Category Archives: The Art of Leading a Department

The Art of Leading a Department: Persevere

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”

H.G. Wells

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series. This is a short post to wrap everything up. Enjoy!

I said, right at the very beginning of this series, that the role of Head of Maths is the hardest in secondary school. My aim with this series was to offer advice on how to make leading a department an easier job so that you can cope with the demands. If there is one concept that I think underpins all of what I’ve said, it’s the idea of perseverance.

Never give in!

I have often come across teachers new to the profession who have a few challenging classes, and are on the cusp of the downward slope to packing it in. The challenging classes are basically doing anything to get their way – in other words, what the teacher is facing is a control issue.

My advice to those teachers is to keep turning up. Keep planning lessons, keep setting expectations, keep expecting them to be met, and treat every lesson as a fresh start. Only when the job is completely unmanageable, and you’ve exhausted every possibility of relief, should you then start considering what the future holds for you.

That principle can be translated to leading a department. It’s bloody hard. It often places doubts in one’s mind about one’s capability, because there are times where nothing seems to be going right.

But the fact is that, especially in the early days, if you act as if you’re always learning, then it places a different perspective on things. I’ve met HoDs who’ve been doing the job for longer than they care to remember but they admit that the frequency of changes in curriculum and policy mean that they’re having to adapt all the time. Survival is the result of adaptation. Tweaking your practice and being situationally aware is the key to being a successful leader. But you have to be there in order for that to happen. No matter how difficult it feels at the time, that feeling is often only temporary.

As a head of department, the challenges are greater but likewise so are the rewards. Seeing students and staff alike succeed because of the input you yourself have had is incredibly fulfilling. It’s a long, hard game but one that makes a massive difference to people’s lives.

Good luck in your endeavours!

Amir, December 2014

The Art of Leading a Department: Network

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

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

The Sword of Damocles

I’ll happily tell anyone that I’m quite an ambitious sort. I want to get to the very top of my profession. I’ve always wanted to. It’d be the same for whatever career I decided to take part in. I know there’s other people who don’t feel this way and are happy to get to a certain level and not move on, because they’ve got other priorities, which is fine.

But, with such ambition must come an acceptance of the fact that as you move up each level, the responsibility becomes greater and the impact of one’s decisions become more significant, and as such unless you know how to manage it, the stress and scrutiny increases – this is the ‘Sword of Damocles’ of ancient legend.

As with any difficult role, sharing one’s worries and burdens is an essential part of dealing with them, as much as ‘working smarter’, ‘prioritising’ and the like are. This is where networking can be so powerful. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Art of Leading a Department: Listening to Those Above and Below

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Will Rogers

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

Listening is different from hearing. Listening is an act. Hearing is a physiological process. Listening means taking what you hear, and deciphering it to create meaning.

My name is Amir, and I’m a terrible listener. I’ll hold my hands up, I’m awful at it, as I’ve explained before. But there are ways that I deal with this issue, but let’s start with why we need to listen to those above and below our station as leaders.


It’s plain obvious that we need to listen to our superiors. They, after all, are calling the shots. It’s remarkable how much of our time as leaders is spent in the company of those who lead us, and as such there has to be constructive dialogue. In my early years as a leader, I was a very defensive listener. I’d listen to what my superiors said from the viewpoint of someone being judged. Consequently, a much of my contribution to a discussion would have a significant emotive element, even when most of the time all I had to do was just take on board what’s being said and deal with it. Continue reading

The Art of Leading a Department: Be a Reflective Practitioner

Even if you think you’re doing well and have it all figured out, there is a voice you will always inevitably hear at some point which nags at you and says “but wait…” Don’t ever dismiss it, listen to what it has to say. Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.

Ashly Lorenzana

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

Just a bit of a warning, this is the first ‘EPIC POST’ that I’ve wrote. My posts are usually quite long for blogs, normally about 1000 words. This goes well beyond that. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

My Core Belief

I have been through a few interviews in my teaching career and one of the questions I am most asked is:

“What makes a good teacher?”

Now there’s some stock answers. Good subject knowledge; excellent planning; placing the students first; developing positive relationships. All those sorts of things. But in my mind these are all results of being a good teacher. They’re actions, in a sense, rather than a character, or ethic.

My answer would be: A good teacher is someone who is a reflective practitioner. That’s it. Everything else, to quote my great university lecturer John Slater, is ‘bean counting’ – the extra layers around the central, all-powerful kernel.
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The Art of Leading a Department: Communicate Clearly and Effectively

Assumptions are the termites of relationships.

Henry Winkler

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

My Chaotic Mind

Allow me to let you a little bit into my world. I am not being boastful to say that I am interested in pretty much anything. I like to know how the world works, and why it has panned out in the environment we live in. For example at this present time I’m reading a book on Information Theory (by James Gleick, an excellent writer making esoteric ideas understood by the few accessible to the many). At the same time I’m spending time listening to a podcast series by Dan Carlin called ‘Hardcore History’, the last of which was on the Mongol Empire. This weekend whilst discussing the importance of marking with a colleague I was able to relate the concept to the work of behavioral economist Dan Airely’s study on motivation in the workplace.

Last night I watched a catch-up of Mastermind, two of topics being Pink Floyd and Theodore Roosevelt in which I either met or beat the contestants’ score (I know little of Deep Space 9 or James Herbert) and the proceeded to lay waste to the general knowledge rounds. My wife begs me to try to get onto a quiz show – particularly The Chase or Tipping Point, because you know, MONEY – but my efforts so far have failed (I guess they don’t like my application).

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The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 2

“Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”
Robert A. Heinlein

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

In the first part of this section on the Art of Leading a Department, I talked about how situations where staff are underperforming can be helped in a supportive manner. However, it is wrong to say that all you should be doing as a leader is looking for those people who aren’t meeting expectations. You also need to give those who excel or deserve development the chance to thrive even further.

There are those staff in schools who work in that sweet spot combining good teaching, ambitious principles and a desire to further make a positive impact on students’ lives. There are also some staff who don’t have the ambition, nor a desire to widen their scope – and that’s fine. For me there is a place for people who are simply good at teaching; one of the bizarre situations in education is that we often promote our best teachers, without even seeing if they’ve got leadership and management capability. The Advanced Skills and Excellent Teacher schemes were designed to give great teachers recognition (through status and pay) without moving up, but as we know these failed to have the desired impact.

It seems then, that the only real way that teachers can satisfy their ambitions within the confines of the teacher employment system is to achieve a promotion. That in itself is a tough call. At the best schools, staff are obviously reluctant to leave, meaning that most of the roles available to those trying to get on the leadership ladder are at the most challenging schools. The paradox of this is that to be successful in these environments  you need experience dealing with the issues that such schools regularly face; that or an ability to demonstrate clear success in projects that might impact positively. So where does one get this?

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The Art of Leading a Department: Challenging Staff, Part 1

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”


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

The word challenge is one of those with many semantic interpretations. For me, challenging staff is two fold:

  • Asserting your expectations when staff don’t meet basic standards
  • Giving staff opportunity to test their abilities to make a difference

In this post, we’ll look at the first one.

To begin with, let’s start by asking a question – what is the point of our job, as teachers? Well, that’s easy, surely. It’s to educate the students in our care. So let me ask a more searching question, how do we know we’re doing our job properly?

In my opinion, a teacher has to do a few basic things (amongst others – this is not meant to be a comprehensive list):

  • Plan lessons
  • Get to know their students, developing positive relationships
  • Instruct their students in what they need to know
  • Assess that students have understood the instruction
  • Offer opportunity for students to develop knowledge, skills and understanding
  • Reflect on the progress of these tasks and the achievement of their students

If these elements are done well, then chances are the students in their care will perform well. They’re interdependent; the strength of each element reinforces others. Forgive me for the obviousness of those points but I feel that occasionally it’s important that one cuts through all the ‘fog of war’ and remember what we’re really here to do.

So, let’s go back to the question posed earlier. How does one know if you’re doing your job properly? Well, it’s doing all of the above, and no matter where you are in the teaching hierarchy, failure to do those things means you’re not doing your role effectively. As I’ve said in the previous part of this series on leading by example – if you don’t do it, how can you expect your staff to? Continue reading

The Art of Leading a Department: Leading By Example

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

Mahatma Gandhi

The Art of Leading a Department series continues apace. So far we’ve looked at the nice things – love of your subject, and playing to the strengths of your team.

So you’ve demonstrated your passion for Maths and teaching it, and you know how your team is made up and what makes it tick. But we all come across people who think ‘well this is all lovely, but what about x, y, z…’ – throwing up obstacles in your path to excellence.

In order to overcome this, you’ve got to lead by example, something that is perhaps the hardest job we as leaders have to do.

In one of the greatest T.V. shows of all time, The Wire, Tommy Carcetti starts out as a well-meaning, passionate councillor wanting to make a difference to communities in Baltimore. In a (rather profane) meeting with a political mentor after Carcetti’s appointment as Mayor of Baltimore, Carcetti is warned of the need to deal with tough decisions in every facet of his role. Harsh and brutal as this sounds, it’s exactly what a Head of Maths faces every day.

I often hear people saying that leading by example is the easiest thing. But as I said in the very first post of this series, being a Head of Mathematics is the hardest job in the business. The number of variables that one has to directly control in this role is, for me, incomparable in any other position in school. The bigger the department and the greater number of years in its care (11-18 rather than 11-16 for example) makes it even more challenging.

Add to the fact that unlike in many other businesses you’re a leader who still does the same job as the person at the bottom of the ladder as the core of your day-to-day role, and those variables multiply even further (actually this is lost on a lot of people right at the top of the tree, who think that middle managers have a greatly reduced timetable – mine’s better than it was as my last school, where I was head of department and expected to teach 24 out of 30 lessons a week – but it’s quickly filled up with what can only be described as ‘drudge’).

I remember in the first department that I was leader of, a particularly ‘old school’ teacher said to me “the thing is, we’ll listen to you because you’re at the coalface, and you don’t ask us to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself’. She was talking about the keys to leading by example; authenticity (being at the coalface) and integrity (not asking anything of anyone that you wouldn’t do yourself).

Let’s look at authenticity and integrity in more detail.

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The Art of Leading a Department: Play to the Strengths of Your Team

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work…

Vince Lombardi

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

No two people are the same. In a team, that situation is accentuated, as people play off each other both positively and negatively. Larger teams can separate into cliques of like-minded individuals. You can have cadres of compliant, complacent and defiant teachers.

Heads of department find themselves starting out from one of two situations – either they were part of the team and promoted, or appointed from outside to lead a bunch of strangers. Both of these situations have their pros and cons. Being promoted from within means that you know your team and what makes them click, but you have to move from being ‘part of the gang’ to being the ‘leader of the pack’ – a very difficult position. Being appointed to the role from outside means you have to learn how your staff work, but it means you’re ignorant of past baggage and can cut through the politics.

With all this in mind, how do you get the best out of your team?

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