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How to lead a successful department

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

It is often said, rightly, that the biggest drivers of school improvement are middle leaders.

Of course, if a school’s senior leaders are weak then it will soon run into problems.

However, regardless of how good the SLT might be, if the quality of middle leadership is lacking, the school will never move forward. Subject leaders and heads of department are in vital positions and it is worth remembering that the vast majority of heads of department are promoted to the position because of their teaching ability, primarily, rather than their leadership and management ability. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because an individual is an outstanding subject teacher that they will become an outstanding leader.

Having said that, there are a few key points to bear in mind that will keep all newly-appointed heads of department on the right track. In many ways, school improvement is often over-complicated.

And when it comes to leading a successful department, the secret to success can be broken down into 4 key areas. Understanding you and your department Successful departments share several common characteristics.

These include a relentless focus on learning and a consistency of approach – both across the whole-school and the department, in all interactions with pupils and in its daily processes.

In addition, care, commitment and high expectations are important.  For this to occur, heads of department need to understand their role and the need to model effective practice and share good practice.

The best departments are those that reflect their leader, so it is important that the leader is a committed, driven and passionate individual. A middle leader needs to be clear about their own strengths and weaknesses.

They also need to know what is going on in their department inside out.

A leader needs to monitor effectively and ensure that accountability is clear.

All decisions and judgements must be based on firm evidence. Planning for improvement Once you have established the areas for development that the department has the next stage is setting about plotting the route to improvement.

Understanding where you are and where you want to get to – the start and finish points – are important.

However, the most important thing is how having the ability to plan meticulously the department is going to get there. Leading teaching and learning The core business of any head of department, like any school, is teaching and learning.

Understanding how to lead teaching and learning within your team is a vital part of the role.

Yes, you have to be prepared to stand up and be counted as a role model – but you also need to be able to address areas of weakness within your department and have a demonstrable impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

You need to lead from the front but bring about improvement as well.

Becoming adept at observing lessons, giving feedback and in coaching colleagues are the key ways that you bring about such improvement. Managing teams and conflict The best heads of department work hard to build a sense of togetherness within their teams.

However, there will always be difficult situations or colleagues to manage.

Conflict will always occur at times in the workplace.

Difficult conversations need to be handled with tact and assertiveness in equal measure. Managing conflict is often the aspect of the role that most newly appointed middle leaders fear the most, but it’s these scenarios that call for the strongest leadership.       However, convincing pupils that failure is the secret to success can be a tough ask… It’s not a ground-breaking statement or anything new at all to suggest that people need to fail to succeed.

It’s the stuff of motivational quotes and speeches - a staple ingredient, in fact. The notion that to be successful at something you first need to have tasted failure is heard consistently in the world of business and sport.

And, it applies to education equally as well. Children are averse to failing and making mistakes It can often seems that pupils see failure as one of their biggest fears.

Indeed, some seem to be scared of even making a mistake – Hands up if you’ve ever seen a pupil try to rip a page out of a book because they have made a simple mistake in their work? Where the blame lies for this – the education system, continual testing, pressure from parents, teachers, peers… the truth is, in all honesty, it’s probably a combination of all of these factors.

And, apportioning blame isn’t the point of this piece. The point is: How do we help our pupils appreciate the part failure can play in achieving success at school? Allowing pupils to fail is vital to future success Allowing pupils to make mistakes and to feel what failure is like is an important part of any future success.

Of course, you should never set pupils up to fail, but giving them coping strategies and the mental strength (as well as the academic knowledge) to make improvements when they fail to reach the standard, level or grade that was expected, is vital. Fixed and growth mindsets ‘Failure’ is a word that is avoided at all costs in the vocabulary of schools today.

It is impossible to ‘fail’ exams –‘Unclassified’ is the lowest ‘grade’ that can be awarded.

However, failure is certainly something that pupils feel.

Dealing with disappointment can be difficult, yes, but often how a person respond comes down to the mindset that an individual has. If your mindset is fixed, failure is fixed and it will become a permanent fixture.

However, if you have a growth mindset and believe you can take steps to get better at something, you really can. Creating a positive mindset in the classroom is vital if pupils are to realise that failure can be a strength.

After all, nobody ever got better at something by getting things right all the time. A growth mindset allows a person to see ‘intelligence’ or academic ability as something that is fluid and not fixed.

A growth mindsetter believes they can control and change how successful they can be.

Pupils with a growth mindset see failure as a temporary setback and as an opportunity to take stock, learn and become stronger as a result.