Leading in a whirlwind

A thought for those “leading from the middle”

Phil Mathe takes off his hat to the ‘engine’ of  a school – the middle leaders who are playing such a crucial role  during the Covid crisis.

That little bit more amazing

Over the course of this damn pandemic, we’ve heard lots about how difficult various groups have found the idea and practice of “distance learning”, “online learning”, “blended learning” or whatever else it’s been called. We’ve heard from the pupils, who have had it the hardest by a country mile. We’ve seen parents and teachers, who’ve had to balance the different roles in their lives like never before. We’ve heard about Head Teachers who’ve broken their backs to try and keep schools open, keep pupils learning and keep everyone safe. Everyone has their story and everyone has had to be that little bit more amazing at whatever role they have played.

Being in the middle

I want to highlight one other group. The group that has, arguably, always had the hardest role in schools. The group that often gets overlooked, and certainly has been during the past weeks and months.

I want to talk about being a middle leader, in these times of crisis.

Please excuse this focus on this one group of educators but as one myself, I know just how hard it has been for those “leading from the middle” to juggle the multitude of responsibilities and accountabilities that the disruption has caused. Even in normal times it is often argued that those in the middle leadership of a school have the toughest job. In these completely non-normal times, the role has been near impossible and yet, all around me, I have seen Middle Leaders not just cope, but drive their subject areas, and schools as a whole, just as much as anyone.

Sir Michael Wilshaw said in 2014 that “middle leaders are the engine of any school”. And this has been seen no more clearly than during the academic year of 2020/21. Just taking my own school as an example, our middle leadership have not just led learning, but managed curriculum modification of the very highest order, developed technology platforms upon which their departments can operate, managed attendance, attainment, intervention and assessment. All the time balancing their own online teaching, their departmental staff moral and mental wellbeing, more often than not with their own school age children at home and all the technological, logistical and organisational challenges that this comes with.

Dual challenge

Middle leaders have a two-sided challenge at all times. They must manage and deliver on the expectations of those above them, whilst leading and supporting those who report to them. These two roles often conflict with each other and you only need to look at Twitter or LinkedIn to see middle leaders struggle to balance the demands of schools to deliver outstanding outcomes for their pupils, with the need to manage the workloads and pressures placed on teaching staff in really challenging circumstances. I have seen example after example with middle leaders taking on much of the workload that would usually be distributed out amongst a department. Without the opportunity for face-to-face interaction, the nuance of department communications has changed and rather than upset or unbalance the staff they work so hard to support, middle leaders have taken on more, at a time when taking on more feels almost impossible.


One Middle Leader in my school likened it to a whirlwind of educational chaos. “Things come at you from all angles, without any notice, through no fault of anyone” she said. “You just have to duck and catch and then deal with whatever is thrown at you. We do it because we know the outcomes we all want for our students and that make taking on these challenges easier”

Delivering while enabling

James Toop said of middle leaders in 2017, “they deliver change in the classroom, enable consistently great teaching across the school, and ensure that progress and development gaps are closed”. In a world where pupils have lost learning time, missed important educational milestones and suffered academic, social, mental and physical loss, those responsible for developing and maintaining the programmes that will bring those pupils back from whatever place they find themselves, deserve the recognition that is so often overlooked in schools.

Respect all round

Don’t get me wrong, reader. I know that middle leaders in most schools are justly rewarded for taking on these extra roles and responsibilities and please do not translate this article as a moan. It’s much more than that. It’s part war cry, part congratulatory speech, part hug and part supportive arm around the shoulder. Everyone, regardless of their role in schools this year has gone above and beyond any call of duty they ever expected to get, but in amongst the praise and support for teachers, headteachers, parents, support staff and pupils, spare a thought for the man or woman in the middle. The engine, trying their absolute best, to keep that sputtering car moving forward.

To all the Middle Leaders out there, in whatever role you find yourself. Take a bow, and a deep breath!


Phil Mathe is Director of Sport at Brighton College Al Ain in the UAE, having previously led PE departents in Egypt and Kenya. His passions include driving participation levels in pupils and embracing technology in PE teaching.




Feature Image: by Pattadis Walarput from Pixabay

Support Image: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay