Bastow Middle Leaders in Schools Conference: My Reflections

I’ve written this post more as a reflection for myself rather than piece for anyone else, but if something resonates with you, I’d love to chat about it. I’ve got lots to untangle after this.


I recently attended the inaugural Bastow Middle Leaders in Schools conference. The conference was, as always with Bastow, high quality with knowledgeable speakers and a super smooth online event.

If you are in middle leadership and looking for some professional development, this is a lot to be gotten out of this conference and I’d recommend this event in future years. Based on the sessions I attended, I felt it was aimed more at, or perhaps more beneficial for, people who are already in a middle leadership position and have some experience in that arena.

I want to reflect on a few key takeaways for me around

  • Unique positioning of middle leaders,
  • Trust in leadership, and
  • Leadership identity.

Unique Positioning of Middle Leaders

Middle leaders in schools usually have the unique position of being both part of a leadership team and being “on the ground”, doing the same work as teachers in classrooms. This means they can influence up (to senior leadership) and across (to teachers and teams). While senior leaders need to place more of their focus on the big picture stuff, and teachers need to focus carefully on the minutia of classroom teaching, middle leaders have the unique position of working with both.

I tried to come up with a few analogies for this – a foot in both camps, a finger in all pies, sitting on the fence, but they all created a sense of separation between teachers and senior leaders and the work each of them do. I feel that a middle leader should serve as a bridge between the two; they can allow safe discourse to span the gap, open up opportunities for educators to see the other side, and stand at different points along the bridge depending on what is needed.

Influencing up to senior leadership might look like:

  • Seeing and experiencing policy and school level decisions in action, and feeding back on successes and challenges
  • Breaking the vision and goals of the school into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Advocating for teachers and staff to leaders

Influencing across to teachers and teams might look like:

  • Being a practising teaching member of teams
  • Providing formal support with teaching, such as coaching or mentoring, or less formal support, such as being an active participant in discussions around pedagogy and practice
  • Opportunity and expectation to practice what you preach in terms of teaching practice

Purpose

A new concept for me from this conference was “stewardship theory”. Stewardship theory means that a manager, left on their own and without being closely overseen, will act as a responsible steward of the people and things they control or manage. While I’m still wrapping my head around this big idea, my takeaway is that rather than fulfilling their responsibilities because they have to, this idea of being a steward means they carry out their work with a strong sense of purpose and care.

As Paul Kidson put it in the opening keynote, being a steward means “There’s something deeply embedded within me that is a sense of moral purpose for learning and wellbeing for students, colleagues, families and communities.”

This means that

  • They have a moral purpose that propels the work, not compliance
  • They are intrinsically motivated, not by extrinsic rewards
  • They are empowered by senior leadership, not controlled
  • They take a collaboration/trust approach with people they lead, not a control approach

This stewardship theory led into the concept of tight-loose (or tight-loose-tight) leadership (Based on work by DuFour & Fullan), which is tight in purpose, loose in implementation and tight on results and follow-up.

The tightness in purpose and results means that leaders clearly support an expectation that staff in schools are working towards a common goal and staff know this common goal will be measured for results. The looseness in implementation means that leaders allow people to do things their way based on relevance and context. This allows autonomy and flexibility for teachers in their approaches.

Common alternatives leaders should avoid are are loose-loose-loose which creates inertia where things remain unchanged, loose-loose-tight which leads to a blaming culture, tight-tight-loose which leads to innovation fatigue, and loose-tight-loose which lends itself to micromanagement with no clear purpose or data to back it up – another reason new leaders especially should understand their own leadership identity and see themselves as a leader and steward rather than a manager.

This idea of tight-loose leadership isn’t a new one to me, but it is a good reminder that the ‘how’ can look many different ways, but the ‘why’ has to be absolutely clear to me and those I lead.

Trust

I have worked with some untrustworthy ‘leaders’ in the past. I have experienced first-hand the way that when that trust is missing, people are simply not valued, and the work cannot get done (especially not in a way that lasts).

Being untrustworthy is a trait I definitely want to avoid as an educator, a leader and a colleague (and as a human too, I guess) and so this session allowed me to begin to understand trust in leadership a little more deeply.

Professors Christine Edwards-Groves and Peter Grootenboer spoke on trust in leadership as glue. They shared these quotes that really highlighted the way that trust is what is holding together all the work leaders do with teachers, and making it stick!

Christine and Peter spoke about the five aspects of relational trust. These are the aspects leaders can work on to build themselves as trustworthy in their work. I’ve summarised these aspects, shared in their clinic and in this article.

In this session I was in a breakout room with Peter. “How do you know if you have the trust of your colleagues?”, I asked him, kind of hoping for a checklist or something. His answer was much better and of course more complex than box-ticking. He said something like “If you do the work and be trustworthy, the trust will come.”

For me, this really connected with the concept of tight-loose leadership, especially in the area of loose implementation. In particular it is making me consider how middle leaders need to find the balance between intellectual trust (I know my stuff) and interactional trust (I can collaborate with others) in order to enable the people they work with to feel they have agency and are a valued contributor to their team, rather than just taking orders from someone in charge.

Leadership Identity

There was A LOT to think about on this topic. I find it fascinating and tricky, so I was thrilled to have a chance to get deeper into the idea of leadership identity. I’ve just chosen to focus here on birds, impact and self-efficacy although there is so, SO much more to explore.

Know yourself as a leader

It turns out, I’m an eagle.

Source: Richard Step

Dr Kylie Lipscombe had us take a DOPE personality quiz which had all the participants coming out as different kinds of birds. As well as being hilarious and weirdly satisfying, it was also an opportunity to build self-awareness in how our personalities might impact our leadership practices both positively and negatively.

Exiting this quiz as an eagle, I thought about how

  • Being decisive helps me get teams to come to decisions, rather than circling, and helps me distil main ideas to get groups to have clarity on a decision
  • Being stimulated by challenge means I am not afraid and am pretty enthusiastic about doing new and aspirational things as an educator, and helping teams and teachers to do it too
  • I can be direct, which can come across as insensitivity to others when I am hyper-focused on a goal.

Knowing your impact as a middle leader

Throughout the conference I also grabbed a few quotes about the impact of school leaders, and middle leaders especially.

These really struck me as important, especially for educators new to middle leadership. It can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing middle leadership as an organiser or admin type role, but in my experience it is critical for middle leaders to understand the level of impact they can have and use their sense of purpose in the role to have a major impact on student learning.

Self efficacy and leadership

We were presented with the idea that leaders who have high self efficacy are able to control who they are and what they do and are therefore more effective in their leadership practices.

For me, being a leader and an educator is a constant struggle with self doubt. Am I good enough? Am I getting it right? Who would do it better? Do I really know my stuff?

Of course the answers to this exist on a spectrum, and I know I am overly self critical in my work, sometimes self-reflective to the point of paralysis, but not being good enough is something I grapple with often. I think self efficacy is an area I can learn a lot more about to become more effective and comfortable in my work as a teacher and leader.

We looked at Bandura’s tools for efficacy development.


Source: The Pennsylvania State University

Some takeaways from this for me were:

Performance outcomes/mastery: This is what we gain when we take on a new challenge successfully. It is important to have your own personal, small, realistic goals. This makes you able to know your impact. Win small, win often.

I often mentally take on a million challenges and have many goals. Realistically, clarifying what my goals are (and culling them by a few hundred thousand) and celebrating when I achieve them is an important step I can take.

Vicarious experiences: actively seeking out chances to network, to reflect on leadership with others in the same role, and having a mentor or coach can help with this.

Verbal/social persuasion: seeking out and noting encouragement from others through feedback or surveys can be useful for improving efficacy.

I do actively seek this out, but I perhaps am too reliant on this for self-efficacy and could definitely swing the balance in other directions.

Physiological feedback/emotional state: Having methods for managing anxiety and mood in challenging situations is important.

Teachers can do this? Joking.

Bonus tool: Visualisation (from James Maddox) is the ability to imagine future success to build the belief that succeeding is possible.

This is not something I had genuinely thought of as a “real” strategy before so I will be looking into this a bit more.

And so…

I just want to end this by saying that this is a summary of my reflections and takeaways. I listened to a lot of speakers who are experts in their fields and I do not presume to have anywhere near their depth of knowledge on these topics. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been exposed to new research, new leaders and thinkers and to revisit some concepts about leadership I’ve spent time on before. This blog reflects a moment just past the start of my exploration of these and I’m excited about it.

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