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Leadership musings - line managing an academic department


There is a lot to do as an Assistant Headteacher, and one of the duties is to line manage academic departments. This is one of the best aspects of the role as it's about building people and teams. I'm really pleased that the Science team that I have worked with over the past two years celebrated record results in 2015, meaning that more of our young people achieved better than they thought possible - a fact that can help confirm their post-16 choices or open new avenues. Indeed, a third of our school's top grades came from the department.

What makes this even more of a celebration is that this was set within the context of not only a disapointing set of results the previous year, but a year of turbulance after some not-so-favourable visits and staff restructuring due to increasing employment costs. We had staff sickness, turnover, a lack of funds (well, none) and a whole host of other events. In a nutshell, the team are bloody ace, especially as the young peopple were unaware of most of the issues in the background (I ask them).

Line managing a department is very different from leading one - I was given the department on arrival and was told that it needed sorting. There is no right way to do this, and I am sure that what we did can be improved, but I thought it worth sharing. The process reminded me of Lego - sure, there are instructions and a 'way' to get a result, but there are many combinations of brick and many different outcomes. They may not be exaclty what I'd have envisaged, but they are still ace.

During an inital coaching session, I quickly realised what had to be done. The problem was that I wasn't the person to do it. It would have been easy to steam in and micro-manage. Such an approach would have made it impossible to perform the other duties to which I am accountable for and would have undermined the professionalism of the team. I wanted to invest in the quality of the department's leadership (they are fantastic) and so set about getting to know what the Head of Department wanted. I make no apologies for being a subscriber to the 'multiplier' model of leadership, so we sat down and figured out what we needed to do. We started out by talking about three objects that represented where the department wanted to go - the important part here is that it wasn't my vision.

The crucial role of the SLT line manager, in my view, is to support and ask questions. I found it equally important to ask really stupid questions (I knew nothing about the Science curriculum, assessment model or school) and really uncomfortable questions, like 'what are you going to do about it'? Personally, I don't think it's important for me to have been a subject expert (the sheer complexity of the Science courses was a total revalation, especially compared to Geography), but to trust the expertese of those paid to develop the subject. This includes expecting the leaders to challenge each other and their team. From my perspective, middle leaders need to have bite and not only act as the champion of their staff. This can be a difficult act to balance, but it's more than possible.

It's been a bumpy ride, but a very rewarding one. Some of the other aspects of what I would consider to be good line management are:

  • Getting to know the staff - I tried to pop in on each member of staff every week - just to say hello. I have a tick list in my diary to help me keep track. This approach is designed to catch people being good, as well as to pick up where support may be needed. Always followed up with an email (if positive) or a chat.
  • Speak to students about what they are learning - both within lessons and out and about. It's amazing what you can find out in a two minute conversation with a Year 11 on the field at lunchtime. (just remember not to always take the students word for it on face value)
  • Being approachable and obtainable. There's no point in being a nice person if you're locked behind a door. I always try to have time for any member of staff, and especially those that I line manage. Often it may have taken some thought to visit, and there may be some anxiety. I'm paid enough to do the work when the real teachers have left the building.
  • Set ambitous goals - ones that are just out of reach but achievable. Leave the how to get there part up to the experts: the department staff. Help with the development plan - these can often become massive pointless documents - they need to be concise, licing documents with clearly defined goals.
  • Ensure that tracking is robust - early on we expected staff to contact home early. This helped us to identify who needed help - at all levels. It's a common mistake to focus upon the grade boundries, but a throughouh understanding of the students and their data highlighted issues with students who achieved L5 at KS2 coasting along - they needed to be stretched. Knowing the data is paramount as it informs questions, but never forget the indiviuals behind the data.
  • Trust the head of department and make life as simple for the department as possible. The Science team I work with are fantastic.
  • Act as a champion at SLT level, pushing for extra funds, staffing. We can't be a magic wand, but do have some influence. My job was to get the status of Science on par with Maths and English.
  • Support with challenging conversations. Most of the teaching in the department is excellent, however there were some examples of poor practice and this needed to be addressed.
  • Communicate and try to be humorous.
  • Support the establishment of a positive learning environment by being visible (especially around lesson change over) and supporting teachers with following behaviour routines. The classroom teacher is the toughest job there is, especially with 21 hours of teaching with sometimes emotionally charged teenagers! Behaviour management is a huge issue because it's emotional - don't be tempted to write it off.
  • Get organised - no one really objects to monitoring as long as they know it may be coming and what I'll be looking for.
  • Focus on the things that will make a difference to the culture, vision and teaching in the department - it's fantastic that we have an inflatable planetarium, a gecko and some fish and some truly wonderful staff (including the technician team - without which we would be in trouble!). However, it was the establishemnt of time to talk and share teaching practice during curriculum meetings and an open door policy that also helped support the team.
  • Work on knowing where the students actually are in their learning. We did a lot of work around the moderation of work, cross marking and question level anaysis. This was kept manageable. I can be anoghtmare when it comes to new ideas, so I took a steer from the Head of Department about what was possible and what wasn't.
  • Above all, be positive and confident, especially when things aren't going to plan.

Overall, I'm really proud to have been a small part of helping the Science team to achieve so much in thepast two years and I'm looking forward to seeing where the adventure leads to next. What I've learnt is that it's not nessessary to micromanage the team - therefore their achievements are truly theirs.



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