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Leading from the middle - Re-examine promotion process in secondary schools

Published:Sunday | August 24, 2014 | 8:00 AM

Lincoln Phipps, Guest Columnist

Ineffective leadership is a major contributor to the problem of poor student performance in secondary schools. One aspect of leadership that is not frequently discussed is the absence of a formal system of promotion and the inconsistent ways in which teachers in secondary schools are promoted.

School leadership operates at four levels. At the base are subject teachers, then middle leaders or heads of department, and grade coordinators who are responsible for managing subject teachers. The third level constitutes vice-principals, who supervise all academic staff, and at the top are principals. All four levels of leadership impact the effectiveness of schools. However, my focus is on middle leaders.

Middle leaders are teachers who hold formal leadership positions in secondary schools. The Education Act of Jamaica, 1980, identifies them as heads of department and "teachers with special responsibility". The position is a coveted one. As such, teachers who are promoted are considered privileged.

Middle leaders play a central role in the operation of the school. Their roles include:

a) Leading and managing curriculum development.

b) Supporting teachers with appropriate content and pedagogy in the teaching and learning process.

c) Monitoring teams of teachers.

d) Working collaboratively in influencing schoolwide policies.

The roles of middle leaders are sometimes blurred, as they enforce the policies of senior management while supporting their colleagues at the bottom. The dual nature of their role sees them sandwiched between senior management and subject teachers.

Subject teachers

Subject teachers are the ones promoted to the position of middle leaders and the process varies in different countries. In the United Kingdom, the post is advertised nationally, and teachers may be recruited from any school. In Jamaica, promotion is done internally by principals with or without the aid of the vice-principal and other senior academic staff.

The selection criteria include the teacher's grasp of content and the ability to apply appropriate pedagogical skills. While principals may use these criteria as general guidelines, the absence of a systematic promotion process contributes to principals acting arbitrarily in promoting middle leaders. The most competent teacher may not always be the one promoted. According to Glover et al (1998), not all heads of department are promoted because they are expert teachers.

An examination of the ways in which principals promote teachers has provided four promotional strategies used in secondary schools across Jamaica. These are: seniority, default, consensus and orchestration.

Seniority is based on years of service.
Though some principals argue that the practice of promoting teachers
based on seniority is outlawed, it is still evident in schools.
Seniority is a poor method of promotion, as it does not ensure that the
most qualified teacher is promoted - albeit no system of promotion is
foolproof and there is no guarantee that the best person will be placed
in the position even after the most rigorous process. An objective
selection process reduces the risk of the least qualified person being
promoted.

Promotion by
consensus

Promotion by consensus entails the
principal, department members and outgoing head of department agreeing
on the incumbent for the position. Promotion by consensus does not mean
that the teacher most favoured is the best suitable for the post. On the
other hand, a collective decision suggests acceptance of, and support
for, the incumbent. Consensus, as a promotion strategy, is likely to
achieve a greater degree of support from teachers in the department.
However, both the principal and department members may expect special
privileges in exchange for their support.

Promotion by
default occurs on the basis of the teacher being promoted because he or
she is the one who possesses appropriate academic qualification or is
the most experienced among the entire department members. The problem
with this form of promotion is that the person who is promoted might be
unsuitable for the post.

Unlike consensus and
seniority, which suggest some form of experience and group acceptance,
promotion by default offers very little in respect to evidence of the
incumbent having the requisite knowledge and skills for the job. Being
in the right place at the right time should not account for one being
promoted to a senior position within a school. In this case, the middle
leader may face numerous challenges, not only from department members,
but also from his or her inability to cope with the requirements of the
job.

Orchestration

The final
strategy is orchestration. In this practice, a principal promotes a
teacher to an acting position to understudy the head of department in
preparation for the future position. This practice, commonly called
'growing your own', asserts that principals will skilfully promote
teachers who are more willing to do what is asked and who are less
likely to oppose them.

Orchestration offers several
advantages to both the individual and the school, one of which is value
added, where the newly promoted teacher continues with the programmes
already started by the previous head of department. A second advantage
is that it eliminates the need for the new head of department to
familiarise him or herself with the culture of the department. Finally,
the knowledge and experience gained in the acting role helps the middle
leader to better cope with the challenges of leading the
department.

The inconsistencies identified in
promoting middle leaders exacerbate the leadership problem plaguing our
schools. Given the significant role middle leaders play in leading and
managing various aspects of their schools, greater effort should be made
in regularising the process of promoting them. The problem is
compounded by the absence of any formal training
programme.

A national manual on the effective
management of schools should be developed with guidelines on promoting
teachers. More important, formal training should be offered to middle
leaders. There is hope. Principals are now being trained and
considerations, hopefully, will be extended to middle
leaders.

Lincoln D. Phipps, PhD, is director of
quality assurance at Shortwood Teachers' College. Email feedback to
columns@gleanerjm.com and
lincolnphipps@stcoll.edu.jm.