Are you a new head of year this term?
The role of head of year is possibly one of the most challenging and emotionally draining roles within a school. You are a teacher, unofficial counsellor, mentor, social worker, family support worker, behaviour analyst, example setter, trainer, staff coach and troubleshooter.
You balance your classroom commitments with a never-ending barrage of barriers to break down to ensure your cohort gets a fair chance at a good education. What else? Plenty!
A Head of Year
- Communicates expectations and holds students to them – but knows students well enough to know when they need a different approach.
- Justifies decisions to sometimes sceptical staff whilst not breaking confidentiality about the struggles of the most vulnerable individuals.
- Strategically picks battles.
- Gives the same warmth and empathy to the inconsolable student, whether 1 PM on a Tuesday or 4 PM on a Friday.
- Is an expert in making the most of every second.
It sometimes feels like mere survival as you just don’t know what is coming through the door next. You feel like you’ve tried everything and yet know nothing. You tread water, gaining more from each interaction and incident. How can we begin to feel like we are succeeding in these situations?
1. Be prepared to delegate
Form tutors, class teachers and other key staff will all benefit from actively working with the young people whose lives you help manage. The harder you work, the more you may be relied upon to solve day-to-day classroom issues, so remember to advise and pass issues back to subject teachers. You cannot be omnipresent, no matter how much you want. Advising staff in handling everyday issues with specific students will help them develop their relationships with them, which may lead to potential behavioural improvements. Remember, a proactive form tutor can resolve some issues, and peer mentors can often work where paired effectively.
2. Read, learn, talk
Read your key student’s files. Find out as much as you can about nurture, positive behaviour support, functional behaviour assessment, mental health, trauma, attachment, SEND. Talk to teachers, healthcare professionals, parents, social workers, and other external agencies working with your students.
When you know your students well, you will understand why they act the way they do. You can prepare for tough days, know the right things to say at the right time and know when they need to hold to a higher standard because you know them well enough to know it’s not too much.
3. Measure what matters
Some heads of year are ‘progress leaders’, data-driven with targets directly related to a year group’s attainment and “behaviour” in subjects and groups you don’t teach if you even teach at all. You may be responsible for attendance too. And often, the students you work with make gains only visible to you. They might not have increased their academic points, behaviour percentage, merits, progress mark or any of the multitudes of measures they are continuously assessed against. So what? But they have had lunch every day this week when they didn’t eat in school at all last week.
Or they have taken your advice and completed their homework with you at lunch twice this week. Perhaps they have, for the very first time, successfully reflected on what you had discussed with them, and they had managed to overcome their need to punish you because you were ill last Thursday and you weren’t there when they needed you.
4. Be a good human
Although you take on so many roles for students and staff members, the key thing to remember is simply to be a good human. Set an example for others to follow. Students don’t expect you to be a qualified counsellor or judge, they just want you to listen actively and with empathy: Give them a chance to be heard.
Be the best version of yourself and the person you need in school. It’s a good idea to meet new students and introduce yourself early, demonstrating your expectations and values and offering support should it be needed. A positive first meeting like this can help when you may have to intervene in an incident later on.
5. Prioritise wellbeing
That includes you! If you believe it, champion Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in your setting. Promote good mental health. Suggest policies that give higher importance to the welfare of students over academic pressures. The school will have teachers and curricular heads pushing exam performance. Your job is to ensure the foundations are in place for their work to be most effective.
Prioritising also means looking after yourself. You cannot change every aspect of a child’s life for the better. Furthermore, you may be able to change very little. You will certainly change more than you will ever know. Don’t blame yourself for the bad; minimise your impact on the good. You’ll never know what might have been without your input. You may have saved a life, inspired a child to overcome circumstances, or stopped a child from feeling hopeless.
Success as a Head of Year can at times feel elusive, but if you promote a happy, healthy and respectful environment you aren’t going far wrong.