Becoming a Brilliant Head of Department: Advice from Middle-Managers


Joining the ranks as a head of your department is an exciting step in your teaching career. You feel like you can really make a difference at your school, and you’re proud to be acknowledged for your achievements as a teacher. At the same time, this is the beginning of the next stage of the journey in your personal development. How do you establish your new leadership role with conviction?

It all starts with great relationships

As a middle manager, you have a real opportunity to impact the student body, senior leadership, and fellow educators. You’ll need their support to make a difference, so it’s important to engage effectively with the school at all levels. In this section, we cover tips for nurturing community and building an effective team.

Establish trust

Gaining the trust of your team is a huge part of being an effective leader. As a teacher, there will be plenty of opportunities to establish trust amongst your co-workers, and a big part of that is showing both honesty and integrity.

When starting your role as a manager, it’s important to pay attention to the unexpected moments that allow you to demonstrate your leadership skills. HoD Sanum Jawaid emphasises the importance of finding a balance between openness and boundaries: “There’s a time and place for keeping your cards close to your chest. Do it too often and few people will trust you. Do it too seldom and people will take advantage.”

Meanwhile, Alex Brown describes the importance of following through on your promises to build trust with colleagues: “If you say you’ll do something then do it. It means so much when you follow through. I make a list or use Post Its in my planner. Might not be much, just sending an email or text/postcard home, but it shows you are listening.”

It’s also important to recognise when your schedule is so packed, there won’t be time to do these extra favours, and be honest about that. Set boundaries early on, and make sure you’re always on top of your task list in addition to your classroom work. Teacher Peter Lewis says: “Learn to say no. Don’t just keep agreeing to things because you think it will make your [senior] leaders happier.” In the long run, this will only lead to you letting people down.

Listen to your staff

As a manager in any profession, it’s crucial you work on developing good listening skills. If your staff feel heard and cared about, they’re far more likely to support you in return. Teacher Nicola Fahidi commented: “Always listen when [your] staff have a problem or an issue. Let them speak and get things off their chest. People are generally more receptive to advice or solutions if they feel they’ve been heard.”

Actions speak louder than words

If you’re not walking the walk as well as talking the talk, your staff are more likely to be resentful than supportive.

“If you are asking your staff to work with you in changing SOL, updating marking policies, changing feedback and student response to feedback methods – anything at all – you, as the leader, have to lead in this and do it yourself. It is tough and requires effort, but you have to lead by doing the small things right yourself and following your own / school practices to the very best you possibly can. You should strive to be the best in your own area, leading by example wherever possible. Plus, biscuits,” says Ina Crase on Facebook.

Be a team player

The most successful leaders see themselves as part of the team, not above it. It’s important not to forget your own experiences during your first few years as a teacher in order to support those you’re managing.

What’s more, every member of your team has different strengths and weaknesses, and brings a unique set of skills to the table: get to know them. “Find out their strengths and areas to develop (we can all improve). Share resources, workload and what the goals, aims and issues are. I have an open door policy,” says Andrew Lewington.

Give positive feedback

Do you remember the first time you received great feedback as a teacher? As the great Maya Angelou once proclaimed, people tend to remember how you make them feel, rather than what you said. There’s a big emotional component of being a strong leader, and learning to give positive feedback is just as important as mastering the more difficult conversations.

HoD Nicola Fahidi always prioritises saying thank you: “I always email individual staff if they’ve done something above and beyond their role. And I start and end every term with thanks. Everyone (even HoDs) like to feel appreciated.”

Setting clear goals is important

In any profession, goals are important. If you don’t have goals as a team or as a department, then people won’t be focused. Don’t be a dictator though, nobody wants that. In this section, find tips for effective goal-setting and performance management.

Communicate your vision (and involve your team)

The best way to get your team to work together, and with you, is to get their input when you first set out the goals and your vision for the department. Not only will this process help you to learn more about your staff, they’ll also appreciate your willingness to work with them as a team.

Gareth Storey, HoD of 8 years says: “Communication is key. Your team need to know what you want of them and what you are doing, and how your leading your department. Let them know your vision.”

Be accountable

Responsibility is a hallmark of a great leader. If you show you’re willing to hold yourself accountable for the team’s results, they’ll be more likely in turn to take responsibility for their own achievements – and barriers. This responsibility is described simply by Gemma Hathaway-Taylor: “Know your data, own your data and do something with your data.”

Part of being accountable is to have a long term plan, with clear targets. As a leader you aren’t just accountable for your staff, you’re also accountable for the achievements of their students by extension. Angela Appleby, who has 20 years’ experience as a teacher, says: “Always have a line plan for the year. You will move around it, but always keep it in front of you. Clear achievable landmarks in skills and knowledge you want to develop in your students are key.”

Get creative with resources

Teachers are all on tight budgets. That means taking creative ideas to your team, and encouraging them to be creative is a big part of getting the most out of what you have. Here are some insider tips from teacher, Alan Harrison on how to make the most of your resources:

  • Ditch all the high-cost whizzo starters and replace with daily reviews (6 questions using the dog-fish-elephant model). Do low-stakes testing throughout.
  • Get visualisers. Buy decent textbooks for the teachers and let them use them with the visualiser.
  • Put the resources in the hands of the students e.g. with a MOOC, school VLE or shared drive, point them to decent websites so they can use them for homework.
  • Put up online study resources e.g. Quizlet, Memrise
  • Buy decent past papers and revision resources, get logins for Exambuilder or Exampro, again
  • Don’t encourage staff create anything from scratch, build on what you have and what’s already out there
  • Read Barak Rosenshine’s seminal Principles of Instruction

Stick to the plan

Setting goals is one thing, but sticking to the plan to get there is another. It’s easy to forget things and get distracted when you’re busy and juggling a number of different tasks and responsibilities. Teacher Jenni Foale advises: “Keep a running to-do list. Add everything to it, even the small tasks, because those are the ones that can end up overlooked or left until the last minute.” Teacher Lesley Ford also reminds us to be realistic about the time that’s needed to complete bigger tasks, saying: “Provide plenty of notice/time for your team to meet deadlines for bigger projects e.g. schemes of work and provide support and a listening ear to bounce off ideas.”

For teachers, emails can be a big distraction from more important tasks. “Emails aren’t urgent. Don’t keep checking them – dedicate an allotted time for reading and responding each day,” says Sarah Rialcnis. Another teacher, Nicola Fahidi echoed this tip on Facebook and emphasised the importance of setting boundaries when it comes to emails: “Try not to reply to parental emails out of hours. I often write my reply and set it to send the next morning. Parents (and SLT for that matter!) shouldn’t expect us to be available 24/7.”

Don’t try to change everything all at once

Above all, be sure to give yourself enough time to adjust to managing a team and all of the extra responsibility that comes with it. Remind yourself that you have a lot of time to make your mark, and that there’s no need to run before you can walk.

Start with building a foundation with good relationships among your peers and studying the curriculum. As we’ve mentioned previously – listen first, and then build trust through action. Teacher Anna Lang told us she had an HoD who wisely said: “Watch and observe, and then you can focus on the priorities. Get the curriculum right first, if the pupils are engaged and making progress in class then they will want to take part in more extracurriculars.”

The best advice teacher Sarah Thompson told us she ever received as an HoD was: “Give it three years to have made your mark.”

Remember: you aren’t “stuck” in the middle

As an HoD, it can be easy to feel like you’re ‘stuck in the middle’. It can sometimes feel like you’re caught between the demands of the SLT and your team, playing the ‘middleman’ and not quite knowing what ‘side’ you’re on. In this section, we look at how to empower yourself to manage up, and manage down.

Working effectively with your SLT

It’s crucial to get to know your SLT, as you need to establish good communication up and down the school structure in order to be effective at your job. You’ll want to make sure your team’s voice heard in meetings and when issues come up, but you will also need to relay the senior management vision and enrol your team.

Teacher Andrew Lewington says: “Try to see things from your team’s view and fight their corner (I have had a few heated discussions with SLT) but at the same time you sometimes have to win a team member to an idea that may not be popular.”

It’s also OK to observe for a while and ‘test the waters’ before you dive right in. As Teacher Katie Wilson says: “If you’re starting in a new school, watch, listen and learn. Don’t assume that something that worked in a previous context will work in a new one. Try to quickly work out who will be open to new ideas and how to approach those who might not be.”

When it comes to communicating new ideas or processes from the SLT to your team, it’s a good idea to start with the ‘why’. There’s a chance you’ll need to rally your team around new ideas they may not agree with. Be clear about why the SLT has made a decision, what they hope to achieve by it, and how this will help students. This will empower your team to offer their own perspective in a constructive way that focuses on the end goal. As Teacher Sarah Bourke says: “Communication is everything. Make sure all the team know what’s going on, the reasons for decisions and have contributed to decisions.”

If you need to, practice articulating this new idea before you have your team meeting with other HoDs, and give feedback on each others’ communication styles and approach.

Finally, set boundaries with senior leaders from the start and make sure your department’s wellbeing and effectiveness takes priority. “Don’t take on more than you can manage. If it is not essential to the running of the department then don’t do it. It’s not a development opportunity, it’s just SLT passing the buck (read getting another box ticked for them),” cautions Tony Crowther on Facebook.

Teacher Sue McEvoy echoes this: “Be true to yourself don’t be bullied by SLT. Seek support from the middle leadership team if necessary.”

Giving your team opportunities to shine

One of the most fulfilling aspects of making the transition to an HoD is to see your team succeed with your guidance. There are many ways to nurture their development as a teacher, beyond giving your sage advice of course. An important way to do this is empowerment, and finding ways to support your team members to shine on their own terms. For example, teacher Marion Reydet suggests: “Give your staff opportunities to lead parts of meetings so they feel valued. Follow up with a thank you card for their contribution to the department.”

It also helps to foster an open environment where people are free to voice ideas without fear of being judged. Teacher Katie Bee says:“Do planning, curriculum review and work scrutiny as a team. Let people try out their ideas, and you either get a brilliant new initiative or they find out the challenges and grow as they work through them.” With this approach, everybody wins.

Listening has been a common throughout in this blog, and you’ll probably see the point come up over and over again in leadership guides. “Listen as much (or more) as you talk. Ask your team about their ideas, about their family and their weekends. It helps when you know when to support and when you can afford to delegate,” says Teacher Karen Palfreyman.

With continuous, open communication you may find you have team members who are interested in taking on some of your tasks, or want to help with a project you’re having difficulty with. Be sure to take advantage of this, and don’t let pride get in the way. Your team will appreciate taking on more responsibility (depending on their workload, of course!) so they can develop their skills and maybe aspire to become an HoD themselves in the not too distant future. In general, it’s important to: “Delegate, delegate, delegate. Share the load to help balance your workload and sanity and to also let others have a chance to step up and impress you,” says Rebecca Harwood.

Solidarity and working with fellow HoDs

You will find camaraderie with your HoD team. You’ll be at different stages in your roles and careers, and many of your colleagues will have advice on how to approach your role. Jennie Swotty advises: “Find yourself a buddy who knows the strains of this role. Check in with them once a day and promise each other that if one of you is sick, you’ll tell them to go home. Far easier to tell a person in your department to go home sick than to decide you’re too ill to be in school as an HoD.”

And on a final note…

Believe in yourself and your abilities! Understandably you’ll want to prove yourself as a new HoD, but self-confidence and a determination to learn and grow will take you from a good to great middle-manager. It’s quite possible you have talents you’ve never had the opportunity to show. It’s as exciting as it is nerve-wracking.

Teacher Sanum Jawaid puts it beautifully: “If you have self doubt and let it show, others will only see that about you. I don’t mean to never admit when you need a hand, definitely do that! [Whether you’re] in year 1 or 10 of teaching, definitely do that! But don’t talk yourself down. If you’re particularly good at something, don’t let yourself think you’re not, just because nobody has told you you are. Not everyone in education who knows how to motivate young people also knows how to see when a peer needs a motivational push every now and then, so don’t sit around waiting for it.”

Barnaby Grimble

Chief Product Officer



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