The Art of Leading a Department: Be a Reflective Practitioner

Even if you think you’re doing well and have it all figured out, there is a voice you will always inevitably hear at some point which nags at you and says “but wait…” Don’t ever dismiss it, listen to what it has to say. Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.

Ashly Lorenzana

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

Just a bit of a warning, this is the first ‘EPIC POST’ that I’ve wrote. My posts are usually quite long for blogs, normally about 1000 words. This goes well beyond that. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

My Core Belief

I have been through a few interviews in my teaching career and one of the questions I am most asked is:

“What makes a good teacher?”

Now there’s some stock answers. Good subject knowledge; excellent planning; placing the students first; developing positive relationships. All those sorts of things. But in my mind these are all results of being a good teacher. They’re actions, in a sense, rather than a character, or ethic.

My answer would be: A good teacher is someone who is a reflective practitioner. That’s it. Everything else, to quote my great university lecturer John Slater, is ‘bean counting’ – the extra layers around the central, all-powerful kernel.

What is a reflective practitioner?

To quote Wikipedia:

Reflective practice is “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”

In other words – it’s to know that in whatever you do, there is always room to improve. Going back to John Slater (who by the way, was perhaps the greatest influence on my methodology of reflective practice and good design – more the latter in the future), he would never give a score of 100% to a project or paper because he believed every piece of work could be bettered, and to be honest, it’s difficult to disagree.

In project management, there is a traditional cycle of working that runs something along the lines of this:


As someone who has worked in both the private and public sectors, if there’s one area that unsuccessful organisations and people don’t do particularly well on, it’s the evaluate stage – the reflective stage.

There’s an argument, rightly, that good design will negate any problems in implementing a project. This is correct, however something that is designed well can be executed poorly. The best planned and designed lessons and resources don’t make a blind bit of difference if the teacher using them can’t engage the students.

When a project manager evaluates a project, they simply check if the project met the criteria outlined in the initial plan. If not, then they’ll spend time looking at why not. It might have been because the initial plan changed, or the funding wasn’t there, whatever. Equally importantly is that if the project went well, then the reasons why are likewise investigated.

Now, isn’t that what being a department leader is, a project manager? Aren’t lessons, schemes of work, resource development, CPD, assessment, etc all projects in themselves?

Some are ongoing – curricula, for example. Some, however are finite – like the progress of a year group in your care. But if we see all of these situations as projects, it allows us to start thinking more effectively about our day-to-day practice.

Being reflective

Don’t get me wrong, being reflective takes time, and in this time constrained world of teaching, it’s a big ask. But if there’s one way of improving practice and making one’s work more efficient, then you can’t beat sitting down for 15-30 minutes at the end of each day and asking yourself, “Did I achieve what I set out to today?”.

If you did, great. But why? What actions did you undertake that meant you were successful? I say often that being ‘outstanding’ is a process rather than something you are. The educational establishment shouldn’t be (notice the word ‘shouldn’t’ there) after people who collect good lesson observations like Scouts’ badges. It needs people who are constantly trying to maintain a level of quality that gets the best out of students.

If you did poorly, well don’t worry. Make sure you look back on your day and see if you can find out what things happened that resulted in that poor day. You might find out that it wasn’t actually that bad, but you will only know that by taking the time to sit and think through things.

Reflective actions

In a general sense, I’d boil down being reflective to answering the following questions:

  • Did I achieve what I set out to do today?
  • Why?
  • What am I going to do differently next time?
  • What am I going to do similarly next time?

Now, that question “Did I achieve what I set out to do today?” keeps coming up and there’s a reason for that. The ‘set out’ bit is just as important as the reflection time. It sounds daft, but actually being a reflective practitioner needs proactive efforts as well as reactive efforts. It amazes me how much ineffective teaching takes place simply because a teacher hasn’t actually planned out the very things they want to achieve in a day (or lesson). They simply pick up a scheme of work and tick off the points they need to cover.

Why being reflective is important

Let me give you some personal perspective. In my second role as a leader in Maths, I felt I knew what it took to be successful. I thought I’d take all the systems and methods of working that were so effective (eventually) in my first leadership role, and then just airlift them in to my second school. Why wouldn’t I do that? My last school had been through some absolute turmoil in terms of ‘restructuring’ and consequent strike action, and yet we’d raised the attainment and progress barrier way beyond previous years. I knew what it took.

Well, of course, I knew what it took in that first environment. But the second environment was a whole different set-up. Different staff, different students, different resources. Pretty much everything. It wasn’t a case of ‘if you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got’: instead it was a ‘if you do what you’ve always done in a completely different scenario, expect problems’. Which is exactly what happened.

See, being reflective is not necessarily about ‘after the event’. It’s more a case of ‘situational awareness’, i.e. taking all the environmental factors into account and then making decisions on how to move forward, at any point.

Plotting a course

To use a well-trodden analogy, an aircraft pilot doesn’t just set off for their destination and then after designated amount of time, land. They a range of telemetry and visual prompts that indicate whether the path taken is the correct one, what the environmental conditions are and thus what actions they may need to take to account for these.

That’s what you need as a reflective practitioner: a range of ‘telemetry’ and prompts to aid you in your quest for ultimate effectiveness.

So what ‘telemetry’ and prompts will guide you?

  • Data. Data does not lie. Remember, this is one of my key mantras. The interpretation of data can vary wildly, yes, but the actual data itself is ‘as is’. Knowing how to make sense of data will inform judgements more clearly than gut feel.
  • A mentor. This sounds a bit serious, but actually having someone who you respect and trust, and understands your role – not necessarily in your organisation – who you can talk to freely makes a real difference. It’s tough because in many towns and cities schools are quite closely linked, and as such the political element can hold quite a lot of sway. But I do recommend looking for someone to play this role. I myself have about 2 or 3 people who I’d call my mentors.
  • A devil’s advocate. Someone in your team who sees an opposing view can be seen as an obstacle. But it depends on how they play this part. Are they doing it simply to be difficult? You’ll be surprised how many of these people aren’t, and genuinely want the best for students. So use them to guide your judgements.
  • A source of research. Obviously the internet is a great starting point for this, but it can lead to spurious methods and thinking. Counterbalance this by reading ‘proper’ research – I can’t recommend the Sutton Trust highly enough for this sort of thing, likewise for books by genuinely esteemed writers. All research will have its nay-sayers – it’s up to you to sort the wheat from the chaff.
  • A professional network. If there’s one thing I’ve really worked on this year it’s building up links with fellow professionals. I feel proud to say I’ve got a wide range of people I can fire ideas off, debate current practice and generally chew the fat with in regards to education and beyond. This works slightly differently from working with a mentor, as these people aren’t necessarily there to guide you, but peers through which can jointly learn and progress.

I’m also lucky in that my wife is also a great sounding board. In fact I’d go as far to say she’s my Lady MacBeth, hahaha… only kidding. But seriously, all of those things above and more create a wealth of opportunities for you to step back for a minute and say ‘is this the way I want things to go?’.

Making decisions

Having all of these tools and people around you means that you can make well-informed decisions. The further up a leadership chain you go, the greater impact your decisions will have. That’s why SLT are paid more, because their choices have a wider influence, and as such they have more responsibility to get things right.

It sounds counter to what I’ve said earlier, but it can be a hindrance to have too much information to hand when making decisions. It slows the process down when there’s too much on your mind. However, being reflective also means answering the question “with all these factors to take into account, did I make the right decision?”. If the answer is yes, well done to you. But if not, then think of another time you might have to make a similar decision and change your choice to reflect the ‘situational environment’.

In the ‘big’ decisions, I usually sound my worries off at least two people, who usually have differing viewpoints. I look into what’s happening elsewhere with similar choices that are being made and then I make my move. I never do anything blindly or on emotion, because that process is a one-way ticket to regret.

The ‘bean counting’

Earlier I said that for me, good teachers are reflective practitioners and the rest is ‘bean counting’, in other words everything feeds from your thoughts and actions. What do I mean by this? Let me give you some examples.

  • Subject knowledge. There’s curriculum changes on the way. A reflective practitioner will take the time to read the latest programmes of study to evaluate the impact on their practice and prepare accordingly. Non-reflective practitioners will wait for the latest textbook to arrive, flick through and then worry about the new stuff when it’s time to plan.
  • Teaching and learning. A reflective practitioner will evaluate their lessons on a regular basis, and look to constantly adapt (not wholesale – that’s a recipe for doom unless absolutely necessary) their pedagogy to reflect the syllabus, the students in front of them and the outcomes required. The non-reflective practitioner will just teach the same way, regardless, because ‘it’s always worked (apparently), so why change’?
  • Behaviour management. The reflective practitioner knows that high expectations, rewarding exemplary work, setting sanctions and following up on behaviour are all important in the modern teaching environment. The non-reflective practitioner puts students into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, because “students can’t change their ways” (and as a knock-on effect of this will expect bad behaviour from students because ‘that’s what they’re like’).
  • Relationships with students and staff. The reflective practitioner knows that positive relationships make a teacher successful. The non-reflective practitioner thinks that people have to accept them for who they are…

Of course, this is just my opinion. But it’s my experience that these examples are real and out there.

In a nutshell

Reflective practice is at the core of great work, be it as a teacher, manager, leader, senior leader, whatever. A reflective practitioner constantly evaluates their work and their ‘situational environment’ to inform future decisions and plan out the course of what work they’ll do in the future. Simply, a reflective practitioner will constantly answer the question “Did I achieve what I set out to do today?”, and act accordingly.

Without solid reflective practice people at all levels will create problems as much as try to solve them, because the decisions they make aren’t informed by the wide range of experience, knowledge, research and people who are out there to help. Instead using these tools and learning from these people helps one make better decisions and negate the chance of creating further problems down the line.

Good reflective practice creates a situation where people can perform at a much higher level, without working harder. There are lots of models for reflective practice, but as seen above, the best are often very simple.

If there’s one simple, but hugely effective way of creating a supremely successful department it is embedding the principles of reflective practice across your team.

Thus endeth the lesson!


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
This entry was posted in Epic Post, The Art of Leading a Department and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Art of Leading a Department: Be a Reflective Practitioner

  1. Pingback: The Art of Leading a Department: Listening to Those Above and Below | Teaching at the edge of chaos

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