The 5 stages of development as a head of department

The start of a new year is a good time for teachers to consider moving up the leadership ladder, says Yvonne Williams

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For too long, professional esteem in teaching has been based on moving up a leadership ladder that is more managerial than academic.

The perception that administrative capability matters more than subject expertise is one that needs to be challenged, if heads of subject departments are to fulfil the complexities of their role. Currently, too much is left to chance.

The start of a new academic year is a good time for teachers to consider making the next step: aspiring to lead a department, develop their role or mentor a colleague. The potential for growth needs to be identified and nurtured in order to encourage and retain good subject leaders. 

Perhaps what we need is a model of teacher development from which to start – with the caveat that no structure is perfect. Nor should it be a straitjacket that inhibits future development. 

One such model that has advanced my understanding of professional development is the Dreyfus five-stage model of skill acquisition, taking in the following stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert.

How might the five-stage model of development translate into helpful action for teachers?

The novice 

Preparation for the role – getting to know the ropes

At this pre-appointment stage, most teachers will be reaching an understanding of the wide range of duties – a range that becomes wider every year – in the job description. Which specifications are studied? Which texts and resources need to be ordered? How does the timetable work within the department? Who teaches which classes, and how are the key stages covered? How is the department monitored? 

In larger schools, teachers can take on responsibilities gradually, dealing with an aspect of the departmental curriculum, perhaps at key stage 3

It’s much harder in smaller schools to provide teachers with recognised paid experience to carry into their applications for promotion. Would an ambitious teacher look to move schools to acquire the necessary expertise? Or can a head of department provide mentoring and developmental opportunities to lift their mentee into the next stage?

The advanced beginner 

Using existing structures to support them in their role

Promotion to head of department brings with it the requirement to oversee all key stages and to provide schemes of work. This is a big step up and requires sequencing of tasks, the application of assessment objectives and the integration of themes such as British values. There are resources already available online from reliable sources such as exam boards and subject associations. At this stage, the advanced beginner learns to adapt the scheme to the school and departmental context.

Choice of topics and texts is likely to be based on prior knowledge. Advanced beginners operate in their comfort zone, while getting accustomed to the larger-scale managerial responsibilities, such as monitoring. 

It takes some time to operate a clear timetable of book scrutiny, lesson observation, tracking and results evaluation. As time passes, the process becomes smoother and is perhaps modified by experience.

The competent stage

Drawing on experience and involving others more

By now the subject leader has stored mental models of successful practice to adopt – and unsuccessful experiences to avoid. This raft of experience informs key decisions about new specifications to adopt and adapt to their context. 

Heads of department may feel sufficiently confident to involve others in the decision-making. They can be more strategic in their thinking, able to relate the exam specification to the rest of the curriculum and make appropriate changes. 

If they are lucky, they will not have had to challenge results too often and certainly not on a cohort level. The experience of challenging inaccurate marking and pursuing my case was a real game-changer in my own development. I would have welcomed a course in how to write to the board, provide evidence and argue the case while avoiding the pitfalls. 

It might be useful to provide some professional development on assessment theory and encourage involvement in exam marking, if this isn’t already underway. Research into the consistency and accuracy of marking would provide excellent background knowledge.

Involvement with colleagues in the school network and other organisations, such as Ofqual or subject associations, will generate useful contacts and wider sources of support or advice. 

Competent heads of department might mentor beginning teachers, develop links with teacher-training agencies and reflect on their own experience, in order to pass on useful practice.

The proficient stage 

Being more creative and adaptive

As heads of department reach proficiency, they are more likely to take calculated risks and achieve excellent outcomes – as far as the marking of exams will permit, of course. Greater depth of subject and pedagogical knowledge informs decisions, and is contextualised by reading, some research and discussions with different networks. 

As middle leaders become more proficient, it’s inevitable that they will look for promotion to senior managerial roles or to internal subject-expert roles, if they serve a large academy trust. 

They may seek other opportunities to become recognised, such as becoming an Ofqual subject expert or a team leader on an exam paper. Does the current system really support more forward-thinking heads of department?

The expert

Spontaneous, fluid – “the elder statesman or stateswoman”

An expert leader will have a very clear idea of how each member of the department thinks and works, so will be able to harness their strengths judiciously.

Experts might be expected to use data more creatively and evaluate tracking with insight beyond the straightforward trajectory of the numbers. In the interests of accuracy and validity, they may even challenge the ways in which data is collected and manipulated.

The constantly shifting world of specifications and inspection modes calls for flexibility and independence of judgement from all leaders. Experts understand how influential bodies like thinktanks, Ofqual and Ofsted work, and how their mode of operation has changed over time.

Experts look for genuine potential beneath the media hype, and challenge inflated claims about research and gadgets. They will be judicious in the ways in which they incorporate research and new technology into the work of the department.

Finally, the expert may well be more creative in providing and sharing resources, and looking to collaborate and influence outside organisations, to improve teaching on a wider scale. 

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the South of England

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