The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 2

“Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”
Robert A. Heinlein

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

In the first part of this section on the Art of Leading a Department, I talked about how situations where staff are underperforming can be helped in a supportive manner. However, it is wrong to say that all you should be doing as a leader is looking for those people who aren’t meeting expectations. You also need to give those who excel or deserve development the chance to thrive even further.

There are those staff in schools who work in that sweet spot combining good teaching, ambitious principles and a desire to further make a positive impact on students’ lives. There are also some staff who don’t have the ambition, nor a desire to widen their scope – and that’s fine. For me there is a place for people who are simply good at teaching; one of the bizarre situations in education is that we often promote our best teachers, without even seeing if they’ve got leadership and management capability. The Advanced Skills and Excellent Teacher schemes were designed to give great teachers recognition (through status and pay) without moving up, but as we know these failed to have the desired impact.

It seems then, that the only real way that teachers can satisfy their ambitions within the confines of the teacher employment system is to achieve a promotion. That in itself is a tough call. At the best schools, staff are obviously reluctant to leave, meaning that most of the roles available to those trying to get on the leadership ladder are at the most challenging schools. The paradox of this is that to be successful in these environments  you need experience dealing with the issues that such schools regularly face; that or an ability to demonstrate clear success in projects that might impact positively. So where does one get this?

It is an adage in any business that to be successful you need to learn how to say ‘no’ to people. In my first year as a teacher I took on that many projects (Engineering Education Scheme liaison, Eco-Schools Coordinator, Enterprise Leader in Maths, supporting Foreign Exchange trips) that I barely had time for myself beyond school. I didn’t mind at the time – I was young, single and a complete sucker for punishment. But I couldn’t develop my practice as a teacher, because I was too busy with everything else. Eventually, I had to say – for my own sanity – ‘no’ to most of it, because I wasn’t doing any of it particularly well. From that point on I learned not to take a project on unless I could do it properly. I didn’t want to put my name to shite work, in other words.

That said, I think learning how to say ‘no’ to people is the wrong way of putting it. I think, instead, one should know when to say ‘yes’.

I’ve diverted slightly from the point, but I’m getting to it so bear with me.

If offered a project to work on, I think a teacher should say ‘yes’ if it ticks the following points:

  1. It will make a difference to the lives of students in the school’s care.
  2. You will develop professionally (and possibly personally) as a result of a successful outcome.
  3. It has a clear objective, with easy to demonstrate success criteria – i.e. it isn’t ‘wooly’.
  4. Most importantly, you have the time, or you will be allowed the time, to do it.

Now for my point. I can bet my bottom dollar (pound?) that if you’re a leader of a department, you have a list of projects you’d like to get going in your school that’ll make a massive difference to what happens in your school. Make a list of them, and then go through that list of points above.

Any tick off all three? Good. Now put together a brief for the best ones, and then offer them to staff. Those who want to make a difference will take them up, but also consider those who are TLR holders or on UPS: are they meeting expectations? In brutal terms, they need to be earning their corn; it’s not fair if the well-meaning NQT is coordinating ICT in the classroom for no renumeration whilst a UPS3 is checking in at 8.30am, checking out at 3.30pm and their only responsibility is collecting the money for tea club.

Things to avoid:

  1. Anything ‘across the curriculum’ – as Dani Quinn goes into detail about in her (very) recent blog post – there’s little point as it’s usually done for its own sake rather than an effort to make a real difference.
  2. Brain Gym/VAK/PLTS – any initiative that has no evidence of making an impact, or is woolier than a pen full of sheep.
  3. Projects without a real aim. I signed on for the Eco-schools thing without thinking things through. I wanted to install a bio-fuel heating system, knowing it would save the school lots of money and be a big ‘green’ tick. Little did I know that the school had no real intention of such a major project. We ended up putting the school name on a list of sponsors for a local micro-hydroelectric scheme, simply because we needed to justify funding in the short-term.
  4. ‘Fun’. You know what I mean. Anything where the connection to learning is extremely tenuous. Like those Happy Puzzle Company days. I love the puzzles, but as for actual mathematical content?
  5. SMSC links. If Mathematics isn’t a social, moral, spiritual and cultural construct, I don’t know what subject is.

Good ideas:

  1. Visits. They can be a bugger to organise but there’s nothing better than a school visit to see students in a different light and see what they’ve been studying in context.
  2. Displays: A classroom needs vibrancy – it’s something I’m shocking at these days – and anything that makes the environment one where students feel like it’s a place to learn is a positive step (I am aware of union regulations on displays, but seriously, it’s your classroom, make it your own!).
  3. Cross-phase links. Developing the transition between KS2, KS3/4 and KS5 can be an extremely valuable process. It can be anything from sharing teaching practice, to transition vists (see 1) or developing a cross-phase curriculum so that there’s a true continuity of learning in the local area. Especially important considering the growing mastery movement in Maths teaching.
  4. Proper educational research. This can be anything from visiting a fellow school to see how they’ve got such fantastic results in Maths to work on improving the proportions of students completing homework.

Dear readers, you may have your own thoughts. But as Geoff Colvin tells us in Talent Is Overrated, you will end up developing fantastic people if you give them chance to complete projects beyond their day-to-day work and that will make a real difference to teaching and learning. You’ll be giving them chance to lead, be creative, plan, manage and see through some quality work. Who wouldn’t want to see that happen?


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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