Top tips for new heads of department

Whether you’re being thrown in at the deep end or about to start the job of your dreams, becoming a head of department is a major step in any career. Thinking about the term and year ahead, these ideas may help…

What will you be doing? The scope of the role of head of department varies tremendously from school to school, but it will at the very least require you to lead, manage and administrate, as well as monitor, maintain and develop your department. Hopefully your role will be well defined (if it isn’t, that ideally needs to be sorted before the start of term), but what scope do you have to make it your own?

Who can help you? Other middle leaders can be a great source of support as you take on your new role. Senior leaders should also be able to offer guidance and your union and Education Support Partnership have expertise to ease your path.

Building relationships. Relationships need nurturing – years in the profession to date will have demonstrated that – and your success as a leader will, in part at least, depend on the quality of the relationships between you and your team members. First and foremost, in ensuring great relationships, comes communication. Keep as many channels open as you can, without compromising your wellbeing. It will be far easier to convey essential messages, no matter how challenging, with well-established lines of communication.

What can your team do? Aim to determine the range of skills on your team. Where are the strengths and what are the development needs of the team as a whole? Look for the best in those you work with.

“What can I do to help?”  This might usefully be your new favourite phrase. Supporting and bolstering your team when necessary is an essential part of the job.

Carry on learning. As a head of department, you have become a specialist, but must not neglect your own professional learning. You’re a daily example for your team so it is crucial that they see that you reflect, learn and share new ideas.

Deploy staff wisely. Think carefully about who does what. Work to strengths and interests as far as is practical. It is thought this can have a beneficial effect on wellbeing so it is well worth giving staff this opportunity.

Transform conflict. Dealing with conflict is an inevitable part of the role for middle leaders. What’s your style? How will you prevent conflict from having a detrimental impact on the life and work of your department? How confident do you feel about having difficult conversations with colleagues?

Lead with intention. Set the direction of travel for your department, but know that you need to bring your entire team along too. As head of department you will be exploring ways of improving teaching and learning, and making sure that what is offered to children is fit for purpose. But before you can do this with any rigour, you will need to establish whether there is a shared understanding of learning among team members, and an understanding of the relative benefits of different pedagogical approaches in your age/stage or curriculum area.

When this is done in collaboration with team members it is likely you will enhance collegiality, especially if you have well identified, commonly agreed goals. Key areas of focus might be:
– What are you teaching?
– How are you teaching?
– How are you planning?
– How are you assessing?
– What professional learning is required?

Share successes. If we don’t spare the time to reflect on, and celebrate, what we are achieving, it will be easy to slide into a relentless, joyless drudge through the term. There will be great stuff going on in your department. Find it, celebrate it and replicate it if appropriate.


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Author: Elizabeth Holmes

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After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.


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