Skip to content

Some Advice for New(ish) or Aspiring Heads of Department

If you’re a new(ish) head of department, or someone thinking about making a first foray into the murky world of middle leadership, this post contains a bit of advice for you to consider.  Nothing earth-shattering: just a few of the things that I learned over the six or so years that I was a HoD.

Embrace the awkward questions…

It’s a simple as this: when I was first in post as a head of department, I wanted – really wanted – my colleagues to like me.  Still do.  Who doesn’t want to be liked, right?  However, in the early days, I thought that questions about the decisions I made or the views I held were tantamount to sort of criticisms about my competency. It’s so easy, in the moment, to react emotionally when you feel under pressure or insecure – during a presentation, at a meeting, after an observation. After all, new in post, who doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome?  However, over time (and it took me a while), I learned that challenge and debate are vital to the smooth running of a department.  Inevitably, there will be decisions that you’re required to make that will be unpopular and, equally, there will be issues that trigger widespread disagreement.  In the moment, it can all be pretty stressful.  However, when those awkward questions are no longer asked – or when those thorny decisions are no longer challenged – and silence falls – that’s when departments stagnate.

Don’t hide in your office…

It’s very easy to hide in an office.  Shut the door, sit down: furiously email.  Blissful, compared to dealing with the horrors that lurk in the corridors at lesson changeover times or outside at lunch.  As a head of department, something I learned too late is that it’s important to be visible.  Not in a cynical way – look at me and how hard I’m working! – but in a way that’s reassuring to others.  Helping to deal with recalcitrant students before they bundle into lesson three is vital; checking in on those cover lessons late into the afternoon may very well be a thankless task, but it’s also an essential one.  Good heads of department get around.  If you ever want to perform a quick health check on a department (or, actually, on a school), take a wander around and see who’s out and about, involving themselves in the unglamorous business of moving students along and providing assistance where it’s needed in the melé of it all.

Remember that you achieve through people…

It’s a truth well known that decent schools have decent teachers.  And other stuff too, of course.  But the point I’m getting at – slowly and clumsily – is this: good heads of department help to create the conditions in which their colleagues can thrive.  A wonderful set of GCSE results will always be the product of a team effort: they should never be overzealously claimed as a scalp by an individual alone.  In my experience, it’s always the case that the really good stuff is achieved through others, and not in isolation.  There are lots of things that heads of department can do to help things run smoothly within their domains. There’s the big stuff: intelligent curriculum design and equitable timetabling.  And the smaller stuff: making meetings about teaching and learning and, for example, helping to provide good quality CPD.  Teaching’s a tough gig. Rowing together is vital.

Thanks for reading –


Form CTA