Ten steps to surviving as a new head of department

This experienced head of department offers those new to the job the benefit of his experience
21st May 2017, 4:01pm


Ten steps to surviving as a new head of department


Whether you sought out the role of department lead, or stepped into the breach when your school was in need, you will have no doubt found it a rather more difficult role than you may have expected. If you start the new job in September, you will soon discover what I mean. 

Heading up a department in a school is a multi-skilled, multiple responsibility job that tends not to come with a greatly reduced teaching timetable. Plenty of teachers try it for a few years and decide being a full-time classroom teacher is much more palatable. 

That’s a shame: while it won’t suit everyone, the opportunity to skilfully blend the different strengths of team members into successful practice and outcomes, and then to lead in building on that success by developing the skills and understanding of the people within the department, is such a rewarding job. 

And there are some simple things that all department leads can do to manage their own workload, support and develop their staff and fulfil the professional responsibilities of middle leadership that make the role that much more manageable.

  1. Go for the quick staff win 
    People talk about the quick win in terms of data or school targets but the quick win I always looked for was something that showed staff I was working for them.

    Whether it was finding a way to reduce their workload, trying to tackle the behaviour of a particular pupil or class that is causing problems, or just putting a simple protocol in place that made staff feel more secure about how to handle a particular administration or department task, ensuring a positive impact for staff early on is a great way to start off your ‘reign’ on the right foot.
  2. Do your research 
    There are huge volumes of research and writing about successful leadership. Detailed treatises on coaching and mentoring staff, and when particular staff may need which approach.

    The successful habits of thousands of successful people have been analysed, dissected and then disseminated out. You won’t be able to read all of it, but do take the time to read some of it.
  3. Set your boundaries 
    Your workload will increase, but you do need time to break away from it. Set yourself some clear rules about when you will down the red pen and relax. For example, I never work on Fridays once I get home and I try and leave school an hour earlier on a Thursday. As far as possible, these are non-negotiable.
  4. Visit your staff 
    I don’t just mean popping into lessons. Don’t get me wrong, popping into lessons is absolutely essential; it ensures your profile with pupils you don’t teach is high (which can be invaluable if you have to work with them later in either a positive or negative context).

    Rather, I mean learning walks. Provided you use it to share good practice, “learning walking” can be a really powerful way to empower your staff; I always try to get something out of it that I ask a member of the department to email round or share.

    I also mean at the end of a day, just spending four or five minutes in conversation with each or most of your staff members. This human element is an invaluable.
  5. Bring it back to teaching and learning 
    The one thing you all should (hopefully) share is a passion for teaching and learning. So when you do get time together as a team, try and spend as much time as possible with this as your focus.

    It can be tempting to get involved in data analysis, or setting or bogged down with admin that the school throws at you, but much of this can be done through email or at other times.
  6. Manage the contradictions 
    Being a department leader can sometimes feel like a contradiction. You have to support your team in getting the best outcomes, but you have to hold them to account for the outcomes as well.

    You have to ensure you help the school meets targets and at the same time try and take as much of the pressure of targets off of your team so they can focus on teaching and learning. You have to provide what your staff need to do their jobs, but you have to ensure you balance the budget.

    Recognise that these are not contradictions, but they are your power. You can help find the barriers to the outcomes and help solve them. You can manage the pressure that your staff feel so that it ensures they are properly focused without becoming overwhelming. You can work with your teams to ensure the best materials are provided and that all staff in your team use them effectively.
  7. Develop and maintain your professional network 
    Not a week goes by when I don’t have a professional conversation with someone outside my school. There will always be times when you need to run ideas or discuss thorny issues with a peer that is not invested in your institution.

    Having a strong professional network, be it through attending organised meetings, working with people online or just having friends in other schools you can meet in the pub (and preferably all three) can be crucial in developing your ideas.
  8. Get staff working together 
    A lot of people talk about vision and communicating it. One of the most cringeworthy moments of my early career is getting my first team together and going through a full presentation of my vision for the department.

    By all means have a vision, and by all means share it, but make it something that people want to get behind. If possible develop that vision with your staff, or communicate it through the way you work with your team rather than through some corporate style presentation.
  9. Don’t be scared to delegate
    It took me a while to realise that people didn’t want me to solve all of the problems for them, and I would be a lot more effective if I didn’t try.

    It doesn’t have to be delegating roles with labels (literacy rep, ICT rep, G&T rep et al) sometimes it is just about not taking a job from someone when they bring you an idea or problem, and giving them the power and tools to tackle it themselves.
  10. Always acknowledge and reply 
    A lot of the communication these days is not face-to-face, emails in particular dominate most of it. I try to never leave a communication unanswered, even if it is just a response to acknowledge and thank them for the work they have done or say I will respond at a later time. Remembering to say thanks for all work done is important, and being consistent with it is equally important (no different to the kids in that aspect).

Peter Mattock is director of maths and numeracy at Brockington College in Leicestershire

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