The Art of Leading a Department: Know Your Students

Identification is not the same as knowing someone through and through.

Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

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

The matrix

I loved The Matrix. I’m not quite nerdy enough to get completely into it, but I’m geeky enough to understand the principles behind the concept and to cringe a little when the pseudo-existentialist clap-trap spews forth, but as a visual spectacle, it’s a great film.

The sequels though? My word. Terrible, terrible films. Acting more wooden than a mahogany table and as convincing as my attempts at exercise. But, there’s a scene, involving ‘The Architect’, who basically says that Neo is the result of an imbalance in the grand set of equations that constitutes the Matrix, and every so often, the Architect comes to some means of restarting the whole affair, unbeknownst to those who think that Zion is sanctuary from the big horrible machines.

Back to reality

The thing is, it’s easy to get trapped as a leader into the mentality that basically, you’re dealing with numbers. From KS2 starting points to FFT data to Pupil Premium students to LAC… you’re dealing with one big set of numbers.

Now, we’d all love to boil them all down to one equation, compute the figures and come up with a means of managing everything. But the fact of the matter is, that’s simply not going to happen, because just like Neo in The Matrix, there is an imbalance.

The students you teach are human beings. Let’s just remember that for a second, because – and I wholeheartedly mean this – I think this case is regularly forgotten. There is this intangible quality of students that means that it doesn’t necessarily matter how or what you teach, the interventions you put in place or the personality that you bring into the classroom, ultimately, it’s down to them to perform.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

To use another analogy, I’m reminded of the Beagle 2 space probe. Started in 2000, a large consortium of thinkers and creators came together to build something to make a British impact in space exploration. The skill to make something like this happen must have been extraordinary.

It took three years to make and launch. I recall excitement at the time, here were the Brits, in the spirit of Brunel, Sinclair, Berners-Lee, innovators all – and now we’re going to Mars (sort of).

But… it failed. When deployed, it couldn’t talk to the carrier spacecraft and now it’s just sat there, £66 million of investment, knowledge, engineering, just sat there, in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing. That, my friends, is what happens when even after you’ve catered for as much deviation from the script as possible.

Just like the Beagle, unless you know how your students are going to react in testing situations, you might as well teach them Sanskrit in preparation for their Maths GCSE, because you’ll get the cruddy results you deserve.

Stuck in the middle with you

In my mind, there are three ‘classes’ of students. There’s the ‘good’ kids. The ones who excel in everything, work hard no matter what and as a result you know them well because they’re visible to you every day. They’re the ones who you have a good idea of how they’re going to perform at the end of Y11.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the ‘challenging’ kids. This lot find it hard in school – for a variety of reasons – and we know that we’re going to have to get them over the line somehow. That’s fine, it’s part of leadership and we’ll know these inside out too because we’ll see them every day too. You might get to know these better than the ‘good’ kids.

Right in the middle though, are what are often called the ‘ghost’ kids. These are the students who turn up every day, cause no difficulties, behave and just get on with it. If there’s one group of students who suffer greatly in the five years from Y7 to Y11 (and beyond) it’s this group. We just don’t notice them. Yet if there’s one group of students that can make the performance of a year group go in an opposite direction from what you’d hoped, it’s this lot. They’re the difference between underwhelming and amazing results.

It’s the latter set that make the difference to success of a year group. Get them working well and performing and you’re well on your way to a high achieving, competitive group of students in your care.

To know them is to love them

You’re the leader of both the teachers who develop the knowledge of these students and the children studying your subject. Henceforth if the students in the middle are your key to success, then you lead them. Directly.

Take these groups by the scruff of the neck. Most teachers love top sets and that’s clearly understandable but imagine the difference you’ll make if you, as a leader, take hold of that critical middle set – the ghost kids – and help them get their target grades or better. All of a sudden you’ve got a subject that just plods along to one that’s the centrepiece of the school.

More importantly, those ghost kids are given the chance they deserve. It frightens me how many students just turn up, do their thing, go home, and get no credit. Make a fuss of them! They should be the role models! Sod all the praising of students for turning up carrying something to write with, reward the students who do the minimum expectations every day with the amazing quality of your teaching and belief in their potential, because they simply deserve it.

By not giving the ghost kids your attention, you’re leaving too much to chance. The capable students will always perform, they just need a little direction. The difficult, ‘challenging’ sort always get intervention because they need it; they’re in that situation because they’ve been let down for one reason or another, fair enough. But those in the middle? They’re the ones who could go either way. Put them in the centre of your focus, throw the kitchen sink at them, and watch success come your way.

Sum it all up

We often get caught in seeing year groups as a collection of data, and that’s understandable. But there are personalities behind the data which we need to take account of. The middle ground students are the most important in this respect, because they tend to lurk under the radar and get missed when it comes to the crunch. As a leader, it’s your role to take responsibility for these students over all of them. Take the middle group as your class. Get to know what makes them tick. Play to their strengths and learn – as hard as it may seem – to like them. Success for them is success for everyone, and never forget that.


About workedgechaos

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

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