Top 10 Tips for leading a successful department

I’ve been a head of department for six years now and became a head of faculty at the beginning of this academic year. I remember when I first became a HoD I trawled the internet for advice that was both generic and specific to history leadership and found it few and far between. This is my attempt at hopefully helping others.

One – Learn the spec. Regardless of whether you have less or more experienced teachers working for you, you need to be the person who knows the specification better than anybody. You’ll design a lot of the resources and make a lot of the decisions so you absolutely must know your exam board specification inside out. This means you can run CPD within your department time as well which will maximise the ability of the staff within your department.

Two – Invest in your staff. This sounds obvious, but there will be times you will need to be a sounding board for your staff. It is inevitable that as a department leader, you will have staff who at some point struggle with workload, home life or in the classroom and sometimes the most important thing is having a head of department who is willing to listen to you and try and help you out. Pop into lessons on a weekly basis as a support measure for all staff. Check up on them and make sure they are comfortable and if their timetable is heavy one day, bring them a cup of tea.

 Three – Be a shield and sing their praises. You need to know the strengths and weaknesses in your department in terms of personnel of course but you should also be the person who both protects your staff from criticism and promotes their strengths at every opportunity. They need to know you have their backs and they will work harder for you. There is nothing better in the line management business than somebody you manage/coach doing well. The confidence gained from public acknowledgement can be a game changer for some people.

Four – Data is your friend. It’s probably the element of department leadership people are the most daunted by at first, but I firmly believe it is one of the most crucial. You can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses on so many levels by good assessment of data to find out gaps in teaching, curriculum and intervention. Always be sceptical of data and ask questions of it. Use it to fill in gaps in the department and always strive to make it more reliable. I have a two-part blog entry here and here on this that should help.

Five – Give out responsibility. This ties in with two and three. Never hoard all the jobs to yourself or you’ll be seen as somebody who is a control freak. The best way to develop staff is by letting them help develop the department. Perhaps this means distributing responsibility for planning for a Key Stage 3 year group by making the medium term plans and resources or it could be giving somebody advance notice of running a bit of CPD that is a specialism of theirs. The more responsibility you dish out, the more skilled your department will be.

Six – Don’t use department meetings for admin tasks. You won’t have many meeting slots so don’t waste them on activities such as basic admin. If there are upcoming dates, mention them at the beginning and move on. Use a timer for each section of the meeting if you really have to. Use meetings as collaboration opportunities where you dissect medium term plans and assessments and try to improve resources. It’s also a useful time to do in house CPD or discuss who is struggling in exam year groups and what you can be doing as a collective to help them out.

Seven – Meet as a department AND as individuals. Meeting as a group is absolutely vital as there are ideas that come out of collaboration that are essential. However, it is crucial to meet staff on a one-to-one basis as well. This is when you discuss their individual targets and aspirations. Do you know what they want to be doing in five years time? How can you help them get there? This can also be used for feedback on your weekly walk through, keep it positive.

Eight – Have a shared vision. If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve or, haven’t shared it with the people you are leading, then they won’t know what your plans are for the department. Have a large vision, share it with the staff and let them contribute to it. Then consider, what is your main goal for the year? Is it improving results in a particular module at GCSE, improving uptake at GCSE or A-Level or improving on a particular type of question that was poorly answered this year? Whatever the answer, your whole department should know so they can contribute.

Nine – Give in to the best ideas. This one is sometimes hard in any form of leadership. Sometimes we feel like the best ideas should come from us and we are reluctant to let other people contribute out of a fear that is not us leading. Quite the opposite, the best leaders in the world listen to alternative ideas to their own and if they are superior to their own, they adapt to that and give credit where it’s due. Of course, this needs to be managed skilfully and if the suggestions aren’t as good, ask questions to allow self-reflection.

 Ten – Be on it. You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your department like the back of your hand. What staff are good at certain aspects of pedagogy or knowledge and how can that be used to help support those who struggle in those areas? Based on exam results, what parts of the curriculum are the main areas to improve and what are the most effective ways of doing that? Always have a plan going forward. Ensure you know the students most behind in each year and who teaches them and then make sure they know. It’s your department and you need to be the figurehead who is leading the way to success.

Brucey Bonus – I would always advise that resources are shared across the department as it reduces workload. I cannot fathom why anybody would not do that as it simply increases the strain on those you lead. Expect adaptation to the resources depending upon the group and the teacher but if you don’t share the best resources, you are inviting a larger gap between your staff while also making their lives harder as well.

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