Teaching can be an extremely rewarding career which many view as a life-long journey requiring perseverance, tenacity, dedication and undoubtedly a willingness to adapt and be open to new ideas. Why then, if teaching is such a noble cause, do we have a crisis in recruitment and retention and why in particular are schools finding that there is a shortage of middle leaders?
Many from within the profession would say the answer is simple: workload. They would point to night after night spent marking books, planning lessons and missing out on quality family time. It is a real concern that so many teachers choose to leave the profession within the first five years.
What though is the hidden impact of this crisis in terms of the effect on the already overstretched middle leader?
As a leader it can be immensely difficult to try to foster and embed a shared vision in an ever-changing team and, at a classroom level, it can be an uphill struggle to develop consistently high quality teaching and learning experiences for pupils when you are constantly working with a new set of teachers.
Coming from a school which has, within one academic year, experienced seventeen changes of staff, I have experienced this first-hand.
I have learnt that it is vital to find ways to support each other in order to maintain morale, continue moving the school forward and to minimise the disruption to pupils. It is crucial to make sure systems are as well-oiled as possible and that each time a new member of staff joins they are supported to rapidly get up to speed. This process involves a wide variety of senior and middle leaders working together. For example, new members of staff need to quickly become familiar with the needs of the children in their class; this means meetings with the SENDco lead and the lead or leads of any other teams which provide support to pupils within a school. The teaching and learning expectations of the school also need to be explained and usually modelled.
Many teachers new to a school often require a mentoring or coaching programme (dependent on their level of expertise and experience). This programme is usually delivered by a middle leader. Similarly, core subject leaders need to ensure the appropriate support is put in place to ensure the new member of staff understands the teaching, learning and assessment expectations in their subject areas.
At some point in time all schools receive new members of staff and have to go through this process. In fact, some turnover of staff is welcome and helps to bring fresh ideas and approaches. However, when this process has to be repeated on a never ending yearly and even termly cycle, the impact is immense on both the workload and morale of middle leaders. These leaders put in place often vast and varied amounts of support, on top of ensuring that permanent members of staff are developing.
This is a tough task for any leader. For middle leaders, many of whom are new to leadership, this never ending cycle of new staff adds additional workload and pressure. Middle leaders want to forge effective teams, be seen as expert practitioners within the classroom themselves and at some point in time strike an effective balance between work and personal commitments; is it possible?
Certainly at my school, middle leaders facing the pressures of an excessively high staff turnover would question whether it is in the long term. In the short term a dedicated middle leader can make sacrifices, often to their own work-life balance and they are willing to take on more because they are not only ambitious for themselves but committed to high quality education for pupils within their school. But is this sustainable?
Working as a middle leader in a school with an ever changing staff landscape is exhausting and at times demoralising. It can feel like Groundhog Day with each new term let alone each new year. The cost of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis could be vast as those middle leaders placed under additional pressure may feel the task is too much. The future senior leaders of our schools could feel compelled, for their own health and well-being and for that of their family, to leave the profession. In essence the crisis could, if the issue is not addressed, continue to deepen.
Lara Ginn is a middle leader at a primary school in central Slough. She’s mentored NQTs, successfully completed her NPQML and developed a ‘Teaching and Learning Team,’ which is responsible for utilising mentoring and coaching to raise the quality of teaching and learning within her school. She’s also responsible for leading seven classes in the new role of Upper School Phase Manager. Every day, at least once, Lara is reminded that being a middle leader places her in a unique position; one in which she can make a real difference to the children, families and colleagues with whom she works. Lara is a member of NAHT edge's advisory council.