There’s more to middle leadership than this concise book can cover, writes Kristian Shanks, but that shouldn’t detract from what a useful primer it is
As Stuart Lock references in his foreword to Sarah Barker’s excellent chapter “Leading a Department”, middle leaders are often referred to as “the engine rooms of the school”. Yet a common experience for many new middle leaders is that you find yourself going from the frying pan of classroom teaching to the fire of leadership without much by way of structured support to manage the transition. And that’s the gap Adam Robbins’ comprehensive yet concise guide proposes to fill.
Middle Leadership Mastery is organised into nine chapters that consider a range of topics, from the bread-and-butter of leading teaching, learning and assessment to more nebulous aspects of the role, such as decision making and wellbeing. Each chapter ends on a recap summary and questions to stimulate personal reflection or discussions for line management meetings.
A standout feature of this book is the way it synthesises much of the current education debates in an easily digestible form, illuminated with helpful diagrams to summarise some of the trickier content. So, for example, Robbins’ first chapter “Leading the Curriculum” draws on the work of other influential teacher-writers such as Ruth Ashbee and Pritesh Raichura, as well as scholars like Michael Young.
This chapter also reveals the author’s sympathies from the outset, very much favouring the former in the knowledge vs skills debate. This perspective also shines through in the chapter on teaching and learning, where Doug Lemov’s seminal work is synthesised and the importance of routines is emphasised. These preferences reflect my own, but those less sympathetic towards the ‘knowledge turn’ will perhaps disagree with some of the conclusions therein.
Robbins successfully drills down into more granular elements of middle leadership practice
There will likely be a lot more agreement in later chapters, where Robbins takes aim at the nonsense adjectives that permeate job descriptions for senior roles, or highlights the flaws of many strategies for improving teaching and learning. For example, Robbins critiques the use of universal criteria for good teaching, noting that these create perverse incentives that make workload balloon.
The author is extremely well versed in a range of issues particular to leading a subject department. His analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of different types of assessment will allow readers easily to make determinations about how to use these in their own contexts. Later, he uses Adlerian psychology in the section on wellbeing and explains how John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ could be applied to decision-making. As a middle leader, I found these sections to be extremely insightful.
Robbins also successfully drills down into more granular elements of middle leadership practice. His ‘snag lists’ – a strategy for managing the things that need fixing as they emerge during the year, which all team members contribute to – are a perfect example. These feed into department meeting time and help the overstretched head of department keep on top of issues as they arise while showing team members that their opinions are valued.
The downside of this book being so fully inspired by Robbins’ experience is that subject leaders in secondary schools will have most to gain from it. It’s unclear that primary colleagues will be able to extrapolate as much from it. In addition, while there is a short section on pastoral middle leadership, it feels as though it has been tacked on to broaden the potential audience. There are still some valuable insights, but it is an area that would benefit from much greater attention.
The role of middle leaders in dealing with issues relating to SEND is another area that is overlooked, as is the challenge for teaching middle leaders to line manage non-teaching members of staff, who often come to schools with a very different set of working practices and values that don’t always mesh with those of their teacher-managers.
These shortcomings aside, this is an excellent book with a range of insights that will enhance the professional learning of middle leaders everywhere. It would be naïve to expect one book to cover every corner of schools’ engine room, and with this book at least, middle leaders have a practical and accessible guide to their core mission.