Developing Middle-Level Leaders: Get in the Boat

by Dean Croy

An Accidental Paddler

My first leadership role was an unofficial one as a grade-level leader. This role came about organically, or perhaps more accurately, accidentally, when my Grade 6 team wanted to meet more regularly throughout the year as our meetings the year prior had been sporadic. We knew that our goals for the new school year would require more discipline and collaboration; we had important work to accomplish together. We wanted to provide more cross-curricular learning opportunities for students, and we wanted to schedule our assessments better to provide students with a more balanced schedule. We also had a new member of the team who was a new teacher, and we wanted to ensure he received the support and mentoring necessary to succeed. It was the mid-90s, and cross-curricular units and multiple intelligences (Howard Gardner) were taking the educational world by storm. Our core teachers in English, social studies, science, and mathematics were all keen to contribute to units we were developing, but someone had to bring the team together: calling meetings, ensuring action items were recorded, and following up on the commitments we had made to one another. What I learned through this experience was the “value-added” we could bring to our students, all teachers in our grade level, and the school as a whole by working more effectively as a team. While the role was unofficial – without a title, stipend, or release time – it was where I learned the value of middle leadership. Fast forward 27 years. I’m no longer a Grade 6 teacher in Vancouver, Canada, but the head of an IB continuum school in Guangzhou, China. Since my initiation as a novice middle-level leader so many years ago, I have learned the importance of schools attending to the identification, development, and support of middle leaders. This is just one reason our school is hosting an ACAMIS workshop for new and aspiring team leaders in May this year. Through this workshop we are seeking to upskill teacher-leaders, providing them with a toolkit of strategies to help them be successful in their schools. 

Today’s Middle Leaders are Tomorrow’s Senior Leaders
The investment in middle leadership is a fundamental way in which we can provide an enduring contribution to leadership development and mentoring in our schools. For example, the middle-level leaders we invest in today become the mentors of the next generation of middle leaders. Furthermore, today’s heads of year and heads of department become the next generation of curriculum coordinators and vice principals, and later, principals and heads of school. An investment in our middle leaders today is an investment in our schools’ future senior leaders.  At my current school, our senior leadership team recently began a study of Michael Iannini’s, Hidden in Plain Sight: Realizing the Full Potential of Middle Leaders (IPS Group Ltd, 2019). The author himself kick-started our study and will lead the ACAMIS workshop we are hosting next spring. In reading this book together, our goal is to identify a common set of competencies that we will develop in our heads of year, heads of department, and curriculum facilitators in the coming years. And while I have not yet completed the book, it has certainly resonated thus far. 


“Paddles up!”
I close with a metaphor to illustrate what strong middle leaders can do for your school. It comes from my experience learning to dragon boat (apologies in advance to anyone who is more than a novice in the sport).  Several years ago, our newly formed staff dragon boat team took to the water in the hopes of living up to our moniker, the Flying Canucks. In that initial year of paddling together, our coach taught us the science of dragon boating. By that, I mean how a crew successfully works together to “lift” the boat on top of the water through a series of short quick strokes, and then propel it rapidly across the water through the strong, powerful strokes coming from the “engine room.” While all team members must participate in “lifting” the boat through well-timed rapid strokes when the race begins, and all crew members must continue to paddle to the finish line, it is the powerful paddlers in the middle of the boat, the “engine room,” that drives the boat forward.  In schools, the “engine room” is powered by middle-level leaders. Schools progress with well-placed and trained middle leaders, who collectively ensure the important work of school improvement is implemented. Think of any recent innovation implemented in your school. Surely there was a skilled and thoughtful middle leader at the centre of that initiative or programme. And just as the “engine room” in a dragon boat is filled with strong, fit, perseverant paddlers, your school must also be staffed with competent middle leaders with the time, support, and encouragement to carry out the important work of school improvement. Middle leaders who have been trained, coached, encouraged, and compensated fairly for their work drive their schools forward much like dragon boaters who sit in the engine room and power their boats to the finish line.  Are you nurturing the development of middle leaders in your school? If you are not on this journey, consider starting now. Your school requires strong middle-level leaders who will power your school towards the achievement of your strategic objectives. Get in the boat … “Paddles up!” Dean Croy is the Head of School, Utahloy International School GuangzhouTo connect with Dean, email: email dcroy@uisgz.org 

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In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog, Alistair Downs – Education Director,  Reigate Grammar School, Riyadh, writes about ‘Leading Your School Through International Accreditation

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