Tiger mother. Or: the savage heart of middle leadership

When I first started my Doctorate – on balancing teaching and parenthood, I was very conscious of living and breathing the topic. Life was pretty much: MUM! MUMMY! MUM, MISS, MIIISS! MISS? EMMA? EMMA! MUM? MUM! MUUUM!! EMMA? In some ways, I felt like a mother, in some form or other – with all the pride and protectiveness and responsibility that this brought – at all times. And it was some challenge. But a challenge I loved. The classroom, the children, the colleagues who needed me and the husband who occasionally got a look-in. .

There was an extra layer, in Middle Leadership, of being part of a kind of a family at work. Or possibly, a bit of a tribe. WE were MFL. We went through stresses and triumphs and we went through them together. As I got a bit older and more experienced, I developed a bit of a ‘tiger mother’ persona which meant I didn’t shy from difficult conversations, conflict resolution, celebration of success, and fierce defensiveness of my dept. Fierce defensiveness. It was quite an emotional (and worthwhile) investment and a huge wrench to move away.



My children are six and eight now, and life still feels much like this.

I hadn’t planned to return to middle leadership, but a mixture of fate and serendipity brought this about. I imagined I’d slip back into my old persona, taking a new group behind me, but I temporarily forgot about assumption as the mother of all ****-ups, discussed in this blog, in a different context.

It has been in many ways, as confessed to a colleague, the most challenging period of my career. But challenges come in different forms, as my cousin pointed out, and the ones where you feel, deep down, all along, that they’re worth taking on and that things WILL come together, and it’s worth it, are the best of all. The first term was a roller-coaster mixture of frustrations and triumphs, conflict and resolution, misunderstanding and cautious agreement.

And then, in the last couple of weeks, something rather unexpected has come about. Tiger Mother has started to re-emerge. Only, far from anticipated, rather more fierce, rather more savage, and rather more passionate than ever.

She came in stages. A genuinely honest and difficult conversation to move things forward. A reality check or twenty (no, I wasn’t perceived as I’d always hoped). An acknowledgement of great results. A few tears (on all sides), a few minor breakdowns. A minor but significant triumph. A rebellion. New learning. A misunderstanding. A moment of standing up for someone. Another few home truths. An honest conversation with my line manager. A few gentle cuffs around the ears (on all sides). New learning. A touching moment or two of trust. Another minor triumph. A conflict. New learning. Another unexpected moment of trusting revelation. A holiday…

And since the holiday, moments of the most preening, glittering pride for my colleagues as I see them grow and achieve, moments of jaw-dropping respect, moments of wordless gratitude, and moments of reflexively, instinctively and savagely unfurling my claws to protect what I know is good – people I know are Good Teachers, doing a Good Job, for Great Students. Moments when I truly, exhaustedly, emotionally and life-affirmingly realise what I’m prepared to fight for. WE are humble and prepared to learn. WE are proud. WE are In This Together.

So, as I slowly bring my Doctorate to its satisfying, tortuous, proud, agonising end, I end in many ways where I started, but a little wiser and an awful lot more grateful to be in a job I genuinely love with people for whom I would go to the end of the earth. And all for students who are worth every second of the journey.