The squeezed middle: 10 tips for heads of department

Jane Basnett

Jane Basnett is head of MFL at Downe House, a successful Independent Girls School in Berkshire. She has been teaching for almost 20 years and is still learning. She achieved an MA in Digital Technology for Language Teaching at Nottingham University.

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We always hear about the squeezed middle in the press. They are hard done by economically. In education, I tend to think the squeezed middle equivalent are the heads of department who often find themselves in the line of fire from all directions but who can be overlooked when it comes to concern and care.

Being a head of department can be a lonely, difficult place. All over social media and online we hear about NQTs and senior leaders, but the poor head of department gets little attention. This very much reflects how it feels sometimes to be a middle manager. Indeed, you can get very little attention and from my own experience it can sometimes feel as if you are an island in the middle of a vast sea. You can be isolated with what seems, at times, to be very little help in sight on the horizon.

I first took on the mantle of head of department in 2004 and moved on to a new role with a bigger team in 2008. What follows is my advice, and what I believe is the right way forward for a head of department.

1. Remember that you lead a team. Notice the verb: lead, not manage. You are in charge, and you need to keep some distance between yourself and the team. This role is not about forming friendships, but about leading a team to be the best that it can be. Aim high for your team, help them to help you make it the flagship department in the school. Work together in this goal.

2. Remember too that you must be loyal to senior leadership, your team and the pupils you teach. This is obviously tricky. You must do the best for your team members. Do not disparage school leaders and school rules in front of your department, but when you get the chance and are in the right forum, do question school leaders when and if necessary, and stand your ground for your team members if they deserve your support.

3. Insist on a regular meeting with your line manager. You are not an island, although you may feel like one on occasion, and you do need to talk through issues that have arisen. You need to discuss how you have dealt with these issues or how you would like to deal with them, if you are not sure. Validation that you are making the right decisions is helpful, and talking through concerns is imperative. Sometimes, you might not know the right approach and discussion with a senior leader is helpful.

4. Look sideways when you want to moan and have a gripe. There will undoubtedly be times when you are feeling down and overwhelmed and need to offload to the nearest person who will listen. However, be careful. When you are miserable and in need of a moan you do not want your words bandied around the staffroom. So, choose your confidant wisely and preferably seek solace in the wise words of another respected and trusted head of department. They will help you and make you feel better.

5. Have an open-door policy. Your department needs you, and they need to know that you are there for them even if you are busy. This is hard to achieve, of course, as your workload seems as unmanageable as ever, but your colleagues in your team will want to know that they can offload when they need to. If you really can not talk straightaway then make sure you find a time that day to catch up.

6. If you can, make a regular appointment to see the members of your team individually. Even if you can only give them 10 minutes a week, it is better than nothing, and it is vital for each individual to know that they have a time that is expressly for their concerns and to know that they can offload on you if they need to. This will mean that you will have fewer impromptu visits as outlined in number five above, which helps you maintain greater control of your time. Remember, your job in these appointments is to listen. Try to live by the maxim 70% listening and 30% talking.

7. The reason it is important to follow the advice in number one and maintain a little distance is that sometimes you have to performance manage a member of your team and that can be tricky. If one of your team is not performing well and their students are not making the best progress, then you need to guide them to improve. This requires tact, honesty and compassion, as well as rigour. Performance managing someone in your team is much easier to achieve if you have remembered that this role is not about forming friendships. This role is about forming professional working relationships that lead to successful outcomes for your pupils, for your team, for you and for your department.

8. You must lead by example. You have people looking at your actions and watching your performance from all angles. Your team will judge you by how you lead them and enable them to achieve the best for their classes. Your senior leaders will judge you by the same standard, and of course by results and the successful profile of your department. There is nowhere to hide. Your own teaching must be tip-top, and you must have a good understanding of where the teaching in your team is good and where it needs greater focus. As hard as it may seem, you need to know everything that is going on in your department and in the lessons delivered. It seems like a tall order and, although it is a cliché, as with all the roles in teaching nowadays it is all about balancing many plates and keeping your eye on the ball.

9. Do not feel that because your line manager cannot meet you for a particular reason that they are neglecting you. They are also busy people, and you should try to remember that it is precisely because they have faith in you that they are happy to let you carry on doing the job without a meeting. If you really are worried about any issues and you have not had a chance to talk these through, then drop your line manager an email, outline the issues, and crucially, let them know your proposal for dealing with them. You have been chosen for the role of head of department precisely because the senior leaders think you are capable of making the right choices.

10. Finally, it is your chance to think strategically and mould the department the way you want it to be. You must learn to think beyond one year at a time, and imagine where you would like your department to be in two or three years time. It may sound corny, but you need a vision for your department. Leading a department is a great opportunity so make the most of it and enjoy it!

Are you a head of department? Share your experiences below!

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