So what about teacher leaders?
The concept of mental toughness as an essential professional attribute has resonated the most with middle leaders new to their posts who often struggle with taking up authority in what is generally a very collegial profession. Many found themselves managing colleagues older or more experienced than themselves, like Katy Brown from Hampstead Comprehensive School, who was precipitously promoted to head of faculty when her line manager left suddenly or Kevin, charged with turning around A Level results in the face of dwindling resources and falling rolls. Our most needy schools are often those with the highest staff turnover, so teachers are frequently promoted to first line management with only a few years' experience and in most cases with very little training. Schools have to fine balance increased public accountability with growing autonomy in a rapidly changing education landscape which includes burgeoning numbers of academies, free schools, federations and alliances of schools and all-through establishments with provision for early years through to post-sixteen education. Some school leaders embrace these changes and new freedoms as opportunities to improve what they offer young people and to make their own decisions closer to the action of frontline provision. Others feel crushed by continuous change and what they perceive as forced autonomy, regretting the demise or dwindling power and influence of local authorities and wearied by changes to the curriculum, examination system, and school
Middle leaders in schools feel the strain most. They are the engine room of the school, producing results on the frontline. The middle leaders interviewed after taking the MTQ48 diagnostic test and receiving their feedback in a training workshop universally reported feeling anxious and under pressure in their new roles. The concept of mental toughness resounded clearly. Their battle language in response demonstrates just how much pressure there is in our schools today. They speak of climates of fear, feeling squashed and disempowered in the face of intense local competition generated by school performance league tables and funding restraints. They report “burn-out” and loss of confidence in
their own abilities, and loss of control the harder they worked and the higher they achieved.
It is not surprising. Department, subject, or pastoral heads are indeed the squeezed middle. Whether it be curriculum, examination, inspection, or other policy or systemic changes, the pressure is on the “middle leader” to make it work in practice. Pressure comes from both above and below. The opportunity to make things happen, make a difference, do things “my way” joyfully seized by first-time leaders is often shortlived. Suddenly they are managing upwards as well as downwards, laterally too, in the middle arena competing with others for limited resources and conflicting ideas, and if they have been promoted internally, relationships with peers will shift and different alliances will form or break.
Although accountable, they feel less in control, no longer in charge of their own destiny. Taking up authority in role might even undermine the very achievements that led to promotion—excellent teaching abilities, for instance—which may then be experienced as a loss. They have to relearn ways of operating and motivating themselves, suppressing their personal achievement drives in the service of others. Their success stands or falls on collective achievement and the emergent leader will need to develop a different set of skills and to gain job satisfaction from enabling others to succeed and grow.
However, if standards are to rise in our schools, it is vitally important that we have mentally tough and resilient first-line teacher leaders as well as heads, who are inevitably charged with delivering improved results among their teams of teachers. There is now a solid body of research demonstrating that the quality of leadership and management is second only to the quality of teaching in ensuring effective education.
The difference between outstanding and inadequate leadership is stark. From OFSTED data, McKinsey10 found that for every 100 schools with good leadership and management, ninety-three will have good standards of student achievement, but for every 100 schools that do not, only one will have these good standards.
The middle leaders in our sample related strongly to being given a conceptual framework with which to reflect upon their leadership demands. They know they need to be mentally tough and many spoke about the revelatory experience of having a language to talk about their own development needs in this area. “Being able to see a breakdown of my ability to perform in stressful situations and reviewing ways to improve has helped me understand my strengths and flaws as a leader in a constructive way. To see what it is that enables me to perform at a higher level has given me the confidence to seek out more challenges in my roles as both a teacher and as a leader”.
No more so is this evident than among female members of the Teaching Leaders group.
The first cut of the Teaching Leaders data shows a distinct difference between the mental toughness of male and female fellows (programme participants) particularly in relation to challenge and confidence.
Rose Donald and Sophie Grant, Curriculum Leader for English at the The Crest Girls' Academy, in a disadvantaged area of north west London found that this resonated with their own experiences climbing up the leadership career ladder. Reflecting upon male and female styles of leadership they described the emotional cost of becoming heads of department for the first time, in particular the task of holding members of their teams to account at a time of increasing accountability for schools. One described a time in her career when she shared an office with a fellow head of year, noting a difference in style. Male heads of year when dealing with a student misbehaviour or academic underperformance tended to take the no nonsense pull your socks up approach— “we'll support you but you'll bear the consequences if you don't do what I tell you”—commonly known as “tough love”. In contrast female pastoral leaders tend to want to explore the underlying reasons behind behaviour giving cause for concern and are much more likely to give time consuming emotional support to pupils and their parents.
Men seem to progress up the career ladder earlier or more easily and don't agonise over failure. Their female colleagues may have more confidence in interpersonal relations but generally have less confidence in their own abilities. This view is echoed by the experiences of coaches and tutors working with trainee heads on the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH). High calibre women often better qualified than men with similar length or depth of experience baulk at the final hurdle and feel that they just don't have the confidence to go for headship. Future Leaders, a fast track programme for potential heads of challenging schools expresses disquiet that although fifty-three per cent of Future Leaders are female, there is a lower conversion rate into headship—out of seventy heads appointed, only twenty-three are women. Repeatedly coaches of female trainee heads—and indeed of middle leaders—report that they are tasked with addressing issues around confidence, such as having the resilience to cope with the challenges of the job but also, perhaps more worryingly, having the resilience to prepare for headship interviews, to overcome the inevitable disappointments and setbacks along the way of the interview circuit.
This imbalance is reflected in the system as a whole. While there are three times more female teachers than male in the teaching profession overall, there are almost three times as many men than women who reach secondary headship. There may be a serious issue here around recruitment not only in terms of the gender imbalance leaders but for developing the emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional control that is required to lead schools in these challenging times. How do we make our female leaders more mentally tough without diminishing traditional female attributes around interpersonal relationships?
In evaluations, surveys, discussions in learning sets and coaching conversations conducted the most reported concerns of middle leaders are rarely problems with pedagogy or the curriculum but are almost universally around leading change, having difficult conversations with teachers they line manage or having to manage upwards in the face of insufficient support from senior leadership (who are of course often equally under pressure).
Given the degree and pace of change in education, it would seem important to have teacher leaders who are comfortable being stretched out of their comfort zone. Certainly the middle leaders in our sample embrace the opportunity to develop their mental toughness in the face of the challenges all around them. As in other professions, there are areas over which teacher leaders have control and influence and those that they do not. People who have a higher level of mental toughness tend to focus on areas that they can control or influence rather than those they cannot. It is more effective to spend time and energy on what you can control. The challenge is to stretch yourself to widen your circle of control. By building mental toughness training into the Teaching Leaders programme it is hoped that we can make a number of middle leaders in our most challenging schools become purposeful and positive about dealing with stressors and challenges, rather than passively accepting them along with educational failure for a significant minority of young people.