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Many skills are needed to be a successful head of department. Tact, dynamism, energy, patience, good ideas. I could go on. I'm sure I could run to several pages. The national standards for special needs co-ordinators do, in fact, run to several pages. I've got them sitting ominously on my desk, like a perpetual reminder of all the things I could be doing, but probably never will. And the standards don't even mention obvious things such as keeping the milk supply topped up in the departmental fridge, or making it to work in a suit where the top and bottom match. I'm convinced they're what really make or break a head of department. Forget all the stuff on innovating, generating and enthusing.

If I allowed myself to rest on my laurels after getting the job, let's say that the first few weeks of my term of office have brought me back to earth with a humiliating bump. It's been a whirlwind of trying to please hundreds of different people with different agendas and different needs. At the end of a long day, I'm packing up, hoping to catch the last few minutes of Richard and Judy if I make it home on time, and then realise I haven't done my lesson planning for tomorrow. Ah, the irony of supposedly setting the standard in teaching and learning, then producing the worst lessons ever.

But that's an entirely different column, I fear.

Having closely watched the previous Senco over the two years I was second, I thought I had it pretty much sewn up. I even allowed myself the sneakiest thought of how manageable it all seemed. Little did I know. She must have done the majority of her work when I had long departed for the gym every evening, and with this knowledge I feel humbled. I've had to swallow the bitter pill of realising I don't know it all, and that too often I'm left grabbing at straws when the demands of my new post seem to outstrip the ever diminishing resources in my brain. I don't think I really appreciated how lucky I was to have someone senior next to me, ready to answer my questions, and take the rap if it all went wrong. Now I'm sitting in that chair and, sometimes, it seems a lonely place.

But how to let on that you haven't got the faintest idea what you're doing? Opinions vary on this. I was always told as a child and a student: if you don't understand something, ask. What pleasant days of naivety they were.

In the cut-throat world of heads of department, is it OK to admit that you don't have a clue? Should you show your weaknesses? Or, if you do, will your department be forever confined to rooms next to the toilets, with our number for the photocopier permanently barred? Could my department suffer because of my inadequacies?

I've developed several coping strategies for those inevitable situations where I'm not sure what the right answer might be. Smile. That's number one. Be unfailingly, disarmingly polite. That's number two. Don't show that you're on the verge of tears. Bad for the departmental image. Various catchphrases come in handy: "I'll get back to you on that"; "Let me see what the department thinks"; "It's not a priority right now"; "Let me think about that for a few days". And here's the best - supplied by a non-teaching friend who works high up in one of our favourite government departments - "I think you're confusing me with someone who gives a fuck".

Simple, but effective. Much like the national literacy strategy, methinks.

Gemma Warren runs a special needs department in a London secondary school.


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