This month has seen me undertake my first middle leadership role and I have to start first by apologising to every middle leader I’ve ever worked with. How on earth any of you put up with me while doing this job I will never know? If someone came to me right now as I typed this and bounded in excited about Comparitive Judgement, Knowledge Organisers, podcasts for the kids, snapchat revision posts, 80/20 revision guides, teaching narrative using Jungian archetype or the countless other ideas I’ve ranted in a frenzied excitement at you….I honestly think I’d hide in a cupboard.
For the most part my former HoD’s have listened and smiled! You absolute legends, how did you do that!?!
Now, about the actual experience. I feel it’s necessary to state that I had no intention of becoming Head of Department just yet, it was something I wanted to do in the next five years. I knew I was going to do it… I don’t believe in the law of attraction or some other such nonsense but I knew that I wouldn’t stop until I was competent enough to deserve the role. When I arrived at my current school ready to be second in department I was expecting a challenging but exciting new role. Within a week of being at the school it became necessary for a whole host of reasons for me to step up. I won’t go into that here as it involves personal matters that are not for me to share. I was ready to be second and to be mentored by someone. I was excited. Then in a single meeting I was in at the deep end and petrified.
I made a ‘to-do’ list, it seemed the only sensible thing to do. It was long but I told myself that I’d just reduce the time frame and complete the job one task at a time. What I hadn’t anticipated was the constant dropping in and colleagues asking for support. I’m not very good at saying no and maybe I’ll need to work on this, but it became evident very quickly that there were lots of problems.
I first set about making a department improvement plan, but I didn’t know all of the problems. I set about conquering metacognition within our department. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t important and , in fact, it is a whole school focus but for us as a department we cannot focus on this until we have a concrete sense of the focus of our work. For instance, there can be no focus on procedural knowledge checks if several members of the team do not know what the outcomes should look like. In short, there is no point creating a unified approach to analytical writing, if several members of the team do not know what is meant by analytical writing and are not in the habit of teaching it. So we started with our shaky foundations. I told the team we would be teaching 3 main styles of writing – transactional, narrative and analytical. It’s a reductive approach but we have to start somewhere. With our first CPD session I asked them to write a story, at the end of the process we clarified some procedural points and likely difficulties students might face. It’s a small step on a long road but we will get there.
But hold on, let me go back one huge and important step…. I had to tell my team that the adversity we found ourselves in was good. No wait, I had to tell myself that it was good and bloody believe it. I had to remind myself that finding myself in the role of HoD in a situation that an experienced leader would find tough was going to make me a better leader in the future. I told my team that we loved adversity, that it was our wheelhouse and that we would fight for each other and the students. I believed it and for now this is a motto of sorts for us. We aren’t quite a team yet, rather several fractions but there is no point forcing that…we will be brought together by our adversity and our success. By the end of the year, we will be held up by the school as a model of excellence. To me this seems inevitable, we will manifest it into reality.
Right, let me change gear here…you’ll notice I’ve a lot to talk about on this! Some things that have surprised me. I wanted to be Head of Department because I thought the role was leading a vision of English through your team. Clearly the word through is wrong there, but actually as one of my colleagues observed the other day my role is much more about delivering bad news in a way that people don’t hate too much. That is probably the best summary I’ve heard! Also the role isn’t so much leading. It’s a listening role! I listen to my team, I think carefully about what has been said and I adapt my idea. Sometimes I have to tell them they are simply wrong, but at other points in time I have to concede that I’ve not considered a very important thing. In his book ‘Leading’, Alex Ferguson says “you have two ears and one mouth” it’s more true for leaders than anyone else. The most inspirational head I’ve worked for doesn’t dress like a car salesman and spout grandiose narratives, she listens carefully and questions people. After ten minutes or so, I’m told, she might stop whoever is speaking and decide she’s heard enough before summarising the change (or lack of change) in direction. This has been my most valuable weapon. Not my big mouth and big ego, or my hours spent reading research!
That being said, having worked in a team full of killers, as I have been known to call them, my competency has given me respect amongst my colleagues. I was fortunate enough to work for a good few years with the most argumentative and competent bunch of English teachers I can imagine have ever been assembled. At our best our arguments were combative and thought provoking but they were always well intentioned, they always had the kids in mind. I don’t have that in my current department because I realise that this takes time to grow but working in that team of killers means I’ve very few ideas left to be questioned. I’ve argued my ideas out countless times, and come up short countless times. I’ve borrowed the best ideas and formulated a vision. Implement that it turns out, is just a bit trickery than bombarding your Head of Department with it.
I have to end really simply though by saying, I am absolutely loving it and I just want to keep on getting better and better at it.