Tips For Being A Successful Head of Department

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Lucy Kilgariff

Lucy is currently working as Head of Maths for a successful Devon school. She also works in system leadership as a DLE for the Dartmoor TSA. She has a passion for problem solving and has delivered workshops on the topic for ATM at their annual...
Read more about Lucy Kilgariff

How can a new head of department make a difference?

I’m in my first year as a Head of Maths. I am lucky that I have taken over the lead of a fantastic team – results were good last year and have been excellent for a number of years. There has been very little staff turnover within the team so there is the advantage of consistency.

We are also lucky to be expanding so have taken on two NQTs this year. I was at the same school last year so know everyone already and am up to speed with school policies and procedures. All in all this is a fortunate position from which to take on a HOD role. However, it doesn’t mean it is without its challenges.

Even in a good department there are significant challenges posed by the new GCSEs that require changes to our ways of working – that is not an easy thing to convince an experienced successful teacher to do. A member of SLT reflected that “a top golfer who develops a slight problem with their swing will always be reluctant to go back to basics and start again in case they end up just like everyone else”.

5 Tips for Being Successful

Having worked within the school last year, it is also not easy to get people to see you as a leader when that is not the context/role in which they got to know you. It is a steep learning curve but here are some of the lessons I have learnt so far.

1. Prepare

You may have plans to update the scheme of learning, modify the assessments or introduce a new feedback policy, but the reality is your time will be taking up with unexpected not planned for tasks. You will be supporting teachers with behaviour issues, checking data, chasing up deadlines and dealing with calls and meetings with parents. If you haven’t started some of your bigger tasks before the start of the year they are going to be difficult to start (let along complete) once the year gets underway.

2. Be clear if something is a request or an instruction

Probably the most valuable lesson I have learnt is don’t be afraid to ‘act’ like the head of department. Your colleagues are professionals, they are not going to be offended if some things are instructions. I have also had to remind myself that when I have chosen not to give an instruction, and instead have made a request, I can’t be annoyed if people choose not to do what I have asked. Only make things optional if people opting out is acceptable to you.

3. Pick a focus

You may have clearly identified all the WWW (What Went Well?) and EBI (Even Better If) comments for your department but people will struggle to implement any of your changes effectively if you choose too many things to change at once.

I evaluated the department at the start of the year and chose three things that we needed to work on this year. I haven’t ignored other EBIs but I have kept them on my list of longer term goals. I would rather three key foci were done well and for us they are

  • the use of problem solving questions
  • feedback
  • quality of written explanations) rather than more things done inconsistently.
4. Have a shared goal

Pick a target that gives all the small tasks you do a purpose. This may be a goal about P8, a % of 9-5 grades you or aiming for, or a target for s specific group of pupils (i.e. disadvantaged or SEN).

5. Be positive

Stay positive for your own sanity and also for the good of everyone else around you. Use your meetings to feedback on the great things you have seen on learning walks, the great work seen in work scrutinise and the extra effort someone has put in to support your pupils. We know pupils respond better to the carrot rather than the stick and I don’t see why teachers would be any different in this respect.

And finally…

It may sound like a list of cliches but all you can do is be yourself, support wherever you can but don’t be afraid to challenge practise where you need to, be clear about your expectations, and expect to be a sounding board for other people’s frustrations. Once you have started to balance these things it is a great job.

I feel my teaching has improved more in the last 5 months than at any point from my NQT year. This is because I get to see the best of everyone else’s teaching so regularly and I unashamedly magpie all of their great ideas.

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