Blog will be launched properly on Sunday. All being well.
Do your spark plugs need a change?
So you have your agenda, its great. You have some brilliant people in your team. SLT have a plan and a strategy, good! You want contributions and innovation – sound. Yet something doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t feel right. What is the missing ingredient? Best check your spark plugs!
We all know that MLs are the engine rooms of the school. The feel in the engine room though, is all to do with the school’s Ethos and the way you get to that ethos is through promoting and controlling the correct ‘environment’.
Ethos and Environment
the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations.
1.the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates. “survival in an often hostile environment”
Changing the Spark plugs
If you want your middle leader team firing on all cylinders then you will want people to open up and relax in the meeting. You want them to feel that they can fully express their views and engage. There are a few simple steps that really help but they are subtle, so subtle you might dismiss them out right!
Environment plays a huge role in my ability to creatively focus and my mood – for better and worse. – Matt Mullenweg
- The welcome. For the meeting be there before the others, take the opportunity to speak to them before the meeting starts, ask them how they are or how their day was? I once completed the outstanding teach program at a school and when I arrived the host used to barrage me with hellos and engage with me about school. The awkward bit of breaking the ice had been done. In hindsight this meant we had all spoken before the meeting, and it made it much easier to continue on in that vein, rather than sitting in an awkward silence.
- Seating. Sounds stupid but how you set out the seats says a lot. Ideally for a ML meeting you want a table that everyone can sit around, close enough to a projector should it be needed, with comfy seats and biscuits. At the end of a day, people love a coffee and a biscuit and it helps people to relax, listen and contribute.
- The number of people attending. Too many staff and you wont get discussions that work, too few and you will get a bottle neck of ideas and pressure.
- Get people to share what’s going well. OK, it is a little forced, but the sharing of success is a powerful start once it becomes routine. It ensure people are reflective, positive and open minded. It also means that you are encouraging the active listening you will want for the meeting.
- Preparation. Anything thing you can do before the meeting to help the pace of a meeting should be done before hand. Articles staff needed to read, a populated document they needed to bring, data they could have been sent. All of this helps to keeps things efficient. Efficiency helps maintain pace.
- Difficult items kept to the end. You want a decision made on something, that’s important and you want it today? Put agenda task at the end, and start by saying we can get off early once we have resolved this. That’s a great way to get staff to engage on a tricky issue before they head off home or to their classrooms.
Trust and Fallibility through the royal ‘WE’
So you have started put in place the things for a great start to the meeting, how do you maintain that and drive through the ethos of openness and transparency?
SLT often speak directly and openly to each other, in fact this is exactly how I think SLT teams should work. But within a ML meeting the united front, regardless of individual differences, gives staff the faith to be open themselves without fear of judgement. In essence, SLT should have had the discussions needed before the meeting.
One of the quickest ways to gain the trust and support of a group is to ensure that you depersonalize the ideas and instructions that you bring to the table. If you are SLT then everything you bring is from SLT. If its good, it’s down to SLT. If its weak it is down to SLT. If something went wrong, you apologies and explain as SLT. You are one, you need ML to have faith and confidence in you.
Transparency should be retained for the SLT output level. “We have decided this” or “as SLT we are looking into this”. Transparency is great, but no one wants to see the cracks and issues laid out against people’s names within SLT when they are in a where they need to feel comfortable putting ideas forward. Avoid public shaming!
As a middle leader, I need to trust SLT to bring to me the important issues that they want my skill set on. Why would I want to engage with something that is awkward from the outset?
Anecdotally I once work in a school where there was a very open rivalry between two aspiring head teachers. This was very clear, not only in ML meetings but staff meetings and even in front of students. Nothing has ever made me feel more awkward in a professional setting!
John Quincy – If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader
Use middle leader voice
Be brave, do a questionnaire, ask your middle leaders in a depersonalised and quantitative way, do meetings work? What aspects should you change? Are people happy at the end of a meeting that they have helped to drive the school?
Survey Monkey via email will sort this super easy, and help you get staff to offer ideas through anonymity.
In short, there is nothing wrong with checking the spark plugs from time to time, you don’t have to wait for the engine to seize up before you make the changes. It is part of good middle leader maintenance.
Firstly. If its a meeting for meetings sake – don’t bother. Golden rule.
What do you feed your engine with? If the ML are the engine room of the school what fuel do you give it? How do you get it run at its best?
In this blog I want to focus on the diet of a Middle Leader, what should you feed the engine to get the best output?
Before I talk fuel, let’s talk team. A huge question, but who do you build your machine with? I don’t mean people’s abilities or capacity to do their role, as SLT you should have the correct people in their jobs already. More over, who ARE your middle leaders, heads of Dept? Pastoral Teams, The whole of SLT?
Go back to the purpose, who do you need to drive through the things that you are going to bring to the table. Do you maybe need two groups for different middle leader meetings whose input is essential to help SLT deliver their goals through constructing strategies based on reasoning and transparency. If its a meeting for meetings sake – don’t bother.
Discussion for me would be key, too many staff, to heavy on SLT and you will struggle to build the feeling of freedom that you need to get staff to speak and discuss.
In one of my roles I worked with a brilliant middle leader who ran the PE dept. He would often speak, but was concise and open. He spoke the truth and this allowed other staff a way of joining in. I admired this man hugely because I often struggle to voice my opinions to a quiet awkward room.
I think ML meetings should be staffed small enough to promote discussion without reducing the impact of communicating a plan school wide.
Because I love using analogies to try and explain what I mean, I will liken agenda topics to fuel types.
Whale oil – Old, smokey and causes lots of stop starts. Not a suitable fuel for car engines, and actually better suited for old fashioned lamps.
The problem with whale oil is that molecule chains were just too big to burn efficiently. You couldn’t give it enough oxygen, and even if you did it just isn’t fit for purpose. The type of agenda items you will see that is essentially whale oil are the ones that really need to be broken down and refined.
The agenda items that really you will struggle get going on in a short period of time. “school values” or “T and L strategies for the year”. Essentially items that with the best will in the world will take more than one meeting to complete and that would be better being chunked into “Defining desirable attributes for our school leavers” or “translating school values into outcomes in your deprtamrtnmt”.
Solve the issue of whale oil agenda items by breaking it down into chunks and planning the outcomes over sevral meetings, using the ML input to help shape the path that it takes. That way you wont waste oxygen, you’ll get it to burn better and the ML engine will move along more.
Diesel – Costs more, but sustains the journey for longer. Works well in hot climates.
This a great fuel, because its chunky enough to give you a lot of power, once you get it to burn. Its the kind of agenda item that means that you will chewing it for a while, but that should get you to drive an outcome.
These agenda items should be large chunks of the schools long term plan, that you inject to middle leader meetings. With clear outcomes these are the ‘meat and gravy’of the meeting (mixed metaphors) and will probably be the main focus or objective of the meeting.
You must involve ML, tell them the outcomes that you require, explain the situation and the discuss how each dept could help, or how the ML feel they could help you best. This should and could be a great part of the meeting. Moving a project from A to B, driving your engine, with a little steering and great listening. This can turn into a hot air injection (see below) if you keep the brakes on, try to steer too much and stop listening.
I heard a great quote once, I forget where so apologies, “Listen to understand, do not listen to reply”. That can be the difference between giving life to a meeting and making people leave feeling fed up.
Choose one diesel injection in the right place to make sure that the meeting travels some distance.
Petrol – Simple, fairly flammable – gets you from A to B not as efficient at long journeys. Starts well on cold mornings.
These agenda items are the quick wins, the shorter items that you can vote on, burn through and help finalise plans for SLT. They don’t take such a huge imput to get them started, and are the smaller things that either depratments need to consider or for SLT to get quick feedback on.
Hydrogen – Fuel of the future, non polluting but dangerous if played with for too long. Difficult to store.
Hydrogen is great stuff, the fuel all about the future. This is the agenda that brings in new and exciting pedagogical and leadership developments. Its about research and impact. This is the stuff that you bring in to keep you team trained, up to date and ready for what comes after this year.
At one school we discussed a piece of research or an article as one of the points, sometimes as a way of leading into a diesel type fuel injection agenda item. This was good for loosening tongues, and helps you feel that you’re not dealing with chunky old whale oil. Hydrogen items are interesting and fun. They let you stay up to date with the world of education whilst keeping you on track for school’s journey.
A whole meeting of hydrogen however wont work, its fun, but it wont move your school on very much, the strategy part is often not going to be there and this means that your are not driving forwards so much as playing at the side of the road.
Hot air – Will fill a cars engine, but will not get it to turn over. Won’t drive the machine but will make some short sighted people feel that the engine is being fuelled.
These agenda items are the kind that can easily fill a meeting, and are usually in the form of keeping you up to date with something the school is doing. The ML are not so much here to help, but here to listen.
This is the kind of of agenda that could have just been emailed out.
Fuel mixture to get a nitro injection
Getting the best mixture on an agenda can help you get your engine from A to B. It will help you to move further on with your long term school goals whilst getting the best out of your middle leader teams.
There is as always no perfect model, but from experience the best mixture of fuels can go like this.
- Petrol, quick engaged, quick win get the engine momentum.
- Hydrogen to raise the bar an engage further, use the momentum from the petrol item here to tootle along while you look at this item.
- Segue the hydrogen item into the larger diesel item for the meeting. Oxygenate the fuel by listening. Link to purpose, this will make sure your driving your engine in the right direction.
- Resolve it. Introduce one last boost with one or two petrol items and then if you must, if you acidly must, blow in some hot air for the last ten minutes.
- Department leaders can take some of the diesel based agenda items back to their faculties to discuss further.
In short, the right amount of fuel, matched with the right team and you start to get more from them, more than you ever did before.
Middle Leader Meetings
I like the whole concept of steam punk. Cogs, steam and analogue technologies combined in some futuristic kind of machine. You can see the parts, see a bit of the work, but the magic that it produces is greater than the sum. For me this is how the ultimate ML leader group would look and feel. But how do you build a winning machine?
As I previous previously blogged, the school’s middle leaders are often described as the engine room of the school, so how do you create an engine room that functions well. A middle leader meeting that brings with it the impact that you want and uses the team as effectively as possible. What do you build, and how?
What follows, as with so much on twitter, are the ideals and standards that I feel would build a great engine room.
You will be relieved to hear that I am not going to hammer the analogy (from previous blogs) so hard from here on in. Mainly dues to a lack of motor engineering knowledge!
It was a massive turning point as a young teacher, when I started to plan my lesson after writing the outcomes I wanted. Starting with the end goal, especially with a strong taxonomy or strategy (see later blogs) ensured progress from the start.
Starting with the end goal insight is how I think you should start everything. Setting up a meaningful ML team is hard. It is easy to get bogged down in the ideals or values you want the team to have, but without the tangible outcomes, how will you know what those values will look like?
You have to ask yourself some questions about what you actually want from ML. The answers are not always ‘YES’ – and that’s ok, so long as you’ve asked the.
- Are ML meetings the place you go to solve whole school issues?
- Is it where you want to take your SLT plans and communicate them to staff?
- Do you want ML to have a say?
- Will you listen?
- Are things always just a done deal?
- Do you meet for the sake of meeting?
- Do you Engaging the engine? (In my experience you get the best from a team when you empower them. I mean genuine praise and recognition. If it’s forced or disingenuous the beware – nothing saps morale more!)
Answering these with brutal honesty will help you to sculpt the purpose of what you actually want from ML meetings.
Purpose and outcomes from the start will structure a worthwhile meeting. If staff simply leave with a to-do list, and have contributed nothing to it, then you’re already switching your engine down a few gears.
My personal design for ML structure would start with the following purpose.
ML are involved with the strategic deployment of school wide initiatives. Their input is essential to help SLT deliver their goals through constructing strategies based on reasoning and transparency.
ML meetings should create an ethos of accountability, high expectations and innovation.
ML will help roll out school initiates but the school vision and plan will be communicated to staff from SLT.
Ok it sounds a little SLT speak, but in essence, SLT are supported in fixing problems with ML through explanation, discussion and conclusions. ML know that there is a professional expectation from them also.
This, like a lesson plan, gives me an overarching objectives to meet with each thing that I bring to the table as a senior leader.
I have a purpose to each meeting. I will make sure that ML know that this is the purpose of the meeting.
Now different schools will have different purposes, of course they will. Sometimes you ML need to drive fast changes because the school is in trouble. Sometimes the ML can ‘chew the fat’ a little more, and bring projects and ideas to the table for SLT to incorporate into plans and actions and CPD.
I would argue however, that a clear purpose, for everyone, helps breed collegiality.
In essence, if you want to build you amazing steam punk engine, you need to decide at the very start, what the purpose of that engine is!
Maybe you need a machine to grind coffee beans? Start with that purpose and make greater than the sum of its parts. Make it Steam punk.
I will cover some of these in the next 4 posts.
Fuel – diesel, petrol, hydrogen?
Engagement – “Spark plugs need changing mate”
Review – Servicing/Scrapping
Destination – “Are we nearly there yet?”
“Middle leaders are the engine room of the school”.
Sound familiar? I’d imagine its a phrase that most people will have heard at some point. I also think, in essence, that its true.
This, to me at least, conjures up a utopic image of a well tuned machine purring away. ML driving the school forwards, almost in cool calm cruise control. Getting from A to B. If A are targets and B are the outcomes.
I will start by saying that these are my opinions only, but that they are based on experience.
All schools have middle leaders, but there are many different levels to how well they work. What sort of engine does your school have?
A few that might ring true are;
- Struggle to get going on cold days, or actually need a good thump with a hammer to get started.
- Engines held together with elastic bands, post-its, and hope, taking on a Le Mans style behemoth of a challenge, destined to explode half way round the track.
- Conversely, super efficient engines, honed for F1, but that just tootle to the corner shop occasionally.
- Those whose start up times mean that are better suited to long journeys rather than a lot of smaller ones.
- Classics, lovingly put together and historic – but only used one quiet Sunday every third Sunday of the month.
- Or those smart futuristic engines that run thier own diagnostics and order parts whilst driving automatically .
In short there are a lot of aspects to getting the engines to carry you from A to B.
How do you get the engine you want?
If you can create a great engine, feed it the right fuel, get it powered up and drive it safely and quickly to your destination, then to break with the analogy, you turn that engine room into a powerhouse that will take your school anywhere where you need or want it to go!
So in the next few blogs I am going to pen my thoughts on how do you could build a great machine, feed it, look after it, engage it and ultimately win races with it.
For the sake of holding your engagement I will split the “How to build that Engine” into separate weekly blogs.
Engine Design – Steam punk .
Fuel – diesel, petrol, hydrogen?
Engagement – “Spark plugs need changing mate”
Review – Servicing/Scrapping
Destination – “Are we nearly there yet?”
I love being a middle leader, it has the best of leadership and teaching and learning, and I feel that I act as a conduit between my staff’s needs and that of my senior leadership team.
More excitingly it allows me to translate and plan to help both teams work together in the best way, pulling on my skill set.
I was thinking about writing another post (probably to follow this) about the importance of middle leadership meetings, and how the engine could work at its optimum, but then I became distracted by thinking about the characteristics that middle leaders often have.
I like analogies, and I also like RPG type games – so I found myself drawing comparisons to staff traits to certain characters from these games.
Like the character select screen, each trait has its strengths and weaknesses although they are usually not along the line of “resistance to fire” and “ability to wear heavy armour”.
Who are the main characters you might see sat across from you in those Middle Leader meetings? Which one would you choose to be?
This middle leader is strong, brutish and often unforgiving. They forge forwards and will pursue a quest at all costs. They enjoy the battles and seldom lose an argument.
They pick their strongest and lead the fight with them. They have no time for perceived weakness whether that is teaching ability, experience levels, illness or personality.
The strengths of this middle leader are their ability to get results, regardless of the loss of life. They are dogmatic at times, but they are impressive to others and can be relied on in battle.
This leader will often have one or two skills that they rely heavily on, they are less open to change, knowing what works for them. They have little time for theories and spells, they don’t like change and they believe everything can be sorted with a sword, and with a heavy attack.
These warriors become old tired warlords, full of tales about the good old days when they were fighting fit, unless they maintin the edge of thier weapons.
These middle leaders read, and they read a lot. Always collecting ideas and initiatives, they continually develop their practices and try out new things.
They enjoy the strategies, sometimes at the expense of the mission.
The strengths of this middle leader is that they always have something new to bring to the table, they are willing to try new things.
The entry-level mage struggles with perhaps too many initiatives, they want to try everything and they don’t always complete the actual goal, instead they throw things towards an initiative that means that they get to try their bag of tricks.
Experience points get squandered on being ok at lots of different things, and only the wise mages specialise.
At higher experience levels they are able to choose the right spell for the right job, drawing on their knowledge and experience.
Sometimes the nature of the mage means that they struggle to get others to follow their ideas, or they start an initiative that they never really return to while others struggle to keep up.
The mage seldom goes out of date, but often struggles to understand a main quest from a side quest. Struggles to prioritise on the bigger picture.
A cunning and clever middle leader the rogue can pursue a target without the requirement of strength that you might see in the warrior.
They are adept at survival and understand that there is no honour amongst thieves. They do not instil cohesion in their teams, and will often make sure that they look like the best practitioner.
Trap setting and disarmament are their main skills, avoiding the traps set from others whilst ensnaring those around them to further demonstrate their leadership position.
These middle leaders stay hidden, operating in the shadows until it is time to display the spoils of their fight.
The strengths of these middle leaders is that they quickly establish themselves a level of respect, with few understanding the dark tactics that they employed to be in that position.
These middle leaders fear transparency, and will often be armed with a bomb of email evidence to throw whilst escaping in the confusion.
These middle leaders are very clever.
This is almost a subtype of warrior. Very similar in strength and drive. However strong and driven they are motivated by stubborn a desire to collect all the accolades available at all costs.
This middle leader is driven by reward and not by the fight.
Happy to take down a competitor within the middle leadership team.
Doesn’t like to share praise.
This middle leader is a mixed character. They have aspects of the warrior and of the mage and a propensity to ensure that their team is well looked after and healed.
They are strong fighters, but wouldn’t win in an out out fight with a warrior.
They know a few spells and tricks, usually to help them either sustain their fight to a goal, or to recognise weakness in others.
At an entry level this middle leader can lose focus, do they heal their team? fight forwards? Or sit and learn some new tricks.
These middle leaders have a lot to offer but really require a good line manager to help keep them focussed on the task ahead until they have developed sufficiently.
At experienced level these are formidable warriors, they great good fellowship, win many battles and know some strong tricks. Emotional literacy is thier greatest weapon. Like all master level characters though they often don’t keep learning, and instead rely solely on experience to solve issues. A jack of all trades generally but not a bad character to have on your team.
These lack the emotional literacy of most living creatures. They try their best but don’t understand how humans work and so often try to get things done in peculiar ways.
Their strength is evidence of impacts in paper form. Often with leaver arch files in mottled grey heading back into the decades, they can provide information on what they did before and which of their team has only a 52.5% rate of Good+ lessons.
Easily ‘befuzzled’ with out of the box thinking, or with anything that doesn’t generate a paper trail.
A danger at the SLT level, and hard to line manage. Contact necromancers for advice on how to restore the human element missing.
The mystic is a free spirit who often can complete a quest but usually by chance when their free spirit coincides with an overall plan.
Tends to be away with the fairies and not very self-aware.
Ignorance is bliss, so often these middle leaders are blissfully unaware either how brilliant or terrible they are.
Becareful when these come into contact with Wraiths – it isn’t pretty.
Obviously the reality is that as a Middle leader we flit through these characters. Perhaps starting the game over each year, or reverting back to a different character type depending on the quest ahead.
Personally I aim to be a Paladin, as they are adaptable and tend to look after people around them, but sometime I fall foul of direction and need to be brought back into line with the school initiative or quest. I do not work well with Dwarves and Wraiths.
I will finish by saying that there is a place for every type in our middle leadership teams, and that the above piece of writing is very tongue in cheek, and hopefully made you smile rather than angry.