The Power of Relationships in Middle Leadership

In April, Leading Educators took seven Fellows to England in partnership with Teaching Leaders UK and the British Council. We are now featuring their reflections here. 

Adrianna Riccio, who shares her reflections below, is a Reading Specialist at Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria, VA. She is in her first year of the Leading Educators Fellowship. 

The aspects of a successful relationship, whether personal or professional, are trust, collaboration, and belief in potential. The feeling you get when someone trusts you to make a decision or believes that you have the potential to do something great is probably one of the best feelings you will ever experience. If you are lucky, you’ll get to experience that feeling over and over again.

I became a teacher because I wanted to be the cause of this feeling in all of my students. I believe in my students’ ability to succeed and I share this belief with them on a regular basis. We know the research and our experiences teach us that students thrive when they experience positive relationships. I believe this is also true for adults who work with children, namely teachers.

When I accepted my new position at Glasgow Middle School this year, I was nervous. It would be the first time that I would be given the responsibility of a team of teachers. It would be the first time in my career that I would need to make decisions about programs, best practices, teaching and learning and student achievement for students outside of my classroom. It would be my first formal leadership opportunity. A few months before accepting the position, I was inducted into the 2013 cohort of Leading Educators’ teacher leadership Fellowship, the inaugural cohort in the Washington, DC area. I had just come back from the Leading Educators’ week-long summer intensive and my mind was spinning with all of the things I wanted to implement during the year.

In American schools, the idea of middle leadership is really just starting to evolve. Typically in public education, the principal sets the tone for the school and others follow his or her vision. The principal makes the decisions, often with the help of a senior leadership team, but rarely will he or she ask for teacher input. Although the positions for middle leadership do exist in some schools, the communication is more like a pipe line rather than a collaborative discussion where middle leaders and teachers’ ideas are regularly taken into consideration. Middle leadership in England is an established part of the education sector with defined goals and objectives. While some schools in the United States have moved in this direction, middle leadership in the United States continues to lack national momentum.

Middle leadership in the English school system has become a national discussion and goals and evaluation criteria have been established. Almost all leaders in the school, including the principal and vice principal, continue to teach and work with students. The senior leadership team relies heavily on the middle leaders and gives them the autonomy to make decisions within their areas of expertise. All leaders in the building encourage continuous professional development and collaboration and this idea is infused in everything they do, from the assistant teachers to the Director of Education. Teachers are collaborating with other teachers, other leaders and other schools. While it would be fairly easy to go back to the Unites States and explain to my principal that we need to collaborate more because doing so is what is making England so successful, I somehow think it goes deeper than just working together. I think it’s because the senior leadership team has developed relationships with their middle leaders that are based around trust, collaboration, and the belief in potential. 

Like every other experience I have had with Leading Educators, this experience taught me an unbelievable amount. I was most impressed with how often I witnessed trust and collaboration between leadership and teachers, and how everyone believed in the potential of both their peers on staff and the students. Middle leadership in the United States is a fairly new concept. Traditionally, the school leadership team consisted of only principals and vice principals.

The idea of giving teachers more leadership capacity is a recent development within education. Positions like subject area leader or instructional coach are affording teachers the opportunity to continue teaching while also exercising their leadership ability. Some middle leaders continue to teach, while others leave the classroom and assume leadership responsibilities full time. Some are given the autonomy to make decisions about their subject area or team of teachers, while others are simply passing on messages from the senior leadership team. They are able to bridge the communication gap between school administrators and classroom teachers. Middle leadership needs to become a national discussion in order for the field of education to advance.

In order to continue to improve middle leadership in the United States, middle leaders must be given the autonomy to make decisions within their field of expertise and it must become a national discussion so that we can create a standard of measure from which to improve. Only when we empower middle leaders to contribute to the success and improvement of their schools will we see all students reach their full potential.

The opportunity to collaborate internationally with other teachers and leaders was made possible because of the important work of Leading Educators and their sister organization in the UK, Teaching Leaders, and the British Council. It is because of organizations like these that the discussion of middle leadership is becoming more widely known. Programs like this in the future will continue to develop capacity in our future middle leaders and improve our schools.