Seven years in, and what a fascinating role being a Head of Faculty is. It is an incredible opportunity: to be able to directly shape the direction of how your subject will be delivered, to build and motivate a team, to deliver results that can make or break a school. I’m ready to move upwards now and hope to secure a SLT position in the not too distant future, but I will look back over these middle leadership years extremely fondly.
I’d like to acknowledge some people who have been major influences on my leadership journey since taking it up 7 years ago: my headteacher, Chris Hildrew for his individual guidance and clear sense of vision, my line managers, Fran Dawes and Mark Branch for their continual encouragement and support over the years, Mary Myatt and her book ‘High Challenge, Low threat’ which has so many positive annotations in from me it’s unreal(!), Katherine Birbalsingh, Head of Michaela school, for being inspiring in her single-mindedness and unashamed quest to break the mould, and Tom Sherrington and his book ‘The Learning Rainforest’ for a range of highly effective systematic approaches to teaching and learning.
Here are 17 things I’ve learned about leadership that may be of use to new or aspiring Faculty leaders.
Lead by example
Don’t ask the team to do anything you are not going to do yourself. Simple, really. It gives you a sense of integrity that it is vital in the role.
2. Have a vision, share it, work closely with the team to turn it into a reality, and give it time
As a leader, you need to provide a vision regarding what you believe the team should be aiming towards, and a clear sense of direction on how to get there. My lightbulb moment came around 3 years ago when I began reading about the science of learning, and the critical nature of recapping and an interleaved curriculum model. I presented my vision strongly, and didn’t shirk from the message that things needed to be done differently if we were truly going to engage with how students learn most effectively. The vision was that if we get things right, students should be getting to revision season in Year 11 with many, many skills and schemas of knowledge embedded in their working memory, as automatic to recall and utilise as 2+2=4. I really like the three stonemasons leadership anecdote with the most attuned stonemason of the three knowing he’s not just chipping away at a stone all day; he’s building a cathedral!
A vital part of this process was engaging the team at the crafting stage. I presented the vision, but emphasized how I needed their input to shape the vision into a reality. What are our potential hurdles? What are our solutions? How will our context specific needs be met? Without engaging with the team on a project in the early stages, buy-in suffers. I admit, with certain initiatives in my early years of leadership, I didn’t always get that part right. With the embedding learning vision a few years ago, I ensured I did and have checked in with them regularly since.
Give it time too. I’m a strong believer in providing sufficient time for major initiatives to be rolled out, if they are to have a chance at success. Work with the dissenters to understand reservations, harness the positive influencers, and reiterate both the overall purpose, and the smaller logistical steps constantly along the way.
3. Build strong, professional relationships
Take time to get to know your team. Check in with them regularly on a 1 to 1 basis with no agenda other than to see how they’re doing, and if you can offer support or advice for any concerns they may have, provide it. Challenge will be much easier if you have invested time in support. I think it’s important to maintain a professional distance though too -I’m not sure nicknames, or Facebook links always help.
4. Empower others
I think a key role of leadership is to empower others. It is natural at first to want to keep hold of things, but learning where and when to delegate responsibilities to others is part of your new role. Give people opportunities to take on organisation of Faculty events, to present in Faculty meetings, and more, and celebrate their efforts not only with them directly, and in front of the team, but also with Senior Leadership. I regularly encourage my SLT to have an extra word to my coordinators to reiterate how pleased I am with their work. Look for their strengths and talk to them about possible next steps -courses, CPD opportunities – this shows that you are interested in their career, and believe in them to take on further challenges and risks. Make sure you are happy with the set-up of your leadership team too, and that it works for you. If it doesn’t, find ways to change it to suit if possible. Typical set-ups may involve a second, or heads of Key Stages. Are their roles clearly defined? Are they evenly weighted in terms of responsibilities?
5. Listen hard, consider, act
It’s something I’ve worked hard to get better at over the years, and I think to be an effective leader, you need to get this right. There are 8 different levels of listening quality apparently and many of us don’t get beyond stage 2 or 3 which is where we’re acknowledging but basically waiting for our turn to speak! Many people want to simply vent; they don’t necessarily want solutions which is hard as a leader to resist. It’s vital also not to take challenges personally, but instead try and help, where needed, to rationalise concerns and maintain perspective.
If it is something that you are being asked to consider, then always take time to do so before acting. Knee jerk responses are rarely the best ones.
6. Remember you won’t please everyone. You will be spoken about.
This is par for the course and can be hard for a new leader. Decisions will need to be made that will get people talking about you, and that tough exterior will need to develop. Not everyone will agree with you all the time. Provide your rationale for what you believe is the right way forward, give people the opportunity to discuss, raise queries and feedback, but if you believe it is the way to go, be strong and stick with it. Continue to check in with major dissenters, listen, and look for the best ways to support them in moving forward.
7. Evaluate regularly but look to identify the strengths
It’s vital as leaders that we consider regularly whether things are working, whether they need to be refined, replaced, or given more time. In order to continue on an improvement path, you need to make time to reflect on what’s happening. Evaluating properly too is crucial; are we paying lip service to a quick student survey, or are we really engaging with a large sample, and engaging with the findings however painful?
However, it’s all too easy to focus on the tweaks needed. I look to regularly identify and share the strengths of our practice, something crucial for team morale..
8. Be prepared to apologise but don’t be an apologetic leader
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s too easy to hide away from them. I will be honest, humble and hold my hand up if I’ve got something wrong, but I will always come equipped with a solution.
As leaders, it can sometimes be easy to get swayed by people and I’ve learned to not be afraid to hold firm if I believe my decision is right. Equally, you don’t have to preface comments with ‘Sorry, but…’ and allow for sidetracking. It is expected of you to lead meetings and be prepared to steer discussion at times. This can be done kindly but firmly. People need to have a voice, but you need to provide the direction or nothing gets achieved.
Also, on this point, I would advise not under-playing pointers in an apologetic way -e.g. if there is a new direction that is needed, and you soften the message with ‘we’re doing all this already really so don’t worry’ -nothing will change; people won’t take you seriously. There’s nothing wrong with making clear that we’re going to do things in a different way, and there are now different expectations.
9. Trust until sufficient reason to distrust, then be prepared to challenge the work not the person
I think it’s vital to build mutual trust, letting people know it’s ok to take risks, to praise and encourage, and to check in with people regularly reassuring them about their progress. I also think it’s important you start with everyone from a position of trust rather than suspicion. If sufficient reasons are given to lead you to a position of distrust, then they need to be challenged. As a leader of teachers, it would be easy to bury my head in the sand with certain issues; ultimately, it’s not going to matter that much, is it? It does. What you ignore will shape the culture in your department. You need to be selective of course with what you challenge, but when needed, you’ve got to be prepared to ask those tough questions, and challenge directly. This can be done in a spirit of kindness, and any challenge should always, always be focused on their work, not them as a person; ‘People should be treated like people’. Support should be offered, and then follow up points are crucial.
10. Positivity and gratitude – ‘You make the weather’
Every day I walk into work, I recognise how fortunate I am to be doing a job I love, and I try and be relentlessly positive with my team. I think as leaders we set the tone, and if we are too prone to moan, it quickly seeps into the fabric of the department. I must use the word ‘thanks’ 10 to 20 times every day, and I never miss an opportunity to recognise and thank people for what they’re doing. Something my headteacher has said before that has stayed with me, is to thank us for ‘all the little things that happen that no-one sees’. This profession can sometimes be a lonely one, but if you feel like you’re appreciated and someone always has your back, it can be empowering.
11. Build a team ethic
Always use the collective ‘we’. Everyone wants to belong and feel part of something bigger. Find ways to celebrate the ‘we’. Encourage the team to share resources and create time for people to work together on things. Sounds simple, but not every department does this.
12. Create effective systems (Relationships aren’t everything!)
Yes, of course people and relationships are important, but systems are absolutely critical too. If your systems are poor, and putting people under undue strain, then relationships will break down. It’s very easy to mock those who are systems focused, but the underlying motive behind systems is that they make working life manageable and effective, indirectly building positive working relationships between people. I have worked hard over the years to establish work monitoring, quality assurance, T&L, and behaviour support systems that are highly effective.
Another example: I don’t go to voluntary CPD because of my ‘relationship’ with our Teaching and Learning lead (lovely as she is!). I go because I’m self-motivated, and because the system of provision in place is excellent. If it wasn’t, I’d wouldn’t bother.
13. Don’t be afraid to seek out advice from others
Speak to other Heads of Faculty, Heads of House, Senior leaders. Many of these people have been in the game for longer than you, and basically it’s utterly unwise to suffer in silence just because of some perception that you’re ‘weak’ for asking for help.
14. Don’t forget the role below you, and get to know the role above you
Just because you’ve got a few more frees in a week, your team won’t have. I think it’s vital as a leader that we don’t lose sight of the workload pressure that comes from being an ‘ordinary teacher’: the planning, marking, tutor responsibilities and more. When considering a new step, we need to ask ourselves: Will it create more or less work? If more, what can we remove to compensate?
Equally, you need to quickly understand the role of your line manager, likely to be a member of SLT. Their time is even scarcer than yours. Can you cut to the quick in meetings? Can you select the information they need or are you drowning them in data and other documents? Have you considered their wider responsibility -that you’re not the only Faculty they will be caring about?
15. Drop the perfection drive. Sometimes your lessons will suffer. Get over it!
It’s 8.30am, two staff members have called in sick and the cover needs sorting out. There’s another member of staff at your door, asking if you can take a student in your lesson due to their behaviour last time. Your own lesson may have to wait. As a leader, you need to prioritise the needs of the team, and your wider responsibilities.
You’ve had to spend 3 hours preparing a report the night before; your lesson may not be 100%! The students can simply count themselves lucky that they’re being taught by an excellent, experienced teacher, if the powerpoint is not up to scratch!
Equally, if a member of SLT wants to speak to me during my lesson about something pressing (and this only happens occasionally) I’ll speak to them and help them out. The lesson will have to wait and that’s just the way it is.
16. Reiterate, reiterate, reassure and reiterate
It’s always an eye-opener to sometimes see how instructions get lost in transit. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to make explicit, for busy teachers, the key things you’re looking for from them, and then reiterate at regular intervals. Check in with people, reassure they’re nearly there with it and reiterate again. Reiterate some more. If it’s important enough, it needs to be reiterated consistently until you’re genuinely worried you’re on the border of patronisation. Even then, reiterate again. No-one dislikes a well placed reminder!
17. Finally, don’t denigrate the manager part of being a leader too.
In middle leadership, you will need to have an excellent eye for detail. SLT will expect your data reports to be spot on. You’ll also need to have the eagle-eye to spot upcoming potential workload crunch points, to identify quirks and patterns within book monitoring and observations, not to mention getting the all important stationery orders right. Running out of marker pens or exercise books too early in the year won’t go down well!
To conclude, it’s a wonderful job, being a Head of Faculty, and I wish you every success with it. Thanks for reading.