Going up a gear

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
It was about a week before Jan Balon started his new job that the implications finally hit home. After three years in teaching he was about to take his first step on the management ladder as head of department

"There is always an element of anxiety going to a new school where you do not know anyone and how things work, but on top of that you have got the extra responsibility," he says. "I realised I had to get out of the mindset of being just a teacher - although I don't want to say `just' - and start thinking of myself as a manager.

"Once I realised that was a really big part of the job it made me think I was going to have to step up. It was a wake-up call to the responsibility involved."

Middle leaders are the unsung heroes in many schools. While much attention focuses on new entrants into the profession at one end and school leaders at the other, those in the middle - heads of department, heads of year, curriculum leaders and subject co-ordinators - still make a sizeable contribution.

In Mr Balon's first year as head of humanities at Gladys Aylward School in Edmonton, north London, this responsibility extended to eight members of staff. This year, his second in the post, has seen this almost double, to 15, with the addition of sociology, psychology and citizenship.

As a young - he is now 27 - and relatively inexperienced teacher, he admits the prospect of taking charge of the department was daunting. But while he says managing other teachers has been the biggest challenge, it has also brought the most rewards. A crucial factor is that many other members of the department are also comparatively new to teaching. As a newcomer to the school, he had to make his name with the pupils, too.

"The most difficult thing for me has been taking on board the worries and concerns and the stresses of a team of people. It is getting used to supporting a group of people to help pupils achieve as well as they can, rather than just having responsibility for a group of pupils," he says. "The thing I am most proud of is that people who were new teachers when I started have done really well and the pupils are achieving well."

While Mr Balon was one of the more experienced members of his team, despite having just three years' teaching behind him, when Laura Wells became head of science at 25 she was the youngest in her department.

A graduate of Teach First, she was appointed to the post, at Paddington Academy in west London, at the end of her third year in teaching. "I did not have much experience in managing people," she says. "It was a big leap and as the youngest member of staff it was strange to suddenly have this responsibility."

Her appointment came in her second year at Paddington. In her first year she was given a lot of autonomy as assistant subject leader, providing her with valuable experience. She says she has also been helped by having a strong team. But she acknowledges that managing experienced colleagues can be challenging.

"I enjoy that side of things, but it has been one of the more difficult parts of the job. If I see that standards are not high enough and they (teachers) need to move things along, that conversation is always going to be awkward, although I think I have got better at that as the year has gone on."

Her goal has been to build up a culture of improvement, including sharing ideas and encouraging staff to observe other teachers, in the hope this will create a momentum behind any changes she wants to make.

But the obstacles facing some heads of department can be daunting. One head of art, posting on The TES website, complains about a teacher in his department who does not use lesson plans or have objectives and is unable to manage the pupils. Efforts to make him change have so far drawn a blank.

"He has been observed and talked to about it a million times," the poster writes. "I have written lesson plans for him, I have taught his lessons to show him alternatives, I have flattered him and tried to make him think I am using his ideas when really I am changing them. I have laid down the law and told him. Everything I can think of."

Another head of department cites a teacher who is "way out of his depth". Efforts to try to improve his teaching have failed - "I feel ridiculous offering seemingly fundamental tips to an experienced teacher", the HoD writes - and in the end the teacher is given the smallest and least challenging groups "in the hope that this will cause the least damage".

In response, posters suggest enlisting the support of senior management, "formalising" support through letters, monitoring and observations, and consider capability proceedings if necessary.

The hope is that the teacher in question will realise the need to improve and then do so, but posters are in no doubt of the potential for a tricky situation to become very messy. "More likely is that it will be a battle and then he will go sick and resign," says one.

Middle management can also be a thankless task. Angela Flores*, has been head of languages at a school in Hertfordshire for two years, but is now looking to take a step back to classroom teaching after finding the pressure of the job outweighs the extra pound;3,600 she gets.

"The nature of the subject means there is a lot of extra work, preparing for language clubs, exchange trips and so on," she says. She had been persuaded to take the job after initially applying for a regular classroom post, but only two years in teaching before she was appointed was not sufficient preparation, she adds. "It was not long enough to take on a head of department role."

On top of the extra work, her gripes about the job revolve around other members of her department. "Children can be difficult but they are more manageable than staff," she says.

Trying to help heads of department adapt to their new role was one of the motivations behind the creation of the Teaching Leaders course (see panel). The course, aimed at middle managers in challenging urban schools, began in London last year and organisers hope to expand across the country eventually.

"The role of the middle leader is pivotal to raising standards," says Sheerath Jeevan, programme director. "There is an element of them being the unsung heroes in a school but we want to help them become powerful middle leaders who can make a difference."

It's not just for new middle leaders. Claire Brennan, head of maths at St Angela's Ursuline School in Forest Gate, east London, for the past three years, was in the first cohort to take the course. She has also taken the Leading from the Middle course, run by the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services.

"I am a bit of a cynic and a `Let's just get on and do it' kind of person, but you need to take a step back and think about things," she says. "Everybody is so busy in this job and unless you give the time to it this sort of reflection is never going to happen."

She says problem-solving sessions with other HoDs provide a useful insight into different approaches to tackling issues. Ms Brennan is among the third of the initial Teaching Leaders cohort who have been promoted during their first year on the course, in her case to assistant head.

Now in her fifth year of teaching, Ms Wells admits she has her sights set on taking the next step up the career ladder, although for now the challenge of being a middle leader is sufficiently absorbing. This year she was given additional responsibility, as a teaching and learning coach across other departments, with particular focus on improving teaching in the PE department.

"I will definitely look at senior leadership in the mid-to-distant future," she says. "But I am really enjoying being a head of department. The advantage of being a head of department is that you are still in the classroom but there is so much you can do if you are given the opportunity."

Teaching leaders

The Teaching Leaders course admitted its first intake in August last year, taking in 30 teachers from 23 schools. An expanded second year took in 50 from another 30 schools.

The two-year course costs about pound;6,000 to deliver. Schools are asked to contribute pound;2,000, with the remainder coming from the programme's sponsors.

After a week-long residential course, participants are allocated a coach - usually a former headteacher or senior manager but with no connections to the school - meeting every half-term. The course also includes half-termly seminars on leadership, and participants meet for regular problem-solving sessions, pooling ideas on how to tackle particular issues.

Participants are also asked to put together a project, which aims to increase achievement among underperforming pupils.

About a third of the first cohort of Teaching Leaders have been promoted in their first year on the course. Although the expectation is that many of those taking part will move into senior leadership, Sharath Jeevan, programme director, says that the emphasis is not on training future heads but on strengthening the role of the middle leader. "We want them to make an impact now," he says.

Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk for more information.


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