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Three ways to set boundaries early in your new middle leadership role

Middle leadership can be uniquely challenging but some simple steps can ensure your enthusiasm for it is sustained, explains Gemma Drinkall

Middle leadership can be uniquely challenging but some simple steps can ensure your enthusiasm for it is sustained, explains Gemma Drinkall

12 Sep 2023, 5:00

This start of term is taking place in the shadow of an evolving crisis involving school buildings, but September can be a truly exciting time. This is especially true if you are taking your first steps into leadership. The first few weeks and months are when you will be setting the foundations for this new phase of your career.

Though daunting, the key to long-term success is to pace yourself. You will be tempted to drive in head first and to go above and beyond to prove yourself worthy of the promotion. But before you get carried away, give yourself time for a reality check: you are taking on new responsibilities which you will want to excel in, but there will be limitless demands of you in this new role. Not only that, you will probably be expected to do all this with only a couple of hours freed up on your timetable.

How can you achieve this, still be an effective classroom teacher and avoid the risk of burnout? The answer is by setting boundaries early.

Boundaries are the red tape that you surround yourself with in order to protect and promote your wellbeing. They are vital to a middle leader’s mindset. They help you to fill your own cup first so that you can keep pouring into those of your students and colleagues.

Without boundaries, you will find middle leadership unsatisfactory and unsustainable. With that in mind, here are three ways to start as you mean to go on.

Create time for you in your diary

Boundaries help you to prioritise your wellbeing. In order to achieve that, you need to allocate time to you. Plot that time into your diary before it becomes clogged with school. Whether it’s exercise, hobbies or time with your favourite people, make sure there is time to fill your cup.

Once you have made this time, guard it against all intrusions, including the temptation to answer ‘just one more email’. Guilt will inevitably creep in, but there is no place for it here. This is your time so you can consistently return to school each day, healthy and buoyant. You are your most valuable asset!

Relax about not getting everything done

Middle leadership is challenging because it has so much scope yet so little time to get everything done. It’s time to get comfortable with this.

Pomodoro timers can be useful for staying laser-focused and on task, but first and foremost accept that done is better than perfect. Grow to love delegating. It will allow you to focus on the jobs only you can do, and it’s a great tool for empowering your team.

And crucially, remember that your capacity to complete tasks bears no relation to your capability to do your job well. Focus on your achievements and dance in your own teacher awesomeness.   

No is a safe word

To bolster the previous steps, grow confident in saying no. If something you are asked to do doesn’t benefit your students or you, the brave thing to do is to decline.

It can feel scary in the moment, so here are some prompts. “Now’s not a good time, can you get back to me later?” “I need some thinking time to see if I have space for this. I’ll let you know by the end of the week.” “I haven’t got capacity for this at the moment. If this is a priority, what will you take off my plate?”

Rather than fearing saying no, see it as an important part of the feedback loop. It’s a way to open up conversations and to clarify the reality and priorities of your role. 

Middle leadership is a rewarding position to work in. But beginning to have a positive impact on the wider school community does not have to come at the expense of your health and wellbeing.

Use boundaries to keep your cup filled from the start and you will flourish.

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