Teaching Leaders

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.

Reflections on Trends in Teacher Leadership

Leading Educators Advisory Board Retreat, New Orleans, February 2013

by Andrea Berkeley, Leadership Development Direct at Teaching Leaders UK and Leading Educators Advisory Board Member

Andrea Berkeley

Although the observations that follow are based mainly on UK experience, similar trends appear to be emerging across global education systems: increased public accountability in tandem with greater autonomy for schools; an urgent imperative to close the opportunity gap between affluent and poorer communities; national, public or state authority over schools being replaced by stakeholder communities or not-for-profit mission-driven organisations impatient with endemic failures of the status quo. In addition to global shifts in economic power, the nature of work itself is changing along with advances in technology.

The big question of the day seems to be whether our education systems are fit for purpose. Although successive government reforms in the UK have driven up standards overall in the last 10 years, the gap between the attainment of children from poor and affluent homes has remained roughly the same, in some areas it has widened, and there is a long tail of underachievement.

The legacy of the Charter School movement in the US - KIPP in particular - echoes through the rapid emergence of new kinds of school organisation in the UK – federations clustered around ‘Teaching Schools’ which, partnered with a university, provide professional development from initial teacher training to leadership and management across groups of schools; independent yet state-funded chains of academies and the new ‘Free Schools’.

These systemic changes afford more opportunities for collaboration and the kind of distributed leadership essential for building a self-sustaining system, where schools learn from and support each other. This ideal is easier said than done: for some sceptics the definition of ‘collaboration’ would seem to be ‘the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of government funding’, when faced with the reality of forced collaboration or reluctant leadership.

A McKinsey report on education standards published in the UK two years ago emphasised the importance of school leadership, citing research demonstrating that the quality of leadership is second only to classroom teaching in its impact on student achievement. The same report also published data showing that in-school variation – between subject departments and between individual teachers – is as big a driver of the opportunity gap as school-to-school variation.

Both the UK and the US have invested soundly in the development of school leadership in recent years, both as a strategic management tool and as a means of growing the leadership talent pipeline. But the focus has been mainly on senior leadership and not on those teachers who lead on the frontline of delivering improved standards.

The imperative to address the development needs of ‘first-line leaders’ – those middle ranking teachers who lead teams of teachers – was raised at an Education Summit held by Leading Educators US and Teaching Leaders UK in Washington DC in 2009. Little has been institutionalised in developed countries since then and the concept is almost virtually unknown in developing nations. Even in the UK and the US there is still a prevalence of ‘first among equals’ or ‘advocate’ culture rather than teacher-leaders who are accountable and who hold others to account.

The time for a collaborative, networked approach that includes support for individual teacher-leaders as well as advancing systemic change might just be right, as Generation Y, the ‘Me’ Generation is being replaced by the ‘C’ Generation, a psychographic group emerging on both sides of the Atlantic as highly connected, pluralistic, multi-cultural, media-savvy digital citizens with shared values and lifestyles.