It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom (the new staff were wise to join you), it was the age of foolishness (for those that left your incredible team), It was the epoch of ….. Ok I’ll stop with this tedious Dickensian intro.
Every once and while a department will go through a relatively large scale change in personnel. After covid this was probably even more likely as people waited to see if a move was right for them during the lockdowns.
Having a lot of new staff join a department can create a daunting challenge for a Head of Department (HoD). How do you induct them into your department’s way of teaching? There is so much to go through, the policies and processes, the curriculum and assessment strategies. How will they get the photocopier to work? Departs run on a large volume of knowledge and most of it is hard to pin down due to the curse of knowledge. To HoDs it is obvious, but to new staff it will not be.
This blog isn’t about the induction process. I hope your school has a carefully thought out induction process that goes beyond the normal safeguarding and onboarding. At my school we use a combination of videos, documents and face to face workshops to communicate the main systems we use. I hope your school does something similar.
This blog is about one thing; an opportunity. Having large scale staff turnover every once and while gives HoDs an opportunity to reflect and refresh their approach to all systems including the teaching and learning in their department. However there is also a huge risk. The new staff may be inexperienced, possibly ECTs, and might have gaps in their subject or pedagogical content knowledge. So there is a pressure to play it safe as well as a golden opportunity to build something special.
This is a story of two HoDs who both faced the same situation and made different decisions. Obviously they are not real, but what is reality but a mass hallucination of order in an attempt to derive meaning from randomness.
HoD1 values certainty and consistency above all else. They are going to control their controllables. They invest time with their team to build highly organised centrally provided lessons. Every teacher delivers those lessons, adapted to support weaker learners where necessary. Classes will move lockstep through the curriculum with each lesson having a powerpoint that staff will aim to complete in each lesson, where possible.
- Guaranteed quality of resources mean you know all that teachers need to do is control a class and the rest is sorted.
- Finishing the course on time is likely given the lesson by lesson approach.
- Curriculum entitlement and consistency is in place and transparent. All students have identical diets.
- Quality assurance is easy as clarity of what should be being completed is obvious.
- Inexperienced staff have a lot less to worry about in the first term, just create a productive classroom climate.
- Gaps in knowledge can be supported with highly structured resources like powerpoints which contain the explanation.
- Logistically demanding. Can you make the lessons in time and to the right quality? (Yes you can expand the team creating them but then you have to QA them and ensure they understand your vision)
- Artificially creates a concept of ‘the lesson is delivered’ instead of ‘the students are taught’
- Reduces the chances of reteaching and adjusting the pace of the lessons to suit classes.
- While teachers should adapt resources there is a perverse incentive not to as they are ‘on a plate’ and not the teachers responsibility. Learned helplessness makes them more passive in their professional development as they take less initiative.
- The level of accountability a teacher can have for the learning of the class is reduced.
- Teachers that find the autonomy rewarding are less satisfied.
- Innovation is stifled.
- Content dense presentations to support weaker knowledge create overly wordy and ineffective slides and explanations.
- Learning walk feedback has less impact because less teacher decisions were involved in the lesson and the resources can be hidden behind.
HoD2 zigs where HoD1 zags. They will not provide a lesson by lesson set of presentations. They will provide centralised resources and key curriculum signposts, but teachers will be expected to plan and deliver their own lessons. This includes deciding how to use and adapt the resources, how to explain new concepts and check for understanding.
- Teachers are spending their time honing their craft and gaining feedback on their choices.
- Teachers can be easily held accountable for their teaching as they have ownership.
- Leaders’ time is spent discussing what good teaching of their subject looks like with their team.
- Curriculum progression is more flexible and teachers are less likely to move on before securing key fundamentals.
- Teachers have more agency. Yes they are working harder but the effort they put in is making them better teachers, which they are keen to become.
- The teachers improve at a faster rate and their ability to teach is maximised.
- New resources and approaches are developed that improve on current practice through innovation.
- Huge learning curve for novice teachers
- Lack of knowledge in some aspects of the curriculum might lead to less effective explanations and lesson in the short term
- Potential that some teachers are unable to reach the floor established by HoD1s approach if they are particularly weak.
- Large commitment of time from leaders teaching new staff what good explanations, checks for understanding look like.
- More variation in what lessons look like makes QA harder. Leaders will need a complex understanding of what great teaching in their subject looks like.
- Curriculum progression will vary so regular checking of progress through the curriculum will be needed.
Looking at the two lists we can see there are strengths and weaknesses to both. However deciding what to do by just looking at the potential strength and weaknesses ignores some factors about the process the team will go through. Now I want to look at some of those issues because I think they pose some interesting questions leaders should consider.
Riding the wave of change.
When a team undergoes a change there is a change-adoption curve. The Kubler-Ross curve aims to describe the process of grief and has been adapted by some management consultants to illustrate that all changes cause a temporary disruption of performance of the team until they recover, hopefully to a place of higher performance. It is a similar idea to the ‘Storming-Norming-Performing’ idea of team dynamics.
It could look a bit like this
(As a quick aside I do think this is something we tend to forget about in schools. We are prone to a constant flux in strategy as we adapt to changing circumstances and work our hardest to ensure exam years have the best possible preparation. There is a cost to doing something beyond the time it takes to do.)
HoD1 and 2 have taken different approaches so their curves will look different. HoD1 will experience less of a dip in performance because there is less autonomy and so less requirement for teacher craft. HoD2 will have that steep learning curve to navigate. Most likely HoD1 will plateau at a lower performance level than HoD2. So their curves might look like this
Floor raisers vs Ceiling raisers
In sports teams you have players who are floor raisers, they cover for the rest of the team and support them by covering their deficiencies. A good goalkeeper is a floor raiser for a weak defence. A genius attacking midfielder is a ceiling raiser, able to create flashes that can change the course of the match.
Floor raisers are things that ensure a minimum quality with ease. Ceiling raisers are higher risk things that have potential to increase the overall quality to a higher standard.
We can apply these ideas to our two HoDs. HoD1’s strategy is a floor raiser. Low chance of failure but unlikely to raise the team to its highest potential. HoD2’s strategy is a ceiling raiser. If it works the team will be able to perform at their highest level.
Now HoD1 could take a two-step approach. Secure the foundation in 1 year then take another step the following year. This is true and if that happens then there will be a second change curve.
The difficulty with this approach is that there are now two factors HoD1 needs to work against; The change and the existing habits that have just been established. When the team is first formed all the pre-existing habits will be disrupted and an opportunity to establish new habits arises. When HoD1 tries to create the second change the team will have established these new habits. The way they teach will be somewhat set already and they will need to break that down and build the new way back up.
So if we were to examine the total dip for HoD1 it might be more pronounced than HoD2’s approach, but in two parts.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff
For those that like accountability as a foundation of leadership then the clarity and consistency of HoD1s approach might have an advantage. However there is an accountability benefit to HoD2’s approach. When you put more planning responsibility on teachers they have more choice and you can get a better understanding of what they think good teaching looks like. Through lesson observation you can determine where they are and what they need to improve. Cynically in HoD2’s approach you can let teachers sink or swim. It becomes easier during the induction process to know if you have recruited someone who can embrace feedback and improve on their current teaching level. If not then it’s better to know in the first year. HoD1 will be able to tell if teachers can superficially use resources and adapt them but will not discover the teachers ability to plan and respond as easily. If they then decide to loosen the reins they might find not all staff are able to meet the new expectations.
Like most things in school leadership there is no clear winner, context will be king. This blog is not about if HoD1 or HoD2 is right. It’s more an exploration of how most decisions middle leaders face are more complex than they first appear.
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