Time management strategies for middle leaders

June 13, 2017
Andy Buck

Andy Buck

Founding Director, Leadership Matters

There will never be enough time. There just won’t.

As a middle leader, not only do you need to make sure that you are planning and delivering brilliant lessons for your pupils (and all the marking and assessment that goes with them) but you are also managing sometimes-conflicting demands from the senior leadership team and those in the team that you lead. It can feel like an overwhelming cocktail of pressures.


Our Expert Middle Leaders programme supports middle leaders to keep getting better by enhancing your ability to make better decisions, set ambitious targets and develop the skills and knowledge to achieve them.


So what’s the answer?

When I reflect on my own days as a middle leader and on my work now with colleagues in primary, secondary and special schools across the country, there are some practical strategies which I think can help.

First and foremost, the challenge is to protect time not just for day-to-day delivery but to allow you to focus on how you are able to:

  1. deliver through others in your team by developing, empowering and delegating to them
  2. make the time to step back and think about the more strategic approach to your work, taking a helicopter view of what you are up to as an individual and as a team

This isn’t easy. But if you can protect some time for these two vital elements of your role, you will be well on the way to increasing your effectiveness and reducing your to-do list at the same time.

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Making the most of meetings

Instead of using valuable meeting time to deal with a whole bunch of administrative items that could be easily done by email, why not work with your team on something meatier – something like future curriculum planning.

If you already do this you will know how it helps. It can both remove pressures from your own to-do list and build greater ownership amongst your team of the most important element of your shared work: teaching and learning.

By creating small sub-teams of two or three people who work on projects on behalf of the whole team, this approach of ‘joint practice development’ has the benefit of helping share ideas and reflect together afterwards on what went well and the things you could improve upon in future.

As a middle leader, I found using meeting time in this way was a very effective use of our shared time together. Yes, it took some preparation, but the benefits in the long term were huge and far out-weighed the planning time.

Facing your to-do list

I came across this very simple model many years ago, created by Amit Varma, which I have found helps when you are faced with what seems like an impossible to-do list. I use it a lot with middle leaders I work with now who say it really helps them prioritise.

Prioritisation chart

By just spending a moment to sketch out the grid and map all the things on your to-do list, you can quickly get a sense of where to focus. Clearly, prioritising on the quick wins is easy.

This often involves taking time out to talk something through with a member of the team so they can go away with confidence and deliver something well. These conversations didn’t take long but made a big difference to lesson delivery.

But having the confidence to decide to not do something is also very empowering. Why spend ages doing something that you know in your heart of hearts is going to have very little positive impact for your pupils?

Stopping doing these things can involve a conversation with a member of the senior team who is often the person expecting you to do whatever it is you want to stop. This process of ‘managing up’, however, can help to reduce the pressures you find yourself under.

Senior leaders are much more understanding than we imagine. After all, the vast majority will have been middle leaders themselves and will hopefully empathise with your situation. At its simplest, a problem aired is a problem shared.


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Approach to challenge

When it comes to those items which are difficult to do but have the potential for strong impact on people outcomes, the secret is to plan.

By breaking down these tasks into a series of simple steps, the whole thing suddenly seems more manageable and you can celebrate each element as it is achieved.

The alternative is feeling it’s just all too much, which can often lead to you putting off even starting the project.

What about those things on the list which are easy to do but don’t make much difference? Well my advice is you should do some of them. They are often fun, can be done quickly, and can build a sense of achievement. But you can’t do them all, particularly if this is at the expense of those things which make a big difference.

As a head of year, I used to spend the last 30 minutes of my week pottering about with my classroom displays. It was something I loved doing and was a great way to wind down at the end of the week. Did it make a massive difference to pupil outcomes? Probably not. Did it leave me feeling better? Absolutely.

To sum up, the trick here is to accept that there will never be enough time and instead to be ruthless in prioritising where you spend your time. Just the act of doing this more consciously will make you feel better and increase your effectiveness.


Time management is one of the topics explored on our Expert Middle Leaders programme (formerly called Teaching Leaders). Follow the link to the webpage or fill out an enquiry form to find out more about our two-year fully-funded training programme.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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