This September, thousands of teachers will become “middle leaders”, a position that I have previously argued is one of the most challenging in any school; it is the only job that requires teaching, leading, managing and learning – full time.
It asks a classroom teacher to seamlessly develop strings to their bow that are, in many cases, completely foreign to their natural skill set. It’s often presumed that great teachers will be great leaders and managers.
However, the diversity of middle leadership positions, the sheer variety of tasks that need to be undertaken, mean that teachers need to transform themselves, almost instantly, into genuine “all-rounders”. Bearing this in mind, it's staggering how many teachers with less than two years’ experience in the classroom become heads of department.
While not bashing the obvious talent of these individuals, one can’t help but wonder what diversifying your role so early in your career does for the development of your own teaching in the classroom. Either way, whenever you take on a head of department role, you know you are in for a rollercoaster of emotions, a new surprise most days and a “to do list” that will be bigger than you could ever imagine.
When I became a head of history for the first time back in 2013, I’d already held two leadership positions in my previous school (whole school literacy coordinator and skills curriculum coordinator) and had completed the SSAT developing leader's qualification.
However, nothing could prepare me for the rough and tumble of being in the heart of the action in a new school as a brand new subject leader. I felt like I stood up to the challenge well; I taught lessons, I managed the staff, I responded to each and every email request diligently, I tried to attack every single problem.
However, as time went on, I realised something was missing. I was firefighting but I wasn’t dealing with the cause of the blaze.
I needed something to underpin what I was doing – something succinct to aim for and something tangible to aspire towards; a vision or a mission or something along those lines. I didn’t have it.
I had lots of ideas, made lots of positive moves but I don’t think I had that underlying rudder to guide my decision-making process for “the greater good”. And it's damn hard to figure that out (and carve out the time) before or even during your early months as a HoD – you are fighting so hard professionally every day just to keep your head above the water.
However, sitting down and actually thinking, very carefully, about what you want to achieve and why is paramount to any future success you might have. To embed real change, you need that “master plan”.
So, this was mine. Obviously, I formed this in my context today; I’m a head of history again, in a new school, four years on.
First, I sat down and asked myself some pretty simple and direct questions:
- Who are you?
- Where are you at?
- Where do you want to go and how will you get there?
I want my department to be:
- A place where students learn.
- A place where students enjoy learning.
- A place where students feel safe and secure to learn.
- A place where students follow a well thought-out and streamlined curriculum model.
- A place where the whys and whats of content/knowledge are kept at the forefront of both the teachers' and the students' minds.
- A place where students know where they are up to but don’t feel over-tested.
- A place where teachers feel supported and comfortable.
- A place where teachers can experiment freely in their teaching practice.
- A place where teachers are not micromanaged and have as much autonomy as possible.
- A place where teacher workload is kept to a minimum.
- A place where teachers understand that there is no best way of teaching and that variety is the spice of life.
- A place where teachers know where their students are up to, individually and collectively, but don’t need to prove it through the production of various pieces of paper.
- A place where meeting times are focused on teaching and learning, not administration and paperwork.
Now, obviously that’s my personal list – yours might differ significantly, and I’m of the view that’s completely fine. I think we should celebrate a diversity in methodology rather than tell each other how to be or what to do.
Once I came up with that list, I then started to develop a “mission statement” based on it; a short gambit that can be easily digested but that encapsulates what it is I want my department to be. You can read my first draft below. Of course, I'm only one year into my new role, so all of this is a work in progress.
“At the O Castro British School History Department, our mission is to ensure that all students learn history, are inspired by history and love their history lessons. Our goal is to make the most of our privileged position and make sure that students remember their history lessons for life. We want to challenge all our students to think about history, on a journey through our knowledge-rich and academically rigorous curriculum, while supporting students of all abilities to achieve their goals.
"We believe history is about much more than exam results. As teachers, we are serious about developing our own teaching so will experiment with innovative and cutting-edge pedagogy, testing it not only against student outcomes but the educational research available to us.”
All of the above is less about the content and more about the process. If I’d have done this four years ago, I think it would have made a real difference. I hope it proves useful to you.
Download Tom's “1st 5 minutes as a HOD” template for free here.
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