Building leadership from the middle

Issue: Volume 93, Number 4

Posted: 10 March 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctf

Middle leadership, particularly at larger schools, is a role that’s evolved substantially in recent times. Westlake Boys’ High School teacher Rachel Peak and collaborators have demonstrated a willingness to tackle the challenges that this evolution entails, to develop a successful middle leadership development programme that may inspire other schools.

Retaining quality teachers and building leadership capacity at Westlake Boys High School (WBHS) has been the focus of our successful leadership programme, developed two years ago.

The Middle Leadership Programme (MLP) was established by associate headmaster Alex Reed and myself in 2012 and involved a group of 16 middle leaders from a range of curriculum and pastoral. Its success means we are looking at continuing the programme, with some tweaking that’s arisen from lessons learned.

I obtained a Ministry of Education study award in 2010 and completed my Master of Educational Leadership and Management (MEDLM) from Unitec, where I researched middle leadership of teams in large secondary schools. The leaders I researched commonly felt they had little training for effective collaboration. On top of many other daily tasks, middle leaders are now typically expected to lead departments, solve problems, and implement new curriculum changes. Many feel under-prepared and in need of support.

Another key finding was that the nature of middle leadership is changing, from management to team leadership, and many feel less than confident in taking on these new responsibilities.

Middle leaders are key in helping to improve pedagogy. Yet as Professor Tanya Fitzgerald asserts, “management tasks and activities dominate teachers’ work and that means there is little or no time for leadership.”

My research brought to light also the fact that middle leaders learn through the positive and negative experiences that they face, but they require support from others to face their challenges.

WBHS agreed that principals needed to cultivate middle leaders, and that this presented a great opportunity to experiment and give our middle leaders the support they require. The school already has a committee-led internal professional development programme that promotes external workshops, encourages visits to other schools and provides partial funding for staff wanting to improve their qualifications. In light of my findings, and with the enthusiastic backing of the school, our MLP programme was launched.

We began in 2012 with a group of 16 middle leaders from a range of curriculum and pastoral areas of the school. The first group of participants were involved in a range of activities: focus group sessions, workshops, presentations applicable to the school’s context, and shadowing other leaders within the school.

We have centred the workshops around aspects such as leadership and social styles, effective communication with parents and colleagues, appraisal, budgeting, management systems, time management, effective team work, and presentations skills.

Lecturers from Unitec, including associate professor and mentor Howard Youngs of Auckland University, Leader’s Edge (an external Professional development provider), as well as internal and external secondary school presenters have all been part of the programme, enabling a range of new ideas to be shared.

One participant said a highlight was “having time to reflect on new ideas, to share with colleagues and know they are going through similar challenges to me. Often, we are focused on getting the job done and forget about making the time to reflect.”

The programme was designed so participants were exposed to new ideas in order to learn about their own leadership style, which we think has been achieved. While participants may not have agreed with everything they experienced, the programme has enabled more cross-department collaboration within our school. They now have other people to be ‘sounding boards’, and they have been exposed to different leaders’ styles. Another participant said that “it has helped build my understanding and relationships with others at WBHS, while the external presenters have been valuable in giving different perspectives.”

The school has helped to provide time for the programme in the relief budget, but most of the workshops have included out-of-school time as well. It has been a challenge to ensure this has been successful, especially with the busy nature of working in a high-achieving school. To a large extent, we relied on the goodwill of presenters, but the school did find money to send one participant to the Australian Educational Leadership conference in Canberra last year.

“It was a really worthwhile opportunity to get a feel for global educational leadership and to develop a better understanding of how senior leadership works in different contexts,” reports Brad Coetzee, WBHS Year 13 Dean.

The school hopes to continue providing these types of opportunities and incentives to the middle leadership participants.

Alex Reed is determined to extend the programme and is looking at whether this collaborative model – combining the expertise we have in school with the broader skills and knowledge of the educational community – is one that we can adapt in other areas of our work as a school.

“The commitment of the teachers involved has driven the programme’s success,” he says, “and the school has benefited enormously from the skills they have developed through this commitment.”

We feel that this programme complements the Government’s new initiatives to raise the profile of leaders in education. By keeping teachers’ development and learning at the forefront of education, there should be improved student outcomes. Education leadership expert, Professor Viviane Robinson, suggests: “It will ground leadership in the core business of teaching and learning”.

Our school’s reputation for excellence rests on both our students and our teachers. We feel we have a responsibility to professionally support our middle leaders as many of them are new to their positions, or aspire to a leadership role.

Rachel Peak will be presenting a workshop at the NZEALS conference in Wellington, April 2014. If you would like more information about the programme or workshop she can be contacted at

References are available on request.

WBHS Middle Leadership Programme – key points

  • Two-year programme, run internally.
  • Workshops run over two years and focus specifically on areas in which middle leaders need support and development.
  • The group is divided into two: Heads of Faculty and Heads of Department/pastoral leaders and sessions are tailored to suit.
  • Each participant ‘shadows’ another middle or senior leader in the school throughout the year. This involves observing them throughout the day in meetings, interviews, teaching, etc. and asking questions about the day-to-day role. Each also attended different aspects of school life.

Common challenges within middle leadership

  • Middle leaders need assistance in order to relieve the pressures they face and improve their expertise in order to fulfil the requirements of their changing role.
  • Middle leadership is multi-faceted, and includes much paperwork, but the role is people-focused.
  • Heads of department are increasingly taking on learning leadership within their teams; this can create tension in the middle.
  • The middle leader’s role is changing in New Zealand secondary schools from management to leadership; this means increasing time pressure.
  • There is a need for role clarity and definition for middle leaders.
  • A micro-management style of leadership hinders effectiveness, whereas a high-trust leadership model promotes autonomy and fosters trusting relationships.
  • Dealing with difficult aspects of people management is challenging.
  • Building and maintaining effective subject teams is a complex yet integral aspect for middle leaders.

How some of the above issues are being addressed at Westlake

  • Westlake upper management has recognised the need to develop new and existing middle leaders as crucial for the retention of quality teachers.
  • A formalised mentoring programme (through the MLP initiative) is being run internally by senior leaders and experienced middle leaders, in order to try and develop leadership capacity.
  • Westlake is surveying options for the allotment of more time for middle leaders to get ahead with administrative tasks, as well as reflect on their practice.
  • The Westlake MLP initiative seeks to ensure that professional dialogue is embedded and on-going, in recognition of the fact that professional conversation helps by ‘learning with and through each other’.

(Some of these recommendations are from Rachel Peak’s 2010 thesis entitled Middle leadership of teams in large New Zealand secondary schools).

BY Rachel Peak
Westlake Boys’ High School,

Posted: 9:40 am, 10 March 2014

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