The insight that many new senior leaders lack and what can be done about it

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I’ve been thinking about what it is that can potentially cause issues between senior leaders and teachers. In many cases that I have experienced (at secondary level), it has come down to a lack of understanding of senior leaders of subjects other than their own.

This post is based on the premise that senior leaders in schools need to have a least a basic understanding of the variation between and unique challenges of every subject/key stage. If you don’t think this, stop reading here.

The issue

I once went into a meeting with a deputy head as we needed to discuss workload within RE; a colleague had left and I was essentially marking for 800 students. I will never forget what the deputy head said I should do:

“You can easily whizz through a set of books whilst students are working in class”

I sat, possibly with my mouth wide open and pondered what he was saying. He wasn’t talking about the ‘live’ marking (marking student work and feeding back whilst they are completing tasks) that can help reduce mark load. He meant that I should take a different class’s books and mark them whilst the current class,  working totally independently and without my input, do their work.

The issue here is that he was a Maths teacher. He had no concept of what marking was like in RE. Whilst he was probably talking about checking ‘correct answers’, possibly in a nice short list of 1-10, I was having to read pages of extended writing, checking for SPAG errors. He lacked the understanding and possibly the empathy that was needed in that situation. He didn’t offer helpful advice for me. 

This isn’t uncommon. Teachers that decide to go into senior leadership will not always have the cross-subject and cross phase experience that may give this ability to understand what teaching and learning is, in areas out of their own experience.

This can become exacerbated when you have a leadership team from ‘similar’ background in terms of subject. I would argue that subjects can be grouped* and that if there isn’t a member of SLT from each group or a significant understanding of the other groups. Then there may be avoidable issues.

Why is it an issue?

Most first time Assistant Heads come from one of the following:

  • Head of department/faculty
  • Head of year

And occasionally

  • Lead practitioner
  • SENCO
  • Senior teacher

The issue is that it is rare that most spend a significant amount of time out of their subject specialism.

The knowledge and insight that I believe senior leaders need are:

  • How a subject’s curriculum works
  • Variation between key stages
  • The challenges that a subject/dept. faces
  • Simple pedagogical differences between subjects

Does it really matter?

I think it does. A senior leader, regardless of role, is a leader and a manager of all staff and of all subjects. Their knowledge and understanding is essential in making things smoother. Ignorance can cause unnecessary conflict and problems.

For example, a senior leader that see their 5 classes, 3 times a week and say that books should be marked every week, won’t realise for an RE teacher that sees classes once a week that it means 20 sets of books to mark a week compared to the SLT’s 5.

You can’t fully prepare for an SLT role but some experience and exposure to as many different subjects before a teacher is in role will really help.

What can be done to develop the insight needed?

Middle leader collaboration

In my current school we have a regular middle leaders meeting. There is a short agenda and for 90% of the time it is middle leaders sharing what they are doing or will do on a specific issue. For example,  this means that the Head of Maths shares what they are doing with the Head of Geography. The Head of Drama shares what they are doing with the Head of MFL.  The assistant and deputy head are also there listening and contributing. This is a great way for colleagues to understand the way other subjects work. It’s a good chance to develop this cross curricular understanding.

Associate roles

A Head, with foresight and a focus on developing their staff, will create associate roles where possible. These are commonly associate SLT roles which gives someone an insight into the wider perspective SLT need to take. However, if you are a Drama specialist it may be useful to become an associate member of the Maths department. This may include being include in subject meetings, in the department email group, ‘observing subject teaching, joining a subject for INSET or asking to join the Head of subject in their line management meetings. It needs to be done with sensitivity but it could provide a great insight into a subject different to the person’s specialism.

External course/CPD focus

Many middle leaders that want to go on to senior leadership go on a course such as the NPQSL to help prepare. However there is no requirement on this course to do anything that is cross curricular. It has to be whole school but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the kind of thing that provides insight into how different subjects work around the school. A Head could suggest that colleagues doing this kind of course should do something that enhances their knowledge and understanding of different subject areas.

Consultation, communication & collaboration

If someone is already a senior leader and doesn’t have the knowledge needed, then this can be the best way to gain insight. It’s also called ‘good management’.

If a leader wants to create a new policy, for example, for homework, instead of sitting writing this by themselves or even with other SLT they should work with middle leaders/teachers to find the best solution for all. Even better they should work with broad principles and ask colleagues to adapt for their own subject.

Duh

Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘duh, yeah’ but I am well aware that there are many leaders out there that don’t do this and in their ignorance, produce policies or systems that may well be great for their subject specialism but completely unworkable and problematical for other subjects.

This kind of uninformed behaviour is regularly shared on social media. Sadly,  it can be a significant cause of stress in teaching and in some cases people leaving the profession. It IS important.

 

*For example…..

  • Humanities based – History, Geography, RE, English etc
  • Mathematical based – Maths, science
  • Creative based – art, drama, music etc
  • Technical – Food, textiles, resistant materials etc
  • Languages – French, German, Latin etc
  • Physical – PE, dance etc

One thought on “The insight that many new senior leaders lack and what can be done about it

  1. Good post. Have been astounded sometimes at how someone can reach SLT with so little understanding of needs of individual subjects. Perhaps that is why so many are drawn to PBL and blurring subject boundaries

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