It has been rather a long time since I posted on Actuality. Partly the reason for this is due to the fact that in 2017 I took a step up into a Head of Department position. Busy does not come close to describing the first year of this new role, nevertheless, overall it has been a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable experience.
In a break from my normal 'research' led blog posts I would like to share my thoughts and experiences over the past year and hopefully offer advice to those either in a similar position or those who are thinking of making the step up.
1 - Preparing for the role
Perhaps over zealously, I made the time to visit my new school three times before formally taking the department over. I was lucky in as much that I was appointed in the February of the academic year and this afforded more time to have a number of handover meetings. So, my first piece of advice would be to make sure that you either visit your new school a number of times or, if you can only manage one visit, make that visit focused entirely on the handover. Based on the experience of other new HoDs who had very short hand over meetings, I can say that the more time you can spend with your predecessor the better.
Practically, it would be useful to address the following (not an exhaustive list)
- Exam syllabuses
- Schemes of work
- Predicted grades
- Department handbook and development plan
- Discuss the members of the team
- Timetable allocations
- Academic vision of the school
- Probation criteria
- Pinch points in the year
- Marking and assessment polices
Secondly, if you can, take some time to observe the members of your department before the new academic year begins. This might not be possible, but it will at least give you more of flavour of the team you are about to lead.
Finally, spend some time socially with the department, either lunch with them during a visit, have a coffee. Try to gauge them within the department.
2 - Doing the role
Depending on what sort of 'inheritance' you have within your new department, try to prioritise as much as you can. This can be easier said than done, particularly with the advent of email........
The difficulty of starting a role like this is that quite often you are expected to 'know' the answer to certain questions and understand certain systems before you have had the time to learn them. In my experience I would have found it easier to know the following.
- System for raising predicted grades
- System for preparing Oxbridge students
- Who the exams officer was
- Admissions process
- Options process and changing options at A level
- Role of the tutor
There may be no formal systems in place when you enquire and this can be liberating as you can 'impose' a system at your own liberty. For me one thing I wanted to address was quality assurance within the department and I therefore implemented a proper observation cycle.
Additionally, make sure you have regular department meetings (a further system I implemented). For obvious reasons this gives you a chance to catch up with your team, build bridges and make decisions collectively.
Don't try to be superhuman. You should remember that you are new to the role, whilst high standards are vitally important don't forget that you have a lot to take in in a very small space of time. The school will be aware of this. Make the effort to have regular meetings with a 'mentor', usually as a HoD this would be a member of SLT and take the opportunity to be open and honest in those meetings and bounce ideas off them.
TURN OFF YOUR EMAILS AT NIGHT
3 - Getting the best out of your team
Much of this element of the role will depend on the school that you are working in and the department you are running. For my part I went into this role with the aim of running an open and democratic department. It is important that everyone feels consulted and has the opportunity to raise their opinions, particularly when you are making big decisions.
I read an interview with a newly promoted Headmistress recently who stated that it was important to believe that everyone was doing their best. With this kind of mentality you can build a positive working environment in the team. Also take the opportunity to have coffee, discuss non work related issues. Getting to know the individual, what their strengths are, their social situations, other roles within the school will also allow you to better manage expectations.
I could certainly write more and more and more. But, I think that this covers those elements that really stick in my mind. I have been very fortunate with the colleagues I interact with on a daily basis and there is not a day when I regret taking a step up.