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Four steps to becoming a better people manager

Middle leadership can present a uniquely stressful set of demands. Here are four ways they can develop others and refocus on the job they should be doing

Middle leadership can present a uniquely stressful set of demands. Here are four ways they can develop others and refocus on the job they should be doing

24 Jun 2024, 5:00

For many teachers promoted to middle leadership, the people management side of their new roles presents a completely new challenge. Whether it’s their inspirational teaching, broad subject knowledge, or being a safe pair of hands that got them here, as middle leaders, they’re trusted.

Then suddenly, they’re thrown into meetings with parents or awkward conversations with members of staff with only limited experience in navigating these potentially challenging scenarios.

Uniquely, middle leaders’ responsibilities span all directions and levels; they support colleagues, answer to senior leaders and head out on break/lunch/gate duty, all while continuing to teach for 23+ hours a week. As a result, they can end up taking on too much.

This comes at a cost. The DfE reports that the number of teachers leaving the profession has hit a record high, and, according to the Teacher Wellbeing Index, the number of teachers feeling stressed has risen to 78 per cent. The same report recommended that to improve this dire situation, “we must invest in soft leadership skills”.

It’s easy to see how, when faced with little time to interact with their teaching staff, middle leaders resort to jumping in themselves to get things done.

But what if they could enable the people around them to have the confidence to become their own problem-solvers and gift themselves some much-needed time back?

Here are four ways to improve your people management skills and lighten the load of middle leadership:

Ask more powerful questions

An enquiry-led approach wherein middle leaders learn to ask powerful questions can help others to develop their own thinking.

If a member of staff is dealing with a tricky parent, for instance, middle leaders could ask stimulating questions designed to help them discover a way through the problem. For example, ‘That sounds like a tricky one, what could help parent X understand Y?’ or ‘What worked well last time we had this issue?’

This allows staff to develop their thinking and take real ownership of the solution.

Let go of the doing

To lighten their load, middle leaders must build staff confidence to step into situations themselves.

One way is to give appreciative feedback when someone has handled a situation well. This gives staff confidence in their own abilities and helps outline how others could tackle similar situations in the future.

Building others’ confidence frees middle leaders to do more of what they should be doing. It’s not about abdicating work; it’s learning to assess, ‘Does this need to be me?’

Pass on the magic

Middle leaders are typically promoted because they often make the right decisions. What if they could show others how to do this? Rather than fixing a problem, stop and ask yourself, ‘How could I help this person develop the ability to solve it themselves?’

Closely tied to asking powerful questions, being able to pass on the magic means asking questions in a way that helps team members develop their mental models to solve it again next time without as much support.

Make conversations about coaching

Learning to use an enquiry-led approach in this way helps practitioners utilise what’s now called an Operational Coaching management style. It becomes a natural part of everyday conversations, not just for formal sit-down appraisals or training sessions.

In a busy school environment, middle leaders should regard every brief interaction as an opportunity to ask powerful questions that stimulate thinking.

As an impactful ‘soft skill’, learning about this approach isn’t about sending one person on a course and cascading the content to others. Particularly when modelled by senior leaders, it’s about adopting a culture built on understanding the impact of purposeful enquiry, which can permeate all the way to pupils and parents.

Taking off the superhero cape as a middle leader can feel daunting, but it will benefit everyone in the long run. Teaching staff will feel more capable and confident, and less like a cog in a stressful wheel. And middle leaders will feel less burnt out and better able to do the job they are employed to do.

And who wouldn’t want to work in a school like that?

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