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Leading from the middle: Supporting future principals

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Leading from the middle: Supporting future principals

They're often described as the 'engine room of schools' - they are the Middle Leaders.

Often at the forefront of change, they take responsibility to drive improvement initiatives, head up year level, curriculum and pastoral care teams, and support colleagues in their professional learning and development.

Lee MacMaster is Principal of St Andrew's Catholic College, a P-12 school in Cairns, Far North Queensland. He says these roles are extremely important in the successful running of a school. 'Our senior leadership team works extremely hard, but [is also] supported by a wonderful middle leader organisation.'

The Principal was one of 23 participants in the inaugural Executive Development for Educational Leaders program in 2015. The six month program, hosted by Brisbane Catholic Education in collaboration with the Queensland Education Leadership Institute, included a study trip to the US and Canada.

The program culminated in participants applying their learning to a local context, to develop an individual research project. In his project position paper, MacMaster argues more should be done at a local and state level to support Middle Leaders.

'I think that they're a bit of a forgotten lot in some ways. I think people don't really understand the necessity to develop these people who will be our eventual principals and school leaders.'

His Far North Queensland Diocese introduced a new Middle Leadership structure at the start of 2015, as a result of Enterprise Bargaining. Previously, there had been PARs (Positions of Added Responsibility) that were more task oriented and admin-based. 

'When this [new structure] came out and the focus shifted away from management to leadership, I felt there was a great opportunity for us as a school, and as a diocese, and as a state in lots of ways, to really address the needs of our Middle Leaders in terms of professionally developing them,' MacMaster reflects.

'Looking across the whole state, I can see snippets of Middle Leadership professional development starting to come through, but it's not a concerted approach, in my opinion.'

He suggests three strategies for the Cairns diocese, to support those in the role: the introduction of a research-based leadership framework that truly includes Middle Leadership; sustainable and longitudinal professional learning programs; and involvement of Middle Leaders in action learning projects within their school and diocese.

Things are already off to a good start - MacMaster has been involved in the development of a leadership framework, working with other principals and diocesan leaders. 'We have been working on that over the last six months [and] we're going to trial it in a number of schools in 2016.

'The development of that framework is very research-based, we've utilised lots of the work that we did over in Canada, in Ontario ... plus, from around Australia. We've looked at nearly every single diocese, how they're going about their leadership framework, and we've tried to build on that.  So, that's a great thing.'

On the subject of professional development, MacMaster argues Middle Leaders need ongoing support. 'We need something that really embraces where our Middle Leaders are at on their journey, because it's a continuum. ... [We shouldn't] just dip them in and give them a day here and a day there. It needs to be something that's sustainable and longitudinal and really is an immersion process.'

MacMaster says the process of writing a position paper was an interesting one. 'It's the first year [of the program] so we were the pilot group I suppose. ... Because we were the initial group, we really didn't know what we had to write and we sought out information about what position papers look like. It was really a synopsis of where we thought our particular issues could be further explored.'

He hopes to share his findings at conference presentations in 2016 and is also working towards a doctorate.

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Richard Owens 15 March 2016

Sounds like a great program, particularly if the focus is less on mid-level leaders as future principals and more on the skills they require for effectively leading teams in areas such as facilitation, collaboration, experimentation, the use of evidence and reflective practice.

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