Tomorrow, I will begin my last full week as a head of faculty. Or Head of Faculty, if I want to make myself sound important. Specifically, I’ve been a Head of English for four years, separated by a change of school. The school contexts are very different, as is the nature of the English teams. Through the highs and the inevitable lows, I’ve learnt a few things about how to be a reasonably successful HOF (or HOD, if you prefer). What follows is not a comprehensive guide through the stages of taking over the department – see the excellent advice of @fod3 for that. This is more my own eleven top tips and theories about what makes for a good middle leader.
- Don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re up to the job. Somebody more experienced than you has decided you are (even if this is done under emergency conditions, like the previous HOF has run away with one of the science NQTs) so ignore the ‘you are an imposter’ voices in you head and crack on with it. If you aren’t up to it, that will become apparent in the long run, but there’s little to be gained sabotaging yourself in the vital early stages
- Nobody wants a stressed boss. It’s your job to act as a shield, deflecting the manure dumped upon English teachers by the government, exam boards or, if you’re unlucky (I haven’t been) SLT. Your team want you to be calm and positive, even if inside you are panicking like mad. Serenity is contagious. The pupils in particular pick up on this. It really does matter more than all the initiatives and improvement plans.
- Be nice to people. Don’t shout, belittle, publicly admonish or undermine. Hold people to account for poor performance, but do it in a respectful and polite manner.
- Have a long memory. Don’t forget what your NQT year was like. You know the one where they gave you the demonic 8X5 period 5 on a Thursday and Friday afternoon. You needed a helpful, considerate and practical HOF. That’s what got you through your first year and help make you the teacher you are now. Never forget that. If you say you have an open door policy, mean it.
- Do your homework. You need to read a lot. Educational policy. Amendments to the specification that get hidden away on obscure pages of the exam board’s website. Educational research. The blogs of other HOFs. You may not agree but at least you’ll be reflective and understand the issues that others are worrying about.
- Life gets in the way. Sometimes you just have to put your Three Year Plan for world domination on hold. Your staff are real people and, if you want the best from them, you are going to have to be an empathetic and reasonable leader. I’ve led through periods of bereavement, marriage breakdown, serious illnesses, the aftermath of ill-advised drunken behaviour, disputes between staff, malpractice, childcare conundrums and bog-standard stress, anxiety and exhaustion. It’s hard. But you have to be able to manage these kinds of external pressures as a leader.
- Lead by example. And I mean really lead by example, don’t just say you do. Take more than your fair share of difficult pupils/classes/tasks/duties etc. Being leader gives you the privilege of being able to cherry pick and make your own life easier. Don’t do it.
- Have ‘non-negotiables’. Some people don’t like this phrase. It apparently sounds confrontational and lacks connotations of democracy. I believe strongly in collaborative working and on many issues believe that a democratic consensus is the only way forward. But there have to be certain things that you absolutely insist upon, lines in the sand that have to be drawn and re-drawn regularly. Mine are high expectations and levels of challenge for all pupils. Other things can be discussed. These can’t.
- Don’t overdo meetings. Length and frequency. Are they essential? If not, don’t have them. Talk to people face-to-face instead. Make time for subject knowledge as well as admin stuff.
- Doing stuff is not enough. (I like the internal rhyme in this one, by the way). Some middle leaders seem to think that because they are constantly busy and have huge to-do lists that they are being effective. Before you congratulate yourself for your efforts think: are they having any effect on pupil progress/outcomes? Are they helping or adding to the workload of your team? Are you doing stuff because that’s how we’ve always done it? Of course you’ll need to work hard. But you have to work clever too. This is a key difference between a leader and a manager.
- Stick to your guns. As I’ve said previously, I’ve been lucky to have worked under three headteachers who have trusted my judgement and listened to my opinion on the way that English should be run. That’s certainly not to say I’ve always had it my own way – certain unpalatable edicts have had to be ‘sucked up’. But as a leader with principles you have to stand your ground, stick up for what you believe in (insert any other cliche here that involves not bowing to pressure from above) and not give way. I’ve heard horror tales of HOFs being ordered to enter pupils for this spec and that exam, of HOFs being told to forget Literature for this year, or to insist that they start GCSEs in Year 7 (okay that last one’s a tad hyperbolic but you get the point). You are the expert. On big issues, you need to be making the decisions. After all, like Candy, you’ll be the one getting ‘canned’ if you’re no longer deemed useful. I wouldn’t work under these circumstance. Easy to say I know when there’s kids and mortgages involved. But I would go elsewhere, and I’d be asking these kinds of questions and seeking these kinds of reassurances at interview.
I’ve loved being a Head of English. It’s one of the most demanding jobs out there but, done properly, is a wonderful job that can have a huge influence on the quality of a school and the lives of its pupils. Follow these pointers and I don’t think you’ll go far wrong. Oh, and tell me what you think I’ve missed off. In this job there’s always something important that you forget about.
Thanks for reading,