Michael Iannini, the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: Realizing the Full Potential of Middle Leaders, highlights the important role that teacher leaders play in a school’s effectiveness. How should administrators and coaches support these key influencers? How clearly is their leadership role defined both to the teacher leaders and the staff? Are teacher leaders receiving coaching around where their team currently is on the spectrum of collaboration?
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Supporting teacher leaders. On today’s podcast, I’m joined by Michael Iannini, from the association of China Mongolia international Schools – for short, ACAMIS. I’ve had the opportunity to to work with Michael as we’ve delivered instructional coaching training to to members of that organization. Michael is also the author of a new book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Realizing The Full Potential of Middle Leaders.” I was anxious to get him to share some of that thinking about middle level leaders with us and I asked him to join us and he’s agreed. So welcome, Michael.
Michael: 01:11 Thank you, Steve. Yeah, it’s been a real joy working with you and to have this opportunity to talk about something that has kind of been a passion of mine now for going on 12 years, and that’s really the middle leadership in organizations, is quite a pleasure.
Steve: 01:29 Well, Michael, would you give us a little bit of your background then what led you to that focus on middle level leaders?
Michael: 01:38 It was in 2010 or 11, ACAMIS and two board members from ACAMIS reached out to me because they had become familiar with some work that I was doing in the corporate area in China related to leadership development in an area that I always thought was a niche that was very easy for me just to be commercially viable in was actually working with middle leaders. A good friend of mine at that time and probably one of the reasons that ACAMIS was drawn to me, was this friend of mine was one of the owners of a international school that was a member of ACAMIS. And he had basically always sort of advocated for the fact that, what you do with corporates, you can be doing with schools. And because you used to be a teacher, because I was a teacher many, many years ago before that, you get it, you understand the language we use and whatnot.
Michael: 02:32 And amazingly enough, I tested a few of my programs with schools, they went over really well. ACAMIS asked me to come out and do something for their members at that time and do a facilitate more of a conference for middle leadership, which now is in its 10th year. And every year we have a middle leaders conference that really focuses on aspiring and new middle leaders. And by middle leaders, you know, we mean teacher leaders. We mean anybody, that’s a grade level leader, pastoral leaders, coordinators, heads of faculty, all those people that are somewhere between the teachers in the classroom and the administrators, really prioritizing and dictating what needs to happen in a school. And the more I worked with schools, the more that became my work and I started working less with companies.
Michael: 03:32 I started researching more about schools. I started getting more into the roots of what originally got me into teaching and it brought me back into that education sphere and just reminded me why I wanted to be a teacher all those years ago before. And then I just primarily focused on it. As I focused on it, it’s kind of like that thing with the 10,000 hours, I kind of did enough of it, where then I wrote the book. And to be honest with you, when I reflect on every time I get into a workshop or I coach middle leaders, there’s such a great amount of empathy that I have for them because I remember being in that position. And at the same time everyone I work with, it seems like I carry a little bit of them with me and their frustrations. So it’s hard not to be passionate about this area, just because about how much middle leaders have to carry and sometimes how very little support they get. So what we’re talking about right now in terms of supporting middle leaders again, is just so important, not only to my work, but to the tens of thousands of middle leaders out there in international schools that often feel neglected.
Steve: 04:41 Michael, how would you describe to heads of schools and principals and district office staff, the importance of that teacher leader role.
Michael: 04:54 So, you know, teacher leaders being often there in the middle, are expected to carry out the priorities of, of the administration. And a really good example of this would be introducing project based learning. Often, and especially in independent schools, many initiatives could be marketed very highly to the community, but there’s not enough support or constructs within the school and that builds a lot of resentment. And middle leaders in this particular case, have to help the school overcome that resentment or any types of obstacles that might be preventing, or even in many ways, passively teachers by not engaging in it. So buy-in at that middle leader level is incredibly important. So understanding the fact that your middle leaders not only need to understand what it is we as a school wanna do, but they have to be bought into it so that they can authentically deliver that message, but as well as support it in spirit, because that spirit can be very infectious in the sense that if they really believe in it, if they understand that vision, they’ll be able to articulate it more clearly, thus giving a greater chance for buy-in at the ground level, with the teachers.
Michael: 06:14 And when you get buy-in from all at all levels, you’re more likely to be able to succeed. So middle leaders are incredibly important for conveying the importance of objectives and initiatives, as well as overseeing them. And if they’re bought into it, they’re gonna invest more themselves into it.
Steve: 06:31 So what would you describe as some of the critical leadership behaviors that that are gonna cause the buy-in to happen with middle level leaders?
Michael: 06:44 So when we think about administrators, at the district level or anybody that’s really responsible for recruitment and putting people into these positions, in my book, in chapter one in particular, the very first thing I tackle is this idea of how we select them. And through this selection process is where we really start to drill down to identify those critical behaviors. So we start at the fact of, let’s take a look at the team that this middle leader is gonna be on because no team is the same. And this is something that’s actually very frustrating, not only for teachers in a school, but you know, for myself as well, is that when I’m asked to come in and work with the leadership faculty, they often just throw ’em all into a room, assuming that they’re all gonna benefit from the same information.
Michael: 07:33 And to be quite Frank, no middle leader is at that same level of being able to process what’s being delivered to them in a workshop because their teams are all at different places, all with different needs. You might have a team that’s been together for five years and they’re very high functioning and ready for that next level of collaboration. Whereas another team can be completely new with a new team leader. So let’s take a look at the team and what that particular leader needs to do to really get that team collaborating at the level that we need them to, to be able to realize the initiatives that we set forth for them. So how familiar are they with each other? Have they successfully demonstrated working independently in the past? Are they invested in the results of each other’s students?
Michael: 08:20 When we start to answer these questions, we start to be able to identify what a leader for that team needs to do. The next question, or that next dimension would be the outcome. What are we asking this team to achieve? I would say at some levels, a team that is fairly new, just being able to plan, would be a pretty good goal for the first year, for a whole year, just to be able to demonstrate they can commonly plan. To move into moderation, observation, feedback for a team that is fairly newly formed, it could probably take them two to three years to get to that level where they’re actually able to influence each other’s practice in the classroom at a level where they’re analyzing data, asking the right questions. So when we look at that outcome, obviously, the skills needed to get a team to plan and a team and getting a team that can analyze data will use different skills. So that’s that second dimension that we would need to look at to identify that level of behaviors.
Steve: 09:28 I’m hearing coaching being critical.
Michael: 09:31 Yeah. Right.
Steve: 09:31 That’s what’s going to differentiate the support that the middle level leader’s getting.
Michael: 09:38 Exactly. And so, once we’re able to understand where our middle leader is in terms of either being able to demonstrate these skills or the skills that they’ll need to get their team to be able to demonstrate those behaviors we want by the end of the year, will the type of coaching we need to give them or the resources or the support. And the last one, actually, the last dimension of the three, actually directly applies to coaching because then it’s capabilities. Once we understand the needs of the team, once we understand the outcome we want them to realize and what it would take to realize it, especially through the lens of the team, then we can actually start identifying and putting labels on the capabilities and the competencies that they’re gonna need. And when you go that deep, that really helps to flush out, the types of coaching needed, how much coaching is needed.
Michael: 10:32 And then you have to ask yourself, is this really the right person then to lead? Some schools might be in a position where they say this is the only person, so we’re gonna have to invest a lot more in them. And you know, Steve, one thing that I really love in a recent workshop that you did for one of my schools, was where we talked about the idea of you only invest that time and money and sources into coaching somebody that really wants the coaching. Somebody that’s gonna be really bought into it because those are the ones that are gonna invest in themselves everything they need to get the most from it. So I would say the same thing from the middle leader in this case. If the gap is so large in terms of what we’re expecting and how appropriately prepared their team is, that middle leader better be very bought in to the amount of time they’re gonna need to spend just on development as well as ourselves to coach them.
Steve: 11:30 I wanna go a little bit further with that, but I wanna back up because you keep using that word, team and I wanna connect it. Do you see that the real critical role of this middle level leader is that team building component and in my work, I talk about the difference between leading a franchise, which is a group of people who each own a science course that they teach, or they each own a grade level, and they come together for a franchise meeting or a department meeting versus coming together as a team where it’s a a group of people who’ve got a more shared responsibility for the student outcome. Is the ability to create that that sense of team, is that one of the most important things I’m looking for in my middle level leaders?
Michael: 12:30 I would say, I mean, especially with what I write in my book, I would say yes. Largely because when we think about how teams are formed in schools, you don’t get a choice. It’s not like being on the playground and everybody gets to choose who’s gonna be on their team. Middle leaders have a choice and so you need to make the best of what you have and often that starts with getting them to all agree they are a team. And when we think about this idea of team, you talked about franchises and maybe it’s interesting because in the past, when we’ve talked about this, how we label things can often – there’ll be a lot of overlap. But I’m gonna add something to this that I learned from Google’s project Aristotle. So Google that one because it’s a research project that Google carried out on what makes a good team.
Michael: 13:20 And they also had stuff on good team leadership, but it’s called project Aristotle and it starts off with saying, look, let’s just define what a team is. And a team is essentially a group of people working independently towards achieving a common goal. That is at the heart of what a team is based on all the research that Google poured through and they were looking at different business schools and they were pulling in a lot of different research. And then they said, there’s another form of organization, another unit of organization that’s quite common and those are called working groups. So a team is working independently towards achieving this common purpose. Whereas a working group is basically task oriented and they have a common area of association or operations.
Michael: 14:14 It makes sense to group them so that if they need common resources, it’s easier just to allocate. And in this case, when it comes to leadership, we don’t call a person that oversees a working group, a leader, we call them a supervisor. And a supervisor’s job is to make sure each person within that unit’s doing their job because that supervisor is familiar with that unit of organization. And I would argue, in schools, we don’t have teams. I would say a majority of what we have are working groups and supervisors. We just label them leaders, which puts a much bigger target on their back. And whenever I sort of say that message to any leader in a school, everybody kind of laughs, but then it kind of sits with them and they say, yeah, that’s true. I am a supervisor. My job is to make sure people are doing their lesson plans, turning their grades in on time, I’m delivering messages from the top.
Michael: 15:06 There’s very few instances of leadership within schools, and especially during this pandemic, because everybody’s just focused on the tasks. And so one additional sort of dimension I’m gonna add to this conversation is when I talk about collaboration, I look at it as a spectrum. So when a team is working independently, one end of that spectrum is they’re cooperating. They’re able to sit down together, they’re able to assign tasks, they’re able to talk about what they’re doing and they’re cooperating and that is a form of collaboration and I would call that very transactional. At the other end of the spectrum, you have transformational collabo, and that’s where they’re really engaging in the shared goals and the feedback and the moderation. And that’s what a team does, working groups cooperate.
Steve: 16:02 So getting the definition is a critical part for the principal who’s asking people to step into these roles. And I’m hearing a need for that to even be communicated to the teachers on the staff so that they have an understanding of expectation.
Michael: 16:26 Yeah. And you know what, I’m not trying to be critical of the way schools are organized or how they label things, I just wanna call them what they are.
Steve: 16:36 I have to tell you, I got a lot of pushback from teachers who are told to go to a team meeting, but then feel that they’re totally treated individually. So in that case, they’re not understanding why they’re being asked to make this commitment to a team. So that’s a pretty big difference. And I think it all starts in the definition of expectations. Are you expecting all three of the second grade teachers to have some accountability and responsibility for the success of all second grade kids? If that, that’s what you’re thinking, then the person leading that group has a different task than if you are seeing those people individually in charge and just coming together to cooperate, to get their work done perhaps more effectively or efficiently.
Michael: 17:33 Yeah. And you know, one interesting antidote is even if we are able to call ourselves a team and we do wanna attend to all those grade two students, oftentimes, middle leaders aren’t capacity built to get team members to work together. So the easiest thing for them to do is to work with them individually and still call it a team. The team members, they get it. They understand that they’re being worked with individually. And to some extent they accept and adopt behaviors that are more consistent with a working group, despite being bought into wanting to, and be responsible, say, for all grade two students, but that’s just the team leader in this particular case, their preference is to work individually with people because they themselves aren’t capacity built to develop those interdependencies. And it’s just easier for them without them realizing how much more work they’ve added to their plate.
Steve: 18:38 Well, Michael you’ve raised an exploration for me I can tell you, I’m gonna be leaving this conversation reflecting on that that supervision role versus that that leading role. I don’t think I’ve I’ve paid enough attention to that in the past. I’m gonna do some extra thinking around it. I’m wondering before we before we close out here, if there’s any critical do or don’t that you’d wanna share with with heads of schools and principals and instructional coaches working with with with school leaders?
Michael: 19:24 When it comes to like dos and don’ts from that senior leadership level and addressing and really understanding the needs of the middle leaders, it’s really just being much more clear in terms of what your expectations are of them. And I think using this and having some type of common language like supervising versus team leading, really looking at those three dimensions, how the team is composed, the outcome that hope to seek, and the capabilities that we need, that’s not something that we should be having amongst senior leaders in terms of how to choose the middle leader, that’s a conversation we need to be having with the middle leaders. And so a do would definitely be, have that conversation with other middle leaders so that we can form our decision making for those that we need to select. And in particular, if a middle leader is leaving a team, we should be having an exit interview. So don’t just assume that we can start all over with the team because those team members carry baggage year in and year out, and a new team leader coming in that is bought into the idea of doing something with the team, not realizing it’s already been
tried three times before is basically just setting them up for failure.
Steve: 20:38 Very important, very important. Michael, as we close out here, would you tell folks the best way for them to get in touch with you with the questions they might have, or to look for for finding your book?
Michael: 20:52 Yeah. So you can read more about what I do with middle leaders at middleleader.com. That’s my main website for not only hosting all my various content about middle leaders, interviews that I’ve done, including with you, Steve, you can also get access to my book from that site and as well as other events that I host and participate in related to middle leadership. So that’s middleleader.com.
Steve: 21:19 Thanks, Michael. We’ll be sure to to mention that in the lead-in to the podcast. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Michael: 21:27 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 21:30 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.