I have been a school leader for 20 years now and at the age of 47, this much I know about how we shape our structures so we can focus upon growing great teachers…
Subject Leaders are the single most important group of colleagues involved in raising the quality of teaching and learning; it is the Subject Leader who has the most direct influence upon the performance of teachers in the classroom.
The role of Subject Leader has changed dramatically over twenty years, to the point where both the volume and importance of the post’s responsibilities are close to overwhelming. B was my first Head of Department and she led her very successful English Department for many years until her retirement in 1991. She never once observed me teach a lesson in the three years she was my Subject Leader, nor did she undertake a single learning walk nor complete any work scrutinies. B did not complete an analysis of her department’s examination results in September nor did she have to meet with the College Principal in the autumn term to review the progress of her department. She did not run any subject-based training sessions on learning and teaching, nor did she have to have difficult conversations with under-performing colleagues. We had no schemes of work; I created every lesson I taught in my first post myself. B was a good administrator: she ensured that the order for next year’s texts was completed on time, that the examination entries were correct and that the timetable was completed intelligently. B looked after me as a new entrant into the profession with respect and kindness and I have always been thankful to her for being so supportive.
The role of Subject Leader has changed, largely due to the increasing levels of accountability. All those things B did not have to do in the role are core elements of the modern Subject Leader’s day-to-day work; so many of the Subject Leader’s responsibilities have to be undertaken during the school day. With the focus of inspection increasingly upon the quality of teaching and learning, and the even greater emphasis upon examination results, what is certain is that we are not returning to the early 90s; the role of Subject Leader is hardly likely to get any less demanding.
We have to think quite clearly about the role and how it is perceived by everyone in the institution. If we perceive the role to be concerned with: accountability; the individual; management; separate subjects, then we are doomed never fully to succeed, no matter how hard we try. If, alternatively, we see the role of Subject Leader to be concerned with: capacity building; the team; pedagogy and collective leadership, then we can be truly great.
We decided that the main job of the Subject Leader, beyond all others, is to grow better teachers. The SLT has to help our Subject Leaders focus upon that main job, because if Subject Leaders get that right, everything will be fine! At a time of budgetary constraint, at our school we decided there are two things our SLT can do, systematically, to enable Subject Leaders to thrive as they perform their role of growing great teachers:
ONE: Members of the SLT will focus much more of their time during the day to supporting classroom practice within the subjects they line manage. Once the Subject Leaders have analysed their public examination results in September, and identified which areas of performance they need to improve, they can negotiate with their SLT Line Managers how they want the time their SLT Line Manager can give to the Subject area over the coming year to be utilised, and that time can be formalised on the SLT Line Manager’s timetable. It might be co-coaching a member of the Subject team, covering to release the Subject Leader to undertake an observation, or something else along those lines. There has to be some flexibility in order to make this work, but it will provide the Subject Leader with more time during the school day to undertake their role of growing great teachers.
TWO: The SLT will undertake all teacher Appraisals, even though we have as many as 100 teachers. This will remove the responsibility from Subject Leaders in line with the drive to support them with their main role of growing good teachers, and it will enable them to focus on professionally developing their teams. It is very hard to be poacher and game keeper. Some Subject Leaders are close friends of those colleagues whose Appraisals they undertake; asking the hard questions is difficult, if not impossible. One colleague Headteacher accused me of emasculating our Subject Leaders, but I couldn’t agree; for instance, how many middle leader appraisers have presented a case for capability as a consequence of rigorous Performance Management? I think we are empowering our Subject Leaders to focus on what matters – growing great teachers!
Sir Ken Robinson advocates an agricultural model of education where the teacher is like the farmer, providing all of the needed ingredients and leaving the crop to grow and thrive. In the same way that great teachers grow great students, the School Leadership Team has to replicate that process for growing great teachers.