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.

Previous ArticleNext Article

This post has 8 Comments

  1. John, I am delighted to read your blog. I think that if SLT across the country embraced that idea of taking responsibility for growing good teachers, then much of what I find distressing in education would shift. Separating out performance management is a good idea. The aim to agree joint goals within a performance management is a good one – one I always aimed at when I was a manager – but, in the end, it’s a process of control. Better to know your targets and then go to someone else to support you in implementing them. (Incidentally, you may like the ideas of Henry Stewart of Happy about management – an inspiring model of thinking well/realistically about people’s needs as workers. See: http://www.happy.co.uk/about/who-we-are/.)
    Your analysis of the role of subject leaders heartens me on two fronts. Firstly, in terms of distributed leadership. I have seen some cock-eyed systems in secondary schools – too many people doing overlapping things. As a CPD deliverer coming in, sometimes I couldn’t see why I reported to one person in SLT rather than another – and worse, why only person in SLT took the slightest interest, so you felt your work was likely to have limited impact from the start. Clear roles known to all are obviously important.
    Secondly, I believe that for most of us achieving our best as teachers comes as as a result of collective effort. (There are a few individual geniuses; I’m not one of them.) A realistic analysis of the elements of a good lesson supplemented by things like co-coaching, group lesson study (the Japanese work hard at finding the most engaging and informative tasks for students), detailed training on key skills such as questioning (‘training’ meaning seeing it, practising it, getting feedback, doing it again – not someone talking at you over a powerpoint), work with students on their learning and team work skills – it seems to me that all these things, if shared within a department or school, create shared vocabulary, knowledge and resources, enabling new norms to develop.

  2. Growing great teachers is a wonderful idea!
    When learning is seen more important than teaching the quality of education increases automatically (see: Finland, PISA). When management is aligned to the most important function of the school (learning, not teaching), the quality increases even further.
    It is hard, if not impossible, to coach people you supervise. Just because these two different roles clash on the interaction level, which is the most important one for learning. Maintaining open interaction in situation where one person has power and control over the other one is not sustainable – no matter how good person you are, there will be times when discussing your real thoughts becomes a bad idea.
    Teaching is a job done by open and honest interactions. Growing great teachers is also done by similar interactions. Empowering your teachers to learn is as important as empowering your students to learn. How well can your SLTs empower their students, or your teachers?
    (p.s. meeting Sir Ken in Portland, OR, in early August at the AERO conference http://www.educationrevolution.org/blog/finding-the-catalyst-for-the-education-revolution/ – and feeling quite thrilled about the opportunity!)

    1. Thanks Nina; great to hear from you. None of what we are doing is easy,but it focuses upon what matters. Rigour with a human smile. Enjoy Sir Ken – he is amazing!

  3. I just came across your site via twitter. As a middle leader I see a major part of my role as being to develop my staff. It is refreshing to hear a Headteacher saying that it is SLTs role to grow middle leaders so they can grow their staff. Your site is fascinating and I shall be returning. Thankyou for r taking the time to share your thoughts.

  4. Unfortunately, almost all SLT greasy pole climbers I’ve ever met have been a little on the thick side, obsessed with statistics and grades, promoted pseudo-scientific crap like learning styles and had very little to offer in terms of useful advice mainly due to the fact that they were quite dull in the classroom. In fact, most SLT would have benefited immensely from listening to a few teachers who only want to teach, however, there seems to be an unwritten law that SLT are by definition better teachers. You don’t need to grow teachers, you need intelligent people who can see potentially great teachers, give them the room they need to learn the job and you need excellent time-served teachers who can impart wisdom and guidance on the holistic discipline of teaching NOT just the latest bollocks from the government. It seems the people currently doing that job are largely blind to high quality individuals with something to offer children and are more interested in making sure Mr or Mrs Ofsted will see the right things. I can’t think of anything more embarrassing or demeaning than standing in front of a hall full of teachers and telling them how the latest ideas from Ofsted or the government are great – apart from not realising what you’re doing. I once pointed out that VAK is totally discredited unscientific shite and got looked at by management like dogs that had been shown a card trick. Oh, how we laughed. And it carried on. No one even looked at the published papers.
    Oh well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.