It’s mental in the middle: mental health in middle leadership

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 18/08/2020

I should probably acknowledge something straight up: writing this, I have a sense of imposter syndrome. There are hundreds of middle leaders that are probably more qualified than me to write about mental health, and I have succumbed to the pressures of middle leadership in a way that they may not have. I am, though, an expert in recognising signs of poor mental health and what to do about it.

This topic touches on all kinds of things, but I want to make one thing clear: wellbeing is a tricky thing, and deeply personal to individuals. I think, however, that one’s own wellbeing as a middle leader – and that of your team – is best served by knowing (and doing) the basics first and foremost.

Middle leadership is often the first time in your career when you have sizeable responsibility for outcomes other than your own. That brings with it a large amount of operational responsibility, but there is also the unavoidable aspect that involves being aware of other people’s mental wellbeing, both in terms of being proactive but also approachable.

It’s important to start by knowing yourself. What do you do under stress? What are your ‘go to’ behaviours that can lead you off track?

I’m task-driven and impulsive, so I run the risk of running up all kinds of dark alleyways doing things which aren’t that important, but that I want to get done. I have to continually revisit this and reflect on the importance of what I’m doing – I once realised I’d spent hours building a tracker that was telling me all kinds of wonderful and interesting things, but I’d spent no time using or even beginning to reflect on how it was going to improve learning.

As a result of my task-driven nature, I can get ‘tunnel vision’ and not look outside my own classroom or office. I’ve noticed a real change in my team since I’ve made a concerted effort to be out and about in lessons in an interested way, catching and celebrating the quality I’ve seen. This isn’t touching on all the wonderful things I dream up that are going to change the world – things which are sound and can be explained and rationalised, but are ultimately pointless unless the cornerstones of running a team are in place.

When new into this role, it enveloped me. I acknowledged – but didn’t truly recognise – the stage of development my team and school were at, and I put a huge amount of pressure on myself, kicking myself every day that things weren’t as I wanted them. The result? Blind alleys. Futility. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of this to our mental health. When you begin to perceive everything as a threat and a worry, the world can become a very frightening place.

The key? Perspective. For me, it’s about getting the platform right. I hope the following model goes some way to explaining what I mean by that. I don’t see it as a stairway or anything like that – you can work and understand different elements simultaneously – but I think the analogy of the underlying basics needs to be captured.

Fundamentally, it’s about people. It’s about taking the time to know your team – where their strengths and areas for development are, their boundaries, their ambitions, their thoughts on the school and their classes. Invariably, people want structure and direction to some degree, so it’s crucial to provide that. Then comes the data (which is only really meaningful if you’ve spent time in classrooms to understand what it’s telling you).

My biggest learning point this year is not only to start with people, but not to get caught up in the flourishes that you think everyone else is doing. That can come later. The key is to have faith in yourself, and trust that, ultimately, the job is an impossibility without the people around you. So why not start by investing in them?

One thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that, much like our friend Maslow said, people can’t flourish, thrive and deliver until the basics are in place. So know the basics: projected P8 scores, basics for boys/girls, differing abilities, classes etc. Knowing this and knowing your team will help you make the simplest and most effective interventions and plans. 

Make a point of knowing what is being assessed, when and how. Know the department's long-term plans, and how knowledge and skills will be encountered and re-encountered. And most importantly, know your team. What are their pressure points? Where do they need support? What would make them feel valued?


Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is Head of Department in a large secondary school and author of 'The Compassionate Teacher'.