to put factors and considerations (e.g. specification changes, or staff changes etc.) for each year. Then, we plan together what we try to do when. It helps us to keep our focus on “strategic” rather than reactive thinking – we have a collective long-term vision, and the understanding of how we want to get there.
It also helps us to identify when particular development or financial ‘pinch points’ might come: and to budget time, planning, or resource allocation appropriately. Having the evidence of when you’ll need to replace all your textbooks for a specification change helps to reduce the surprise that your Head will have – and makes it more likely that your budget request will be accepted.
Spending time on establishing this mid-term planning is crucial. For us, we want to get this right, and the annual Development Plan will almost write itself! I would suggest consulting with a range of people now, to make sure you are making sense.
Are we on the right path?
There is no “right way” to teach, or lead a Department – but I think the best Middle Leaders are in tune with their school’s vision and ethos, and able to work well with their context, while helping to make it better. Consulting at the stage of the medium term plan helps you to identify and be confident that you are working at the right level, working towards a sympathetic vision, and balancing well between ambition and achievable. This takes time, and it cannot be rushed if you want to do it really well.
Getting a sense of what’s going on in your subject area is a valuable exercise. Whether it’s through subject associations, professional meetings, or a professional Twitter account, it’s always worth understanding what’s going on in your area. It helps to give you evidence and ideas to build in to your plan, and support that dialogue if needed.
Consulting with your own Senior Leadership; or trusted colleagues at Middle Leadership level, is a great barometer for how your Development Plan fits within the wider and collective ethos of your institution. In an ideal world, they will love your first draft – but you need to prepare to adjust your expectations accordingly.
One set of expectations is where you are not as ambitious as your context, and your SLT want you to ‘do more’ or ‘aim higher’. You may decide that it’s a realistic adjustment, or you might feel that it would have workload or wider implications. In this case, having the longer term view, and being able to explain your developmental thinking and why it’s in that particular order creates a positive and productive dialogue.
The alternative approach is that you have tried to do something far too ambitious, or out of the comfort zone of your school. In this instance, you might want to try and justify your approach with reference to your subject reading and consultation, and get your plans ‘sense checked’ by a colleague. Often, showing the educational research and exploring ‘trial’ approaches has been valuable. After all, you are on the same team as your SLT: if something is better, and can be shown to work, then they want to be involved and get it for their school! So, you might plan a trial with some classes, and then report back to your SLT on the outcomes. Phasing these changes as part of your plan is a strategically smart thing to do, and helps you earn the trust and confidence of your leadership team.
How do we know?
A development plan is only worthwhile as a meaningful document if it is “alive” and something that is regularly referred to and used to inform your tactical and operational decision-making. Writing it in September, and then leaving it on the hard drive/filing cabinet until next August doesn’t change anything.
There are two stages to achieving this: first, to be clear and communicate your Development Plan to all of your team. It’s essential that everyone knows what they are working towards, what that looks like, and what success will look like. Take time to talk it through with your team – make sure everyone has had their say, their time to think about this. There is no point, if it’s not clear. Repeat it, often.
Second, review it regularly. At the end of every term, it’s a worthwhile exercise to examine where you are again. Some aspects of your development plan won’t have seen fruit yet, some of them won’t be for the term you’ve just done – that’s fine. Put a pin in those, and discuss the ones that you can explore. Are you making progress? Is it working? Is it feeling positive and manageable? What, if anything, might you want to share with your leadership team about the progress of that plan?
At the end of the year, you’ll be able to look at it with reference to your strategic plan, and have an understanding of what you’ve achieved, and where you are towards your big vision – but, critically, you’ll have only a very small amount of work to do for next year’s development plan cycle.
Development planning is a real challenge to get right. Threading the needle between what you want for your Department, and your school’s vision for what they want for everyone is hard, and it takes time and thought to do it well. However, it’s also the strategic engine by which great middle leadership works – giving the scope to your vision, giving the timescales to your operations, and giving you the lens for decision making and day to day work. I believe it’s one of the most important discussions and processes any team can go through: I wish you well with yours!