Dear Ted

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

I'm a new HoD and my staff don't like me. I involve them in all decisions, but they don't tell me what they're planning, and do their own thing. It's wearing me down. What can I do?

Ted says

The role of "middle management", as it gets called, is a fascinating one.

It embraces the powerhouse of any school: key people such as subject co-ordinators in primary schools and heads of department and year groups in secondaries. Yet while plenty of training and support are available for headteachers, much less is on offer for these vitally important middle managers.

As a head of department, you have to strike a tricky balance between being one of the troops and occupying a position of authority. The first question to ask is why you feel undermined. Is it because you inherited a group of old lags, steeped in ancient custom and practice, unwilling to take fresh ideas on board? Or have you been too peremptory, telling professionals what they should do, even though you think you have "involved" them, when you might have been better working as a genuinely collaborative team?

One difficulty is that becoming a head of department is many people's first taste of taking on bigger responsibilities, so it is easy to make mistakes.

Few can switch instantly from corporal to captain. Sit down and have an honest chat with one or two people in your department, or possibly all of them in turn, admitting that relationships appear strained. Why do they think this is, and what can best be done to improve things all round?

Most people appreciate honesty, and you may learn a lot. Perhaps somebody who wanted the job is envious of you for getting it, or you may have tried to rush through too many changes too quickly.

You can also consult another head of department you get on well with for advice. There may be similar cultural clashes in other subjects. But avoid too much self-flagellation, as it is debilitating for you and boring for others.

You say

Ask them what's the problem

Welcome to management. Clearly you are making decisions based on the needs of your students and, as change is often perceived as "more work", this needs careful handling.

Turn to your line manager for support. Show him or her your vision for your department and seek guidance. It is their job to support your department's contribution to school development and they may also have had experience of not being liked. When your department realises that your vision ties in with the school development plan, and that you have the backing of senior management, their objections will seem unprofessional and can be tackled more directly.

Build your team. You have already involved them in decision-making but are they aware of their contribution to the big picture? Ask for a day off site (the summer term is a good time to do this), to involve staff in a more relaxed environment. This will establish the leadership group's commitment to your plans - in letting you go - and will provide you with the time to consult, listen and bond socially.

Ultimately, you are responsible for students' learning in your subject. You must stick to your key principles and be prepared to be unpopular. In this way you will earn the respect of your department.

Kieran Earley, Cheshire

Keep on going

Don't take criticisms personally. Carry out your duties efficiently, which should make their jobs easier. A good departmental head leads and supports.

Teachers can sometimes feel they are being asked to endorse decisions that have already been made. Try to involve staff early in the decision-making process. Ask why they haven't carried out particular policies, making notes of all concerns voiced, and ask for their suggestions. Don't be discouraged: do all you can to keep your department running smoothly. Time has a way of sorting these problems out.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

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