Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Top tips for new department leaders

Inspired by the topic of today's #mathschat I started thinking about the top tips I would share with new department leaders (or that I do share when I support other department leaders) and I realised I would never fit them all in tweets, so I thought I would commit them to my blog and share that instead. So here in no particular order are my top tips for new department leaders:

1) Go for the quick staff win - People talk about the quick win in terms of data or school targets etc but for me the quick win I always looked for was something that showed staff I was working for them. Whether it was finding a way to reduce their workload, trying to tackle the behaviour of a particular pupil or class that is causing problems, or simply putting a simple protocol in place that makes staff feel more secure about how to handle a particular admin or department task, getting a positive impact for staff early on is a great way to start off your 'reign' on the right foot.

2) Do your research - there are huge volumes of research and writing about successful leadership. Detailed treatises on coaching and mentoring staff, and when particular staff may need which approach. The successful habits of 1000s of successful people have been analysed, dissected and then disseminated out. You won't be able to read all of it, but a lot of them say the same thing anyway; but do take the time to read some of it.

3) Set your boundaries - Your work load will increase, you know that anyway or you wouldn't have applied to be a department lead, but you do need time to break away from it. I never work on Friday's once I get home (unless I know I will be unable to work at the weekend and I have pressing things to do). I commute to work via train which only goes every hour on the half hour, so on Thursday (which tends to be my least busy day in terms of after school commitments) I ensure I get the half 4 train instead of the half 5. I do make sure to take some time on Saturday and Sunday as well, although this will sometimes be around planning or department admin commitments. The important thing is I have set a workload which I know is sustainable for me and allow me to stay effective.

4) Visit your staff - I don't just mean popping into lessons. Don't get me wrong popping into lessons is absolutely essential; it ensures your profile with pupils you don't teach is high (which can be invaluable if you have to work with them later in either a positive or negative context). Provided you use it to share good practice 'learning walking' can be a really powerful way to empower your staff; I always try to get something out of it that I ask a member of the department to email round or share. But I also mean at the end of a day, just spend 4 or 5 minutes in conversation with each or most of your staff members. I literally just pop in at the end of the day, ask about their day and listen for a few minutes - I try and get round them all but usually just hit most of them. If that means I start my after school work half an hour after everyone else so be it, but this human element is an invaluable time for me to connect with my department.

5) Bring it back to teaching and learning - You are taking on responsibilities that mean you spend less time in the classroom. Some of the people you are working with may want to do that to in time, some may already have done it and then stopped, some may never want to take that road. The one thing you all should (hopefully) share is a passion for teaching and learning. So when you do get time together as a team, try and spend as much time as possible with this as your focus. It can be tempted to get involved in data analysis, or setting or bogged down with admin that the school throws at you, but much of this can be done through email or at other times; if it is absolutely necessary set time limits so that you still have a good proportion of time for sharing practice or other T&L activities.

6) Manage the contradictions - Being a middle leader can sometimes feel like a contradiction. You have to support your team in getting the best outcomes, but you have to hold them to account for the outcomes as well. You have to ensure you help the school meets targets and at the same time try and take as much of the pressure of targets off of your team so they can focus on teaching and learning. You have to provide what your staff need to do their jobs, but you have to ensure you balance the budget. Recognise that these are not contradictions, but they are your power. You can help find the barriers to the outcomes and help solve them. You can manage the pressure that your staff feel so that it ensures they are properly focused without becoming overwhelming. You can work with your teams to ensure the best materials are provided and that all staff in your team use them effectively.

7) Develop and maintain your professional network - Not a week goes by when I don't have a professional conversation with someone outside my school. There will always be times when you need to run ideas or discuss thorny issues with a peer that is not invested in your institution. Having a strong professional network, be it through attending organised meeting, working with people online or just having friends in other schools you can meet in the pub (and preferably all three) can be crucial in developing your ideas.

8) Get staff working together - A lot of people talk about vision and communicating it. One of the most cringeworthy moments of my early career is getting my first team together and going through the powerpoint of my vision for the department. By all means have a vision, and by all means share it, but make it something that people want to get behind!

9) Don't be scared to delegate - A nice way to do this is to allow them to solve problems they come to you with. I had a member of staff who wanted to use tablets in his classroom more, but we only had 10 ipads and he wanted to broker a deal with the IT support department to get another department to buy our ipads at a reduced rate, and use the money to buy 20 cheaper nexus tablets. Rather than respond with "good idea, I will get right on that", my response was "great idea, can I get you to talk to IT and organise that?". It doesn't have to be delegating roles with labels (literacy rep, ICT rep, G&T rep et al) sometimes it is just about not taking a job from someone when they bring it forward.

10) Always acknowledge and reply - A lot of the communication these days is not face to face, emails in particular dominate most of it. I never leave a communication unanswered, even if it is just a response to acknowledge and thank them for the work they have done. Remembering to say thanks for all work done is important, and being consistent with it is equally important (no different to the kids in that aspect).

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