Posts Tagged ‘middle leaders’

The first three steps (Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3) of planning as a middle leader has been to set up the context for action. Without having a strong transformational context for leading your team within the school it is quite easy for action to devolve into just doing.Planning for Action

  • By articulating a team vision the whole team has a context within which they are acting. They aren’t taking the action because senior leadership or the government has imposed it on them. The actions they will be taking are to fulfil on their vision for the future. This statement answers the question, “Why are we doing this?”
  • By making the effort to create a Case for Action narrative the middle leader and team have identified where they are now against their vision, they have speculated what is the likely future, and they have painted a compelling vision of the outcome they are out to achieve within the vision. The Case for Action narrative tells the story of WHY a change is needed and what could be possible by acting urgently.
  • Assessing the strengths and areas of development of the team members allows a guiding coalition to be formed who will be the first ones to drive change. They will be the small group of individuals who try new ideas, find out what works, what doesn’t, and create a path for others to follow more easily.

Now that the contextual work has been done it is time to start fleshing out the plan for the coming year.


Steps to Plan for Action

There are three tables in the Planning Template that takes middle leaders through a process of thinking as you plan. Each table is important in that it has the middle leader think from a different place. The outcome of thinking and planning from these three places is a strategic plan which address the WHAT, WHO, HOW, By WHEN, resources needed, logistics, and potential obstacles and solutions.

The Goal row in the tables is taken from the school Annual Implementation Plan or has been identified by school senior leadership or by the team as what they want to focus upon.


Table One

Goal: To
Actions I will need to do to accomplish my goal

(What, Who, By When)

What resources will I need to take these actions?

(include $$, PD & human resources)

What could be some milestones for these actions?

(Teacher Practice and Behaviours)

What evidence do we need to be gathering (and how will we gather it) to measure progress?
· · · ·
· · · ·
· · · ·


The first table takes middle leaders through the broad thinking and planning they need to do as they plan to address the identified goal.

  • What could be some of the possible actions that could be taken by the team to accomplish the goal? In writing these actions address what the action is, who could take it, and approximately by when
  • What resources would be needed to achieve these identified actions? This includes time, money, professional learning, and perhaps even human resources.
  • What could be some of the milestones that would show that the actions are on track? Would there be particular teacher behaviours and practices in place? How would the team know if they are on track to achieving the goal?
  • What evidence could be collected along the way to measure progress? The evidence could be qualitative or quantitative. Both micro- and macro-data can be useful. How will the team collect this evidence?

Note: Make sure that as the middle leaders brainstorm ideas that they don’t evaluate them. Evaluation of the actions occurs once all three tables have been completed. The purpose of waiting until then is that sometimes we can eliminate really great ideas and actions because we don’t know how to do them yet or because of a mistaken belief about resources or what is possible. Sometimes some of the ideas and actions aren’t possible but may lead to further ideas. By capturing all the thinking initially we allow for divergent, creative thinking.


Table Two

Action Term 1 Term 2 Term 3 Term 4
# 1  
# 2  
# 3


Table two asks the middle leader to unpack the actions identified in rows of the first table into smaller steps across the terms in a school year. It takes the brainstorming thinking and starts to explore how one could sequence the action steps and milestones across the year. This is critical because we find that one of the biggest barriers to successfully achieving the planned goals arises in the logistics. Schools are busy places and middle leaders only have a limited amount of time in their teams. By using the school calendar and the scheduled team meetings, professional learning opportunities, etc., planning logistically to achieve the identified actions will give a middle leader deeper insight into what can actually be accomplished. It will be at this stage that some of the actions planned will appear as doable or not.

Note: Again don’t begin evaluating and eliminating actions yet. If the logistic planning shows that it may not be possible with the current resourcing or time available there might be requests that can be made. Filling in this table requires identifying the small action steps.


Table Three

Goal: To
Challenges / Obstacles to achieving the goal Potential Solutions Areas you need to grow / develop your capacity in




Table three has the middle leader explore what could be the potential obstacles and challenges that the team may face along the way. It has the team think about how they could potentially overcome these obstacles and challenges.

  • Could there be timing issues?
  • School structure or process issues?
  • Teacher belief issues?
  • Resourcing issues?
  • Perhaps team members need to develop their capacity in some way to achieve the desired results.

Note: It is at this stage that middle leaders and their team can look over the entire plan and evaluate what actions they WILL take and when. It is only when the three tables are complete that there is a full picture.



A number of years ago at a conference I attended in Sydney, Jason Clarke from Minds At Work described the four types of people needed for effective teams. His description of each of the four “types” of people sparked an insight for me about the whole planning process and teams and reminded me about the design process. In its simplest form the planning process has four phases:

  • Ideas Phase: this is a divergent thinking brainstorming phase. We want the big ideas, the creative ideas, the “what if” ideas. People who are creative thinkers, imaginative, and divergent thinkers tend to do well in this phase. This “type” of people can be thought of by others as fluffy and “creative”! This phase is important because new ideas can arise. Teams don’t evaluate at this stage because evaluation will shut down creative and divergent thinking.
  • Design Phase: this is the phase where teams figure out the logistics and how to have the identified ideas happen. It is a convergent phase because it involves creating a step by step plan of action. Design thinkers (architects, engineers, trades people, administration people, etc.) are very good at taking the big ideas and figuring out HOW. They work well with ideas people as well as evaluators and are very detailed oriented (which is good for planning).
  • Evaluation Phase: this is the phase where all the potential obstacles, challenges and “yeah buts” are identified. What could be the potential barriers to success? During the evaluation phase it is important to also explore potential solutions to the barriers to success. It is critical that whilst barriers and obstacles are being identified to remain solution focused otherwise this phase can be disempowering. People who are strong evaluators are sometimes seen as a problem in teams. This is only because they begin evaluating too soon. They are very useful but only at the right time in the process. When an evaluator is satisfied and can’t come up with any further obstacles then it is almost certain that the plan is solid!
  • Action Phase: this final phase is where the plan is put into action. During this phase it is important to keep gathering evidence of the results of action. This feedback will inform future action and sometimes require the return to the design and evaluation phases. People who are strong in action hate sitting through the first three phases because all they want to do is get into action. Their motto is “Just Do It”. This is great for getting things done but if they aren’t following a solid plan they can work very hard and not get anywhere!

Step six of Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change identifies the importance planning for and achieving small wins. For leaders in the middle of a long-term change effort, short-term wins are essential. Running a change effort without attention to short-term performance is extremely risky. The guiding coalition becomes a critical force in identifying significant improvements that can happen quickly. Getting these wins helps ensure the overall change initiative’s success. Research shows that organisations that experience significant short-term wins in the early stages are much more likely to complete the transformation.

As Kotter points out:

“To ensure success, short term wins must be both visible and unambiguous. The wins must also be clearly related to the change effort.  Such wins provide evidence that the sacrifices that people are making are paying off.  This increases the sense of urgency and the optimism of those who are making the effort to change. These wins also serve to reward the change agents by providing positive feedback that boosts morale and motivation. The wins also serve the practical purpose of helping to fine tune the vision and the strategies. The guiding coalition gets important information that allows them to course-correct.

Short-term wins also tend to undermine the credibility of cynics and self-serving resistors. Clear improvements in performance make it difficult for people to block the needed change. Likewise, these wins will garner critical support from those higher than the folks leading the change. Finally, short-term wins have a way of building momentum that turns neutral people into supporters, and reluctant supporters into active helpers.”

Finally, the How High Schools Become Exemplary report by Harvard University reinforced the findings from Kotter and highlighted the importance of planning to achieve school-wide goals. Some of the aspects they identified as being important were:

  • Setting learning goals and plans for teachers with the same care and quality as the best teachers use to set learning goals for their students.
  • Pursuing a limited number of priorities at any given time.
  • Provide genuine opportunities for feedback and refinement
  • Maintaining and monitoring a formal calendar of specific dates and times for meetings and for completing important tasks.
  • Providing personalised feedback to teachers



  • Leading Change, John P. Kotter, Harvard (2012)
  • How High Schools Become Exemplary: ways that leadership raises achievement and narrows gaps by improving instruction in 15 public high schools, AGI Conference Report, Harvard Graduate School of Education (2009)

In Designing Middle Leader Vision Statements and Designing a Case for Action Narrative we explored the first two elements of how middle leaders can plan to lead their team effectively. The next step is to identify and enrol a guiding coalition of people from your team.Transformational Leadership

One of the key aspects of a middle leader’s role is to be the person ensuring that the goals and values enshrined in the school’s strategic plan are implemented with their team. If you lead a curriculum team this means leading the enactment of curriculum and pedagogical practice, documentation and teacher development. If you lead a well-being or pastoral team then this means leading the enactment of well-being practices, systems and processes.

As Kotter points out in his writing,

“No one person, no matter how competent, is capable of single-handedly:

  • developing the right vision,
  • communicating it to vast numbers of people,
  • eliminating all of the key obstacles,
  • generating short term wins,
  • leading and managing dozens of change projects, and
  • anchoring new approaches deep in an organization’s culture. “

Constructing the right team and then combining a level of trust with a shared goal in which the team believes can result in a guiding coalition that has the capacity to make needed change happen despite all of the forces of inertia. Schools are constantly in the midst of change and middle leaders, most often, are the ones leading the change with their teams.


Creating the Guiding Coalition as a Middle Leader

Kotter suggests that there are 4 qualities in effective guiding coalitions

  1. Position Power – enough key players on board so that those left out cannot block progress
  2. Expertise – all relevant points of view should be represented for informed decision making
  3. Credibility – seen and respected by those in the school
  4. Leadership – show leadership in your team

Given that the size of the teams that middle leaders lead in school is quite small, and you often do not have a choice of who is in your team, I would suggest a simpler approach that is aligned with Kotter’s thinking.

Who you want in your team to be the forefront of enacting change are the innovators and early adopters. Whilst middle leaders should definitely continue to nudge and support the remaining team members to enact the required change, it will be the innovators and early adopters who should lead the way.DiffusionOfInnovation

This small coalition of people should have a pilot action-evaluation project where they become the first to trial new ideas and approaches so they can build up the team’s knowledge of the change and the credibility of what is being trialled. They would find what works and what doesn’t work in the environment of the school first. They would collect data, evidence and stories of what made the difference and what pitfalls to avoid. Essentially they would beat the path so that the remainder of the team can follow quickly.

Why having a small pilot team that attempts to enact the change first is so important is that individuals who are in the early or late majority for enacting change often need a lot of evidence that the change will work with “our students in our school and with our subjects”. Part of the issue, as a Harvard report discovered when exploring what made particular high schools exemplary as they enacted change, was that resistance to change was based on six fears:

  1. Fear of wasting time and energy
  2. Fear of losing autonomy
  3. Fear of experiencing incompetence when trying new things
  4. Fear of becoming socially isolated
  5. Fear of unpleasant surprises
  6. Fear of more work

The small pilot team of innovators and early adopters aren’t necessarily as held back by these fears and can produce a professional learning environment that minimises these fears for the remainder of the team. They tend to be driven by a vision and the joy of innovating and experimenting.


Steps to Take

The first step to creating a guiding coalition is to assess the strengths and areas for development of the members for your team. The assessment is not about assessing whether someone is good or bad but making some broad notes of each person’s strengths, expertise, leadership, credibility to others, and where you would put them on the innovation cycle for the change being enacted. You should also jot down what could be possible areas of development or growth for the person.

With the intent of building transparency and trust you should also ask the individuals in your team to assess themselves. It is worth making it crystal clear that what will be captured will be used solely in a developmental coaching way and not as a weapon against them. For low trust situations you might have one-on-one conversations where you and the individual team member do the assessment together. In mid-level trust teams you might do this at a team session. In high trust teams you could run the assessment in a 360 degree format where everyone honestly provides feedback.


Person Strengths Possible Areas of
Development / Growth















  • Leading Change, John P. Kotter, Harvard (2012)
  • How High Schools Become Exemplary: ways that leadership raises achievement and narrows gaps by improving instruction in 15 public high schools, AGI Conference Report, Harvard Graduate School of Education (2009)
  • Extraordinary Leadership in Australia & New Zealand: The five practices that create great workplaces, James Kouzes and Barry Posner with Michael Bunting, Wiley (2014)
  • Hardwired Humans: Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts, Andrew O’Keeffe, Roundtable Press (2012)

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Now that the contextual work has been done in Steps 1,2 and 3 it is time for Middle Leaders to start fleshing out the plan for the coming year.

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If schools are committed to developing effective middle leaders who strategically lead their teams to accomplish school goals and embed an empowering school culture then middle leaders need to articulate…

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In Step 1 Designing Middle Leader Vision Statements we explored the first element of how middle leaders can plan to lead their team effectively. Once the middle leader has, in partnership with their team, created an inspiring but simple vision statement for their team, the next step is to create a Case for Action.make things happen

In modern schools change is always occurring. Whether it is pedagogical, curricula, well-being, or any other area, there is change occurring. It is a constant feature of our education system. One of the core roles of Middle Leaders is to lead this change. They work with their team of teachers to enact the requested change. Unless the teachers and middle leaders are connected to WHY this change is occurring and have bought into it then the change is not likely to occur with any depth or sustainability.

Middle leaders can establish a sense of urgency through a Case for Action Narrative. This narrative

  • aims for the heart (not only the head)
  • is driven by a belief in a noble vision or goal
  • inspires determination to act and win now

The case for action addresses the need for change and paints a realistic, convincing and attractive picture of what the future could look like when the vision is realised. It highlights the difference it would make to tackle the desired area and also the ineffectiveness of not taking action.


Designing Case for Action Narratives

There are three parts to a Case for Action narrative:

  1. Describe the reality in the area – the things that are working, the challenges, and the gaps
  2. Describe the predictable future if no action was taken in this area
  3. Describe what could be possible if action, based on the vision, was taken

Part 1

The case for action begins with identifying the current reality in the area. You can flesh out the picture of the current reality by answering questions such as:

  • What are the aspects of the area that are working?
  • What are the aspects that are not currently working?
  • What are the current gaps or challenges in the area?
  • What are the effects on students, teachers and the school of this current reality?

Don’t pull any punches as you answer the above questions. Make sure you identify both the great things as well as the challenges. The intent is to create an authentic picture of how things are now in the area. You could also use actual data to prove your points. Remember though that the purpose of the first part of the Case for Action is to highlight the current reality.

Part 2

The second part of a case for action narrative describes the predictable future if no action was taken. This paints a vivid picture of why staying with the status quo is a problem. If we are going to create urgency then the case for action narrative needs to show that action is critical NOW.

When brainstorming what to write for this part imagine what the PREDICTABLE future would be. Mostly it is more of the same. You will continue to operate as you have always done and you will continue to have the same results and challenges. In an ever-changing world this is a big problem not only for schools but also for parents and students. Education is increasingly a competitive market and staying stationary is no longer an option if the school is going to survive. Parents and their children are more likely to leave a school if their child’s needs are not being met.

By continuing to do the same thing with the same results has an impact on students, teachers and the school over time – what could that be? Your description should paint a compelling picture that aims for the heart.

Part 3

The final part of a case for action narrative describes what would be possible if action was taken. The actions that would be taken would be aligned with the vision statement created previously. What would be the impact on students, teachers, learning, the school culture, and the long term future of the school? Again create a compelling and vivid picture. Describe it in such a way that when people hear what is possible they want to be part of that vision. It should draw them in and inspire or breathe life into them. When people hear what is possible they can see how they can contribute to having it happen. It compels action.


Examples of Case for Action Narratives


  • Currently in Maths
    • The teachers are streaming children for maths to some extent. They have been doing point of need teaching via a clustering approach but are now expected to move to handle various abilities in the one class
    • Teachers don’t feel as if they are doing justice for the kids. The capable kids needs are not being met nor those who struggle with Maths
    • The year 6 team is struggling with the rationale from the Year Level Coordinator in moving to the PYP approach which is requiring Numeracy be tied into the everyday classrooms
    • Some students feel they are not good at maths and give up


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • The situation in Maths classes won’t change
    • Teachers will feel they aren’t doing a good job
    • Students will develop a fixed mindset about their ability in Maths
    • Maths results will stagnate or go backward


  • If we acted on systemically differentiating maths for all ability groups then:
    • Students will see the value of Maths
    • Teachers would feel more confident that they are reaching the upper and lower group of students
    • Student results would improve
    • Classes would be more engaging for students
    • Student learning confidence and competence would improve



  • Currently in religious studies
    • certain topic, areas and biblical stories are re-hashed each year
    • due to external pressures on the school it seems like religious studies is the first to go when the curriculum needs to be covered
    • Christian ethos is present but not authentic religious studies. It deserves to be taught / learnt well since we are a religious school
    • Some teachers appear to be doing well
    • Most of the teachers are accredited to deliver religious studies
    • I have been sending out emails asking if teachers need any support but not getting much response
    • The overall scope and sequence has been developed for religious studies


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • Religious studies will continue to be sidelined and not valued
    • There is a danger the school could become a secular school in practicality and lose its point of difference
    • Teachers will do whatever they want to do without oversight
    • Students will become bored with doing the same topics every year


  • If we acted on the vision of guiding young people with small steps and successes so they grow profoundly as learners and realise their potential in the area of their religious studies then:
    • Students will see the value of religious studies in their lives
    • Students would be engaged in the classes and in exploring their spirituality because it matters to them
    • They will see how they can use what they have learnt and explored in religious studies in making life decisions and contributing to others
    • We would be designing engaging curriculum that authentically addresses issues pertinent to the students.
    • The school would value religious studies and that it is a powerful point of difference for parents and potential students.


School Culture

  • Currently in the junior school
    • Quite a negative environment amongst the staff
    • There appears to be a lot of clique groups. The general perception is that the “in clique” are treated differently
    • Some staff experience being in the outer and can feel isolated and alone
    • Ran a Relationship Building session at the start of the year and held 2 workshops over the pupil free days. During Term 1 did lot of stuff to show that I valued the staff and this was received well.
    • Some original “clique” teachers experienced being burnt and now starting to turn to me
    • Lot of people genuinely happy to have a voice now from what I have been doing


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • The negative environment will continue and some staff will continue to feel isolated, alone and on the outer. They will then go through the motions in working in the school rather than being innovative or creative.
    • Over time some staff will leave because they aren’t being valued and appreciated since they aren’t part of the clique group


  • If we acted to have staff realise the power of positive relationships in empowering learning and leadership then
    • Processes and protocols would be established that would lead to a positive environment
    • Staff would feel valued and appreciated
    • Staff would feel heard and that they have a voice
    • Learning would improve within the school because people would be willing to innovate and be creative
    • A positive work environment would arise
    • People will want to work harder and contribute to the learning community because they are fulfilled by being part of the community.


Context for doing this

In John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change he identifies that the first step in leading change is to convince others of the importance of acting immediately. He points out that “Leaders may underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones, or overestimate how successfully they have already done so, or simply lack the patience necessary to develop appropriate urgency”. School structures are inherently resistant to change as they, in many ways, rely on consistency and the status quo to be successful.

One of the greatest enemies to developing great schools is being good (e.g. “we are doing a good job”, “we are a good school”, “I am a good teacher”). Being “good” is a conversation from the comfort zone. Greatness requires constantly examining where one is against your goals working to having your vision become reality. Over time “good” tends to devolve into “good enough” and then mediocrity.

If people are to be compelled and encouraged into urgent action then they need to know WHY. They need to know the criticality of taking action now.  Kotter pointed out that usually the urge is to skip to the doing rather than spend the required time it takes to get a significant number of team members urgent. This is not about getting people to work harder or be busier it is about getting people clearly focused on making real progress towards the vision every single day. Leaders who know what they are doing will “aim for the heart.” They will connect to the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. They will make the case for action come alive with human experience, engage the senses, create messages that are simple and imaginative, and call people to aspire. The case for action narrative is the first step to creating urgency.



Middle leaders act as the conduit between teachers and the school leadership team. In their roles they communicate the values and the strategic vision of the school to teachers and support them to enact curriculum and pedagogical change. However, middle leaders in many schools often rise into their positions without necessarily being trained and developed to be effective in their roles. Their actions then mostly reflect their unexamined beliefs about leading teams and what they have previously seen in the school. If schools are committed to developing effective middle leaders who strategically lead their teams to accomplish school goals and embed an empowering school culture then there are certain structures that can support them.

Over the next few blogs we will be exploring elements of how middle leaders can plan to lead their team effectively. Today’s blog is about designing vision statements.


Vision Statements

The vision statement in your middle leadership position has two parts.

  1. We are deeply passionate about …
  2. What we want to be known for …

The first part describes the visionary outcome for students. It describes what your team is aiming to produce in the students. It is a product.  It expresses the outcomes you desire for the students from interacting with your team. It is a short statement that captures the essence of what you team is particularly passionate about

The second part expresses the HOW. It describes the particular qualities and aspects that your team will focus on to deliver what you are deeply passionate about. It is again a short statement that captures the key elements of what your team will be focusing on.

The best approach to generating these statements is to brainstorm your answers as a team to each of the two parts. From the words and ideas created during the brainstorms work together to come up with short statements that captures the intent and vision of the team. The final statement is reached when the team can say “that statement captures what I am passionate about and want to be known for”.

  • Note: be careful not to get hooked by having the exact right words otherwise you will spend a lot of time generating these statements. The statement should capture the sentiment of the team and can be refined over time. The vision statement will be used to guide and focus the strategic thinking and planning of the team.


The following are some examples of Vision Statements produce by school middle leaders:


The English team are deeply passionate about our students maximising their potential and striving to be highly literate and successful participants in a 21st century context.

We want to be known for being an innovative, highly motivated and collaborative team; inspiring students to apply these valuable skills in the classroom and beyond their school-life.


Health and PE

In Health and PE we are deeply passionate about our students and staff being healthy, resilient and active members of society (mind, body and spirit).

We want to be known for providing a safe and supportive learning environment that caters for all individual learning styles, models healthy lifestyle habits and allows students a variety of opportunities (diverse range of activities) to succeed and become team players.



The Maths team are deeply passionate about producing individual critical thinkers with skills that enable them to be lifelong problem solvers.

We want to be known for providing a supportive and engaging environment, which enables all students to learn and develop an appreciation of mathematics.


Context for doing this

The research literature shows that effective leaders engage their teams in a vision that everyone buys into. The vision speaks to the team and effective teams work towards accomplishing that vision together. Quite often school teams can devolve into DOING stuff, especially in these times when there seems to be an increasing amount of administration matters being required of schools. Effective school leader are strategic in their thinking and harness the power and good will of their team by collaboratively articulating clear vision statements and then planning and leading their team from the vision as the team takes the required actions. This is especially important in schools as schools are relational organisations.

The design for the two parts of the vision statement came from the research of Jim Collins which he wrote about in his book Good to Great. Collins found that organisations that went from good to great had disciplined people who had disciplined thought and took disciplined action. The disciplined thought stemmed from the organisation / team having a very clear vision of what they were passionate about and wanted to be known for. This vision guided and focused the organisation / team on what was important to them and to develop the discipline in their planning and action to focus on specific key areas they wanted to deliver. In this way they began the journey to being great. This journey often took years but was the result of being disciplined in the three identified areas.



  1. Review of contemporary  research on middle and teacher leaders, Dr Maureen O’Rourke and Dr Peter Burrows, Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership (2013)
  2. Extraordinary Leadership in Australia & New Zealand: The five practices that create great workplaces, James Kouzes and Barry Posner with Michael Bunting, Wiley (2014)
  3. Hardwired Humans: Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts, Andrew O’Keeffe, Roundtable Press (2012)
  4. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, Jim Collins, Harper Collins (2001)
  5. Good to Great, Jim Collins, Fast Company (2001)
  6. Know your why,

If you are interested in discussing with Adrian the possibility of running in-school workshops on developing middle leadership please email him at

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