Finding your way in the wilds of September

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of Geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. He loves running in the hills, drinking coffee and reading.

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Image credit: An American Werewolf in London // PolyGram Pictures. Image credit: An American Werewolf in London // PolyGram Pictures.

Since taking on a head of department role four years ago I have had the same flashback every time I sit down at my desk on the first morning back. I was up on the bleak wilds of Dartmoor in October with the daylight fading and rain coming down fast and furious. I wasn’t sure where I was or where I was going. Panic rose in my throat. I was lost.

I am sure that this feeling will be familiar to many, as they step back into the classroom after six weeks of rest and recuperation, but I’d suggest it can be even more overwhelming for middle leaders, especially those who are fairly new to the role and contemplating what can seem an impossible, if thrilling, job. I have found that I can approach finding my way through the trials and tribulations of the year ahead much as I did finding my way off Dartmoor on that cold, dark autumn evening.

Step One – Work out where you are

The first thing I needed to do up on the moor was pause, look at my map and work out where I was. I knew where I had come from, and had a vague idea of the route I had taken. I could “My first step was to talk to the department about the journey they’d been on.”then work out my position by using the landscape around me; suddenly I didn’t feel so lost.

When I started as head of Geography I felt similarly lost, and needed to work out where the department was. My first step here was to talk to the department about the journey they had been on, look at where we were in terms of schemes of work and exam results, as well as looking at the department in terms of the wider school priorities. I soon had a good idea of where we were, what our strengths and weaknesses were, and I felt less lost.

Step Two – Work out where you want to be

Up there on my walk, getting cold and with limited daylight, I knew the priority had become damage limitation. I just needed to get out of danger. I could see on my map a small village just a few miles away across open ground and, most importantly, it seemed to have a pub. I had my destination.

As a head of department, I like to start off the year with an action plan that clearly sets out what I want us to achieve that year. I want to know where we are going and what it will look like when we arrive. Early on it was primarily about improving declining exam results whereas now we can set plans about creating a culture of excellence (I have written about that previously in The Guardian) and this year about excellent Geography. You need a clear end point for the year so you know where you are going.

Step Three – Keep on track

Travelling across open ground is difficult when visibility is poor. I had my compass and knew that I needed to be heading 15 degrees north. The problem is, if you head off in that direction and just keep walking, you can find you quickly veer off track and end up miles from where you had intended. One study has shown that if you blindfold people and ask them to keep walking in a straight line across an open field they will slowly spiral back to the point where they started. To avoid this I kept taking my bearings. I could see that 15 degrees north of me was a rocky outcrop, so I walked to that. When I was there I could take my bearings again and then head off to the next landmark. Usually when I am out walking I want to take detours to look at the view or take in the sights but not this time. I needed to keep on track.

I have found the same thing as a teacher. It is all very well starting off in September with a plan but it is a long time until July and there are many distractions on the path. I try and make sure that I have plenty of landmarks throughout the year that tell me if I am on track. What will have happened by half term? How will lessons be different? What should the mock exam results look like? I also try and fight the endless distractions from the plan. I am lucky that where I work there is a clear sense of everyone rowing together and having a common purpose but I have worked in schools where each member of the SLT has had their own priority that they felt should really be your priority. Over the years I found the best approach was to smile sweetly and then carry on regardless. You have a destination to get to and night is drawing in.

Step Four – Lighten the load

I had packed unusually sensibly. I had my map and compass. I had a waterproof jacket but really wish I had a second base layer and hat. I had some water “Sometimes we need to drop the junk and cut things back-to-basics.”and a rather soggy flapjack. I had a book. Not a huge book, but a book that was weighing heavy in my back. I knew I could make faster progress if I ditched it, but in this case just couldn’t bare the thought so on I went with it weighing me down.

At the risk of stretching this metaphor to breaking point, I think there are a number of things that we carry with us in the classroom that are just weighing us down: bizarre bits of advice we were given as trainees that we have never considered the truth of (“you must do a plenary!”), whole-school policies from the crazed mind of an assistant head who went on a course once (“let’s write the objectives in silver gel pen!”), our own beliefs about what works that turn out to be false (“we only remember 5% of what we are told!”). Sometimes we need to drop the junk and cut things back-to-basics if we want to get to our destination. Offload and check you have the essentials. There is limited time and a lot to do so use that time on things that get you closer to where you want to be.

Step Five – Celebrate and plan for the future

Cold, wet, but elated, I made it to the village and the warm embrace of the pub. A phone call to the taxi company and 30 minutes to sit, drink a pint and regale those around me with tales of adventure on that blasted moor. Also, time to look again at the map and start planning the next walk in the comfort of a seat by the fire.

I now avoid a lot of the September panic by planning my route carefully before I finish in July. That way, when I return to the excitement of a new term I already know exactly what I am doing and how I am doing it. Planning is much easier when you are comfortable and secure but if need be you can do it at any point. Just as long as you have a map and a sense of where you want to be.

How do you get your bearings at the start of the year? Let us know below.

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