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Leading from the middle: applying a middle child skillset to leadership in education

Children with multiple and complex needs require multiagency professionals to work collaboratively to bring about successful outcomes for them. If you are the teacher in this setup, you will probably take on a pivotal role within the team, coordinating the input of allied health professionals with the output of pupil support assistants. But it can be all too easy for your voice to become lost among all the other competing voices. So how, as a teacher leader, do you maintain your confidence and make yourself heard?

Working in a small unit with children affected by Autism is about as different as it is possible to get from teaching English in large Glasgow comprehensives, where I started out in 1990. In those days, classroom assistants had not been invented yet. Classes were large. We joked about crowd control, of being lords of all we surveyed as we stepped into our mini kingdoms.

Twenty-five years later I operate in my current job as a small cog in a large wheel, in a “classroom” where the adults outnumber the children, and the ethos is nurturing, protective, stimulating, but above all, driven by love.

If it sounds nebulous, that’s because it is. The tricky thing for me, coming into a well-established setup, was in needing to impose a structure of more formal learning onto this supportive homely atmosphere, (without being seen as the spoilsport).

The key to the process of tailored target setting for children with multiple and complex needs is the input of allied health professionals, whose job it is to drive forward the learning of the pupils according to their own individual disciplines. But in the early days, as I tried to take in all the different information they were imparting, I was reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant (except it was me who was partially sighted).

I recently counted up all the professionals who work collaboratively to bring about successful outcomes for our pupils. It comes to nearly twenty. As the teacher, I am in charge of planning, assessment and monitoring pupil progress. This means taking decisions about moving forward; like the captain of a large ship. In a mainstream classroom, this is a relatively straightforward process. But in a nurturing environment, where everyone working with the children has parity of esteem, it is not so easy.  In terms of telling colleagues what I needed them to do, I didn’t seem to have the necessary leadership qualities. And having recently attended a course run by Educational Psychologists, I had an idea why this was.

We were asked at the beginning of the course to sit in the room according to where we were born within our families. Eldest and only children were to go to the front, middle children to the middle, youngest children to the back. The course was about setting up nurture groups. Accordingly, there was a disproportionate number of head teachers and ASN managers there. Chairs duly scraped back and the mass exodus to the front began.

Bossy oldest children sat together and talked about high parental expectations, and the need to be role models to their younger siblings. Middle children swapped stories about being peacekeepers, negotiators, people pleasers, followers; happy, hard-working hoofers bringing out the chorus line, never the stars of the show. (There were only a few youngest children in the room, teaching apparently not having attracted them in their droves, draw your own conclusions from that).

I thought back to this training day after I had been in my new job for a few months. My experiences as a middle child seemed to have got me quite far in terms of fitting in, being liked, and listening to all points of view. Growing up as part of a large family meant that I was also able to handle conflict, had lots of creativity and was very flexible. So far, so CV friendly. But what of the downside? The downside, I was discovering, was the classic dilemma of the middle child: that of keeping the peace at the expense of having your own voice heard.

I wanted to introduce new initiatives based on input from the allied health professionals, but it was hard. In a quasi-family set up, I seemed to struggle with taking the lead role. Did I mention that there are nearly twenty people on board? One of these, an ASN Team Leader, offered to mentor me. And it was in the course of one of our chats that I had my light bulb moment. Some of my emotional reactions seemed to be rooted in classic middle child angst. “You are seen as someone who works very hard,” she says. “Why am I being damned with faint praise?” I reply.  “No-one appreciates my ideas,” I tell her. “Do you ever tell them they are doing a great job? ” she asks.

A pattern of faulty thinking was emerging, and it wasn’t serving me any good. But knowledge is power, and, armed with new insights into the origin of my feelings, I worked hard to overcome the negative thoughts. Seeking refuge in my comfort zone, I went back to being an invisible, supportive, hardworking follower, (a classic middle child). But I couldn’t help wondering, did this mean that I couldn’t be an effective leader? To find out more, I decided to consult The Oracle. (Google, this time, but other search engines are available). I discovered something quite surprising.

According to some commentators, middle children, lacking political clout, develop negotiating skills out of necessity. “Middle born children are the most willing to wheel and deal,” says Frank Sulloway, an eminent American psychologist and author of a path-breaking book about birth order, Born to Rebel (Pantheon). It seems then, that when middle children are required to steer the ship, they are perfectly capable of keeping their eyes fixed on the horizon. However, rather than relying on their authority to get things done, they attune themselves to the prevailing climate and set sail when the wind is fair.

Intrigued, I took a fresh look at things. As far as the children in our care were concerned, formal learning was definitely beginning to happen. Coincidence? Perhaps not. Taking a closer look, it slowly dawned on me that the initiatives I suggested were being taken on board, not as immediately as I had envisaged, but rather in ways that allowed all concerned to have ownership of them. And that was good.

I already knew that effective leadership required clarity of vision, sharing of goals, and leading by example. Being mentored showed me that for me personally to succeed as a teacher leader, I had to overcome my demons by learning to ignore it when my inner middle child complained, “but no-one is listening to me!”

Separating thoughts and emotions is apparently a good indicator of emotional intelligence. I can now personally attest that this practice results in better performance and, by implication, outcomes for children being educated in a nurturing environment. But you don’t have to take my word for it. It is backed up by a 2010 large meta-study of emotional intelligence published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by American psychologists Dana Joseph and Daniel Newman, which found that “in jobs that required extensive attention to emotions, higher emotional intelligence translated into better performance”.

So, back at the ranch, I continue to use my middle child skills to negotiate, compromise, suggest ideas, and generally get stuck in. But nowadays, whenever I want to implement change, I ask myself, as a teacher leader, what is it that will get me the best results: fitting in, or moving forward?

The answer? Both.

And the elephant? It’s still in the room, but I can see the whole of it now.

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1 comment

  • I enjoyed reading about your perspective on how you are conducting your profession with the aspect of a middle child. Have heard how the sequence of siblings is supposed to influence ones personality, but guess I never attached much importance to the phenomenon believing there are so many things that affect us when growing up.
    I am not an expert, but I do consider it a bit surprising that so many at the management level come from backgrounds of first born or only child. Not being a first born myself it is tempting to ask whether that a healthy situation?
    While working as a scientist I have been exposed to the management’s ideas of how to organize our projects better according to personality characteristics. So far, where we were born within our families has not been considered, but other classification such as where we fit in on the Jungian 16-type Personality Test has been discussed. Of course, we do not have the luxury of picking an optimal group because we have to organize projects according to researchers’ area of expertise.
    However, my objection about such classifications is that we tend to behave differently, according to the situation, and it is difficult to map properties that could be universally valid for a person. Someone at the start of his/her career naturally behaves differently from one who is at the end, I take on a different role as a husband and family father than as a colleague scientists. And I guess you behave differently in you professional work as a teacher leader than you did among fellow students in the beginning of the 1980s?
    Anyway, if it would be possible to make some valid personality classification, I believe there would be a huge benefit in knowing one’s own personality characteristics and taking consideration to them when working in groups. The challenge is to create an environment where there is no individual downside in revealing strengths or weaknesses in order to achieve the best possible overall results from the group. Utopia?
    Finally, my own best personal learning experience is from one of my university years when a group of four “teachers” applied humor, curiosity and enthusiasm. I wish I ever got the chance to thank them. Thinking back on those days always put a smile on my face.

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