There are many blogs and articles out there regarding lessons learnt, philosophies around leadership from people who really know what they are talking about. Inspired by a recent question from @TeachEnglish146 and various posts linked by #womened I decided to put this together, it doesn’t include everything learnt and will be added to as more lessons become apparent. It is also Sunday night, I don’t have that ‘Sunday feeling’ (woop!) but I do have toothache and writing this post is also distracting me from the fact half of my face feels like it has been repeatedly punched (sob). Stealing the layout from a typical girlie magazine (oh the shame) here are a few things I have learnt/will endeavour to take forward into my next year as Head of English.*
Hey, it’s ok… to not know everything. I have struggled (am still struggling) with this. Taking on the role of leading the department, I felt I should have all the answers, all the time, for everyone. It was/is exhausting. The issue here, for me anyway, is you feel you look stupid if you do not know the answer, if you can’t respond with the answer within the alloted 30 seconds upon being asked the question. YOU DON’T. It is in your head. In this ever-changing educational landscape it is impossible to know everything. All you can do is know what you do know really well and add to this solid foundation by associating with knowledgeable others (little bit of Vygotsky for you) and reading around your subject, around leadership. Also, be patient. You don’t need to have all the answers straight away, sometimes the fun is in the journey to the answer.
Hey, it’s ok…to want to know everything. On the flipside, it is ok to want to know things, to want to know these things NOW and get slightly frustrated when you realise there is still more to know. Be greedy. Read lots. Ask lots of questions. It doesn’t make you pushy, it is what makes you the person you are and for me is one of the reasons I got my promotion. I sought out opportunities to learn more, I probably annoyed both of my HODs as I constantly asked to do more, to take on projects and asked a million questions (no hint of hyperbole here, I like questions) It is a little (actually a lot) clichéd but knowledge is power. The important thing to take forward here is to use that greed, that frustration of not knowing everything and put it to good use, developing yourself as a practitioner/leader and developing your department. Don’t let it dishearten or demoralise you.
Hey, it’s ok…to ask for help. In a similar vein to the first point. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. WonderWoman (good film) is often used to represent the strength of women but even she doesn’t win all her battles on her own. She has a community to lean on, to turn to for help and advice. I am learning to ask for help, that sitting for hours trying to crunch data, write an action plan, organise intervention is not an effective use of anyone’s time. By asking others you don’t admit to weakness, you show a willingness to learn and that is a good thing is anyone’s book.
Hey, it’s ok…to switch off. Actually this is essential and is a lesson I am learning fast. In order to be a good teacher, to be a good leader, you need to have time for yourself. Now anyone who is reading this and knows me will start to link together images of a kettle, a pot and the colour black…Do as I say, not as I (currently) do. Watch films, read for pleasure, see family and friends, take up hobbies, sleep, exercise. It helps you to focus on the tasks at hand, allows you to be more productive with your time and reminds you that work is NOT the be all and end all. Encourage those in your department to switch off and lead by example.
Hey, it’s ok…to delegate. You don’t have to do it all. Maybe…..just maybe…you are not the best person for the task at hand. Look at the strengths in your department, look at areas that require development for individuals and support them in promoting and strengthening these skill sets. What are your priorities within your role? You can’t do it all and shouldn’t do it all. Great leaders provide a learning environment that helps to encourage everyone they lead to improve (Dylan Williams) by providing opportunities through delegation you are recognising the talents that exist around you and utilising them to help drive the department forward. This benefits you, your team and in turn, the students. I am a control freak and struggle to let go, I am getting better at this, I think….
Hey, it’s NOT ok…to ask others to do things you don’t want to do. I really believe in this. Lead by example. How can I conduct a work scrutiny knowing my books have not been marked for an age (actually thinking about that brings me out in a cold sweat) At the same time my standards are ridiculous. I can’t reach them (literally – I am little but figuratively as well). I am learning to not beat myself up when I don’t scale the giddy heights of my expectations and also when it is appropriate to have standards that rival the Burj Khalifa and when it is ok to have them, say at the height of Big Ben. Don’t shirk the crappy jobs, don’t side step the groups from hell. Most importantly, have standards you agree on as a team. We have a mark every 2 weeks policy in our school which, for English, is not always doable. Think about what you want marking (or anything else for that matter) to achieve and time needed to reflect this. Then put this standard in place. One important piece of advice I took from Mark Robert’s blog (@mr_englishteach) when I first started as HOD was to ‘have non-negotiables’. Which leads me to…
Hey, it’s ok to have non-negotiables. There is a lot out there about collaborating as a team and establishing a strong sense of democracy within a department. I fully agree with both of these concepts. However, it is ok to have things that you insist on. It is not about throwing your weight around, stamping your feet and saying ‘I am in charge so you must obey’, that is never a pretty picture and if you don’t lose all self-respect after the act, you will when it is uploaded on YouTube. It is about what, for you as the leader of the department, you feel are the absolute essential basics. The golden rules. The lines that are not to be crossed. As Mark stated in his blog about being a HOD, these lines are may need to be drawn and re-drawn on a regular basis. Mine are very similar to his and I would imagine very similar to most who teach, let alone run a department: (1) High expectations for all students (2) Delivery of lessons which challenge and push all students. I expect my team to plan good lessons, that is our bread and butter, strip away all TLRs and it is the most important thing. I expect the lessons to challenge students and develop them as learners. I do not expect this to happen in the first 20 minutes, last 10 minutes but I do expect to see progress over time and if there are concerns that these are raised at the earliest opportunity, not after horse has bolted. High expectations goes hand in hand with challenge. Our students come from very deprived backgrounds, from communities where there are no aspirations, where there is no drive, no positivity around the words ‘school’ or ‘learning’. We have to provide and nurture that for all students, not just our favourites – ALL.
Hey, it’s ok to say no. Even to SLT. English and maths have been instrumental in establishing PiXL in our school over the last year. It has been hard. It has made extra demands on our departments, on us as leaders. Both myself and the HOD for maths have had to put the brakes on the PiXL juggernaut at times, in order to ensure the needs of our departments are heard, the well-being of our teams was protected. I am lucky. The SLT at my school listened to us, we worked as a big PiXL family and the tricky thing now is moving forward with this. We managed to secure things last year for our team I know we can’t do this next year, yet the workload remains the same. So we have already said there will be other things we will say no to, that there needs to be acknowledgement that during key points in the year, some things may be off kilter slightly. Again, saying no is not about throwing toy out of the pram. If you say no to SLT have a bloody good argument to back you up, demonstrate why your decision is the best one. You are the expert in your field, stick to your guns when you know or feel your way is in the best interests for all.
Well this turned out longer than expected. As stated previously this is not all lessons learnt. Just a few gathered together. Many other fine people have blogged about similar so this is just another voice but hopefully will be of interest and of help to some.
Thanks for reading!
* Background to me as HOD. Took on maternity cover (I was the surprise choice) then took role full time. Going into third year in September if you count the mat cover. Trained in the school as PGCE, had been there 5 years when I was promoted to HOD. It was a baptism by fire moving from classroom teacher to HOD and an interesting shift for myself and the department as previously I had been the mentee. However, I need to stress they have all been fantastic (and still are) and I am very lucky to have their support.