Leading a Department for the First Time: Advice through Bad Metaphors

You lucky, lucky people. If you have been appointed as a Head of Department, you will of course be looking forward to starting your journey towards changing the lives of myriad young people through your chosen subject. And what a journey that is going to be! I’m not even being sarcastic, folks.

If you’re anything like me when I was poised to start as a head of department, you probably believe that it will be a journey akin to those seen on the big screen. In your head, you are Frodo with the ring, you feel an uncanny affinity with Dorothy on her Yellow Brick Road and you ‘get’ Odysseus and his quest deep down inside. Realistically, at different times, you will be all of those characters, but for the majority of the time, you may end up channelling Chevy Chase in a National Lampoon movie.

Being a head of department is one thing; being an outstanding one requires the ability to balance the everyday with the long-term, whilst fielding the various demands on your time effectively. You will find your attention pulled in so many directions that you start to feel that you aren’t a good teacher anymore, that your own pupils are getting a raw deal. That fades after a while, when you start to become more comfortable with the role and start to manage your time so that you’re not fire-fighting, you are ahead of yourself. How you get to that point is the important bit.

There is a wealth of material that will provide insight into what it means to be a middle leader. Reading round the job is a good idea, even if it is to disagree and know that you will do something differently. A good source of research into the role can be found in ‘The Role and Purpose of Middle Leaders in Schools’ (2003). It dips into research about primary and secondary middle leadership, as well as middle leadership in further education. The advice below is not scientifically measured, and you’ll probably find similar advice from many different sources. To save you the job of having to dig up material in the next few days, I’ve noted down the key things that I wish I had been told before I started in my role. I apologise for the ridiculous metaphors in advance.

Decide on your philosophy and use your influence to make it real

Some people say that it is a good idea to develop a philosophy about how your subject should be taught in a department meeting with everyone present and in consensus. This almost never happens because the vision cannot be arrived at by committee. Inevitably, compromise and dilution means that the direction shifts and it is easy for all to become dissatisfied.

The direction and philosophy of your department comes from you and you are its biggest force. Decide what you want your department to look like and be the rising tide. Even if there isn’t buy-in at the start, it comes when people start to realise that your ideas and your approach works. Of course, temper your ideas by putting yourself in the place of your team – sometimes a rising tide can just drown people. And that wouldn’t be a good thing in your first post. You should aim to ensure that your ideas are as visible as they can be – sell the philosophy to staff and students alike through display, through handbooks, through web material, through communication home. It will give your department a distinct identity and you’ll be surprised at how grateful people are to know where you stand when it comes to your subject.

Get out of the bunker because you are not the cog, you’re the wheel

The vortex that is the day-to-day leading of a department can suck you in and place you far away from the important aspects of your new job. If you retreat into that bunker, you may forget that your department is one of many propping up the whole school. Your numbers count, the staff you lead are deployed around the school in various roles – this means you need to place yourself clearly at the top of the tree. When you are told what the improvement plans are in briefing or on the INSET days, don’t just jot them down or glance at the accompanying sheet – note down how you and your department can help to achieve those whole school goals. No matter how big or small your department, you help to create the public perception of it through your results and through your interactions with parents and the local community. Make the effort to get out from below the canopy regularly – it will give you an insight into what you need to do next. Then talk to people about how you can be part of the whole.

Find your foot soldiers

John Donne’s ‘No Man is an Island’ is surprisingly appropriate reading for a new head of department. Not only does it cover the ideas in my point about being part of the whole school, it tells us that we need to delegate. You may already know who your foot soldiers are – if you don’t, make it your business to find out. Behind every good head of department you will usually find one or two dedicated foot soldiers who are capable and have steady hands. I find that they are often two or three years in, without any additional responsibility and they, not you, are the rock on which this department is built. Developing a strong and trusting relationship with your foot soldiers is rewarding for both parties – on one hand, you will find that you can delegate without worrying that things won’t get done and on the other, you will be working towards preparing those team members for further, more established responsibilities. You have to be the person who not only sells the vision, but also the one who sells your team members. Think of yourself as a career pimp.

Talk about impact and actually mean it

Your line management meetings and meetings with the head, if you have them, should be focused on one core thing: impact. Frame your discussions about what your department is doing and plans to do using that word. Impact. The impact of this intervention will be X, the impact on parental engagement will be X, the impact of developing this staff member will be X. It’s really obvious when someone uses that word in their discussions about what they’re doing in the department and they are using it because they think they should. Think about impact as the thread that runs through your plans – it’s the thin, red line. I find it helps imaging a red line through my middle of my head. I go back to the red line when plans have become nebulous. That may just be me, though, so don’t feel the need to do the same!

Find your inner benevolent dictator

Placing yourself as a head of department is hard at the start because you’re used to being in the mix. To a certain extent, you have to shift your thinking significantly. Without wanting to sound harsh, you are in charge and so if you don’t get invited to the pub straight away, there’s a reason for that. When you do get invited (and you will), it will probably because you’ve earned the trust of your team by being the best benevolent dictator around. You know what you want and you expect it to be done – when it is, you defend and promote that team until you are blue in the face. Getting frustrated when things aren’t done doesn’t mean ditching the ‘benevolent’ part of your new title. Sometimes, not having the ‘big chat’ straight away with someone who has made a mistake or not done something is best. Show that you trust them to make it better – actually saying that without sounding like an idiot is quite a feat though. When you have earned the trust, you can make it loud and clear what you expect and not be afraid that people won’t respond. When you are given an affectionate dictator nickname, you’ll know you’ve made it to the right place.

Be down with the moving and shaking

You don’t need to manage leading a department with doing a Masters, or attending lots of different courses – but you do need to be the expert in developments in your subject. Using Twitter and online education fora are quick and easy ways to stay abreast of the important aspects of your subject. The ukedchat hashtag on Twitter throws up pedagogical gems – have you heard of SOLO, or flipped classrooms? Do you know how your subject is taught in private education, in charter schools, or in Finland? If anything, joining networks means that you get different perspectives on what you are doing. Learning about the moving and shaking earns respect, especially when you apply what you have learned successfully in your own department. Beware – using Twitter to fuel your department plans can be a bit like trying on too many clothes at once. You look like a washing basket, you’re all sweaty and people will look at you funny. One item at time, people.

All that is left to say is good luck! Before I sign off, I just want to go back to that journey analogy – okay, you may feel a lot like Chevy Chase in a National Lampoon movie. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Have you ever seen a National Lampoon movie that didn’t have a heartwarming ending?

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5 comments

  1. Bruno Reddy

    Very timely suggestions…I was literally thinking this morning of the agenda and tone of my team meeting next week. You’ve reinforced some of what was starting to gather in my head (“decide on your philosophy” and “be down with moving and shaking”) but you’ve given me some fresh ideas (“talk about impact” and “get out of the bunker” in particular).
    Thanks, Bruno

  2. Don't Feed The Pixies

    although the department i was head of was not in a school i think the same balance applies in the wider world – that fine line between helping people reach the goals and promoting the process, keeping things stable whilst pushing forward and knowing when its time to kick arse, but in a gentle and supportive way of course 🙂

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