Learning to be a Leader

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A very mixed journey

Firstly, I would like to apologise for the derth of articles on the blog over the last few years. Suffice to say, there are numerous reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs which I won’t go into. The only caveats I would add, are that the previous three years have included the most difficult, challenging and revolutionary developments in my teaching career so far. I have experienced moments of extreme doubt and fear; while I have also experienced moments of deep understanding, realisation and revelation. And so, onto this article and its theme – leadership.

This article is separated into two parts. The first part is based on the original post I started writing three years ago. Much of this article is still relevant today and I stand by a lot of what I wrote three years ago. However, so much has changed during this time that I have come to see the holes and gaps in parts of my previous reasoning. After part one, you will find that I have added a smaller set of clarifications and addendums in the form of a second part. In this section, I have included some ideas, thoughts, and experiences which have further transformed my own opinions about leading a subject in a school. I hope that the article is both informative and enagaging!

Part One (Three years ago)

Within a Primary/Elementary School, there are numerous teaching roles and responsibilities which are essential to the smooth and efficient running of any school. Many of these roles are clearly defined and understood. I mean every teacher, administrator and parent of a school knows the different members of that particular school’s senior management team (well they should do, although this isn’t always the case). Nevertheless, these senior management roles are generally clear enough for members of the teaching staff to understand whom they should approach when it comes to discussing issues or ideas of a particular nature.

This is also true for a number of other teaching roles i.e. Year Group Leader, English/Maths Coordinator. All these roles are clearly defined with a high level of interaction and input from the school’s senior management team. In the case of Maths and English, the school has a vested interest in maintaining high standards in both these areas. After all, staff and parents have been programmed by national standards agencies and educational history/dogma to regard these areas as an absolute priority. And to be fair, I do believe that these subjects need to be given a larger percentage of teaching time compared to the percentage devoted to other subjects.

However, I absolutely disagree with any approach where the school prioritises these subjects to the detriment of all other areas of learning. In this day and age, it is essential that children grow up with a well-rounded and balanced education. Art, Computing, Physical Education, Geography, Design-Technology, Religious Education, History and Philosophy are every bit as important to the development of young people as Literacy and Numeracy are.

So why aren’t these other subjects given as much acknowledgement as Maths and English?

Well, there are a number of reasons…I have already mentioned the traditional view of Maths and English as the preeminent subjects for any school. We also discussed national standards which would include the testing of both Maths and English. But could there be another variable which causes schools to take these other subjects less seriously?

The answer has to be a clear and resounding ‘yes’. In my opinion, this other variable which has, by far and away, the largest and most telling impact on these other less-storied subjects is very much centred on the role of the ‘Subject Leader’. When I say subject leader, I am in fact referring to the teacher who leads that particular subject area.

It is no longer good enough to say ‘Why don’t we do enough Art in Grade 4?’ or ‘Why have we been teaching the same unit on the Great Fire of London in Year 2 for the last 10 years?’

If the school’s senior management team are too busy with other areas of school development, then it is the subject leader’s responsibility to ensure that they reinforce and emphasize the importance of their subject area. Throughout my limited time in education, I have worked alongside some truly excellent (as well as some very ordinary) subject leaders.

When it comes to leading a subject, there is one particularly large caveat which can make the difference between excellence and mediocrity – the subject leader absolutely has to have an enthusiastic and deep-rooted interest in the subject they are leading. Now this may not be completely set in stone at the beginning of their journey as a subject leader but it must rapidly become rooted if the subject is to blossom and flourish within the school’s curriculum.

And so at last, I come to the point. Apologies, by the way, for the long winded introduction!

I would like to provide a sort-of help guide for any future subject leaders by sharing some of my (potentially beneficial) experiences and ideas from three eventful years as a History Coordinator for my school.

  1. Try and find a senior management supporter who is willing to put themselves out there for you. Over the past two years, I have been fortunate enough to have worked closely with one of our assistant deputy head teachers. He has performed this role brilliantly, encouraging and supporting my ideas. You really need to develop the partnership though. You must actively involve them in your subject’s world. I did this by continually asking him to get involved in the various different historical activities, lessons and planning sessions we had used in History throughout the year.
  2. Create and implement a series of school planning groups to review, innovate and develop new and old units of work. Over the previous three years, I have worked hard to include most members of the teaching staff in planning new schemes of learning. When creating these working parties, it is important that you create mutually beneficial meeting locations and times. Also be sure to include teachers from all areas of the school i.e. if you are planning a new grade two unit of work then ask teachers from grade 1,2,3,4 and 5 to come along. Although you may think that these teachers resent giving up their time to help another year group, I think you will be pleasantly surprised just how quickly they become actively engaged with being a part of the planning process (even though it doesn’t directly affect their own year group).
  3. Build a network of like-minded individuals who are willing to listen to your thoughts and ideas about your subject. Be sure to listen, use and adapt their ideas when they come up with something particularly innovative. And absolutely make sure to give them the credit they deserve when they give you ideas you can implement across the whole school. I have been fortunate enough to generate a large network of like-minded souls but there are three people who have provided creativity and inspiration in abundance. These teachers deserve equal credit for the success history has had over the previous three years. You must develop these networks if your subject is to flourish!
  4. Constantly innovate and create! Don’t stop researching, adapting, evaluating and building improved schemes of learning for your curriculum area.

Part 2 (Now)

In this part, I will review each of the four points from the previous section. My aim is to evaluate whether:

a. I still entirely agree with the point about leadership

b. I partially agree with the point but have amendments to the original point which was made

c. I completely disagree with the original point and I now have a completely different take on what was written.

So, let’s get started.

Try and find someone in senior management to support you.

I believe that the comments I wrote three years ago are as important now as they were then. Support is always going to be a vital aspect when it comes to leading or coordinating a subject.

However, as the years have progressed, I don’t think it is enough to have just a single supporter who is in a position of authority. If you really want to have an impact, you have to actively seek an audience with many or all those who are in lead positions within your school (or even beyond your school). In recent years, I have been lucky enough to have experienced a change in management, and there is no doubt that this new SLT are a welcome breath of air. While it is true that any new management style takes time to become accepted, the current leadership team have a willingness to listen and implement change which has allowed my role to become more impactful.

It may be obvious to all that, of course, you should have as many members of the leadership team on your side as possible. However, these relationships need to be nurtured and fostered. Being proactive and believing in yourself will lead to greater opportunities for you to share: what you have done, what aspirations you have for your subject, what the strengths and weaknesses of your subject are and what its impact is within the school and curriculum.

The other advantage to this approach is that you become more professionally developed when you engage in dialogue with those who are setting whole school policy. This is simply down to the fact that they have numerous years of experience in subject coordination and leadership.

During the previous two years, I have been fortunate enough to work with two members of our SLT who shared their ideas, experience and thoughts about skills development within the humanities subjects. Ultimately, this has led to two the creation of two brand new progression of skills documents. I have included links to both documents if you are interested in using either of them in your own schools.

Geography Skills Progression Document

History Skills Progression Document

Create planning teams from different year groups when creating new units of work

To my eternal shame, this is something which I have done less of during the previous years since I added this particular section to the blog post. Do I still believe that it is important? Yes! Absolutely! These meetings included some of the most meaningful dialogues I had ever engaged in.

Yet…when I look back over these meetings, I ask myself the following questions: Who were they effective for? Did they really allow people to plan their own units of work? Were people doing it because they were genuinly interested or did they just feel obliged and pressured to come to these meetings?

While I will always champion these inter-year group meetings, I feel that giving more ownership and independence to different year groups definitely generates greater involvement in the planning process.

However, it must also be said that this doesn’t necessarily lead to better planning or a more cohesive school vision. It can actually lead to a further blurring of the lines and a tendency for different year groups to do things in a completely different way. It also has the unintended side-effect of creating a skills imbalance where certain skills become focused in particular year groups or phases. This in turn, can lead to teachers persuing their own agendas which results in a loss of clarity and vision in the subject.

The Cynic

At this point, I would like to add another factor which has had a huge impact on me over the last three years – that is the cynic! This term is not meant to disparage or insult people. It is just meant to draw awareness to the importance of those who raise the questions you can’t or don’t want to answer!

Through school leadership training, meetings and correspondance, I have learned the value of those teachers who are more careful, measured and thoughtful in their approach to teaching. I have learned so much from this group of individuals over the past three years that I don’t think you can ignore the impact which they can have on the success or failure of a subject. My advice is that if you are planning meetings, always make a place for those who will pose the questions you don’t always want an answer to.

Building a network of like-minded people who are willing to push your agenda

This point doesn’t really need a lot of change. After three years, I think that there is little within the idea which needs to be changed. If I was being particularly picky, I might (once again) mention the role of the cynic. The reason being, that I really have come to realise the importance this role plays in planning meetings. After all, no dream can exist without a brain to bring it into reality!

Constantly innovate and create! Don’t stop researching, adapting, evaluating and building improved schemes of learning for your curriculum area.

This is a constant and should be at the forefront of any educator’s thoughts about learning, teaching and education. However, it is particularly important when it comes to leadership. A leader must continue to create! As long as the the innovation and creation leads to a purposeful learning outcome for the students. Creation and innovation must be done through a continual process of evaluation, discussion and discovery. This comes with any coordination or leadershop role.

And so we conclude…

This article was supposed to be a guide for subject leaders or coordinators. While many of you may disagree with my ideas and thoughts, it is important to bear in mind that these ideas aren’t meant to be new or revolutionary. That wasn’t the point of this post!

What I was trying to say, was that leadership is grounded on certain prerequisites. And that while we want the subjects we lead to be respected, integrated and taken seriously, we shouldn’t forget the factors which bring our subjects to life.

I believe that by occasionally reminding ourselves of the things we need to do as subject leaders, we ensure that our subjects continue to thrive. And if our subject thrives, the students thrive.

And that is the point after all, isn’t it?

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