Middle Leadership Master Expansion Pack: Head of Department Interview Tips

One of the best things about writing Middle Leadership Mastery is when I get contacted by someone who is preparing for a Head of Department, HoD, interview. It’s nice to know that they found the book helpful and often they ask for my advice on preparing for the interview. So I thought I should note down some things that often happen in interviews and some simple tips that might be worth considering.

DISCLAIMER: There is no standard format for interviews. Each school will choose different tasks based on their own ideology or certain logistical factors. I will not comment on whether these are valuable exercises for HoDs to do and I also do not guarantee that others will agree with my thoughts on what is best. It takes all sorts etc….

Teaching the lesson

I expect most interviews will involve teaching a lesson. The biggest challenge for the interviewee is often balancing what they currently do in their current school with their interpretation of what their new school might be looking for. To me this is a no-brainer. Teach how you would normally teach. This is sometimes not helped by the schools instructions of what to teach. Often they give nebulous lesson titles like “A revision lesson on forces” which makes it hard to decide exactly what to cover. Combine that with only being given half a lesson and it is no wonder deciding what the lessons objective should be is a stressful task. My advice is to be clear in your planning what you want to achieve and how you want to do it. Should that be a lesson plan? Well that’s up to you. I would say you are more likely to get an observer to understand the decisions you made if you can hand them a document that outlines your thoughts. We all know that often ‘guess what was in my head’ ends badly. Choose techniques that you are comfortable using as they will reduce the cognitive demand on you and allow you to spend more effort on monitoring the students and navigating the novel environment. Logistically there are a number of barriers to overcome. Schools can let us down by offering very narrow time frames. This makes it hard to check certain logistics (eg mini-whiteboard or visualiser availability) and get replies in time to adjust plans. The easiest solution is to plan activities that only use resources you can bring with you. This might mean you have to adapt your plan from your normal teaching style. It’s an annoying but necessary compromise. Controlling your controllables is key to reducing stress on the morning of the interview. 

Learning walks

Another key aspect will be going on a paired learning walk. You will visit a few lessons with a staff member and be asked to form an opinion on what you saw. First let’s take care of the obvious things. When you enter the room make sure you smile at the teacher, first impressions an all that jazz. Bring a notebook and feel free to use whatever learning walk process you have experience of. That means if you want to print a prompt of things your current school looks for and have it folded away that’s completely fine. When you are in the moment you might struggle to consider all aspects so having a list helps offload some of that mental work and allows you to focus on what you see. While watching the lessons make notes of key points or strength and improvement. Also note down key questions you have for the staff member observing with you. Some of the things you see might be policy choices or might need clarification, so building up a small set of questions you can ask as you move between classes can be helpful. Importantly, it also demonstrates your appreciation of context-related decision making. From each lesson try to consider the single most important action step needed for that teacher to improve. Make sure when you feedback you give detailed praise that demonstrates your knowledge of great teaching in your subject. Make sure your feedback is actionable by telling the teacher what to change to make the improvement. See this great blog on the power of By. Overall try to consider if there is a common issue or theme emerging from the group of lessons. You might have identified a new department priority!

 Writing to a parent

Dealing with stakeholder complaints is a part of the job as a HoD. Often schools ask you to write a letter following a particular scenario. When writing the letter it’s important to ensure it has a formal tone and is courteous. You need to acknowledge their issue but ideally not accept responsibility. Instead outline the steps you are going to take to resolve the issue and when they can expect to hear back from you. Always thank them for bringing the issue to your attention and reiterate when they will hear from you next. Remember you both want what is best for their child so try to finish on a vision for a future where the issues are resolved and everyone is satisfied. It doesn’t need to be an essay so keep it simple, clear and polite. 

Student panel

In the student panel the observer is trying to get a feel for how you interact with groups of students in a more informal setting. Expect lots of questions about your opinion on various aspects of school life. My strategy is to use this to sell my vision for the department and curriculum moving forward. Try to ensure questions about homework, rewards, trips etc.. are used as avenues for you to communicate your vision for how incredible a department ran by you will be for students. Don’t trash what is currently going on but make it clear you have some exciting ideas. One of the ways you can move the conversation towards specific things you want to mention is by asking them follow up questions. This gives you a chance to bring in certain topics. If you want to talk about homework because you have a new idea, then you can ask them what the current homework is like and how they feel about it. Then you can go into your idea.

Data task

Data tasks go in and out of fashion. While they might be on the decline now that schools are moving away from obsessing over in-year data, there is still some value for a school to see how well candidates can interpret headline figures to decide potential priorities. You will be given a set of anonymised outcomes and asked to record any trends or questions you have and any actions you would take. When you start looking at the data try not to get bogged down in all the sub groups. Focus on the main areas first and try to find out if there are any major issues. Trends over time can be misleading especially in option subjects where cohort sizes and ability profiles might vary, so it’s best to keep a list of questions or queries you have regarding your trends. Towards the end of the time prioritise your key headline trends, the assumptions you have used/questions you have and next steps. Be brief but clear about what changes you would investigate further.

The actual interview

In the interview your best friend is the glass of water. Any time you feel yourself gabbling or rushing you can pause by taking a sip of water. Don’t be afraid to repeat things in your answers that have come up during the activities so far or in your application. This is probably going to be your only time in front of all the key decision makers so don’t leave anything in the chamber. At the end of the day most leaders are looking to determine your ambition, competence and alignment. They want to know you will strive for the best and will welcome positive rhetoric, so don’t be afraid to be bullish with your personal strengths. They will ask you questions about enthusing students, holding staff to account and what you think makes a great department in your subject. So be clear in your answers and try to refer to previous successes you have and, where relevant, your performance on the day. Holding staff to account is a key swing skill for HoDs so having a well prepared answer about your personal philosophy for how to support and challenge staff is absolutely vital. Alignment with the schools vision is vital for school leaders and so do your research and understand the kind of school you are applying to.

That’s all the advice I can think of right now. If you can think of any other things that are common let me know. I might add to this over time.

Good luck!

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