Heads of department improving teaching: Three key steps

Heads of department improving teaching: Three key steps
Date9th May 2022AuthorHarry Fletcher-WoodCategoriesLeadership, Teaching

This blog was initially published on the Improving Teaching blog in February here.

Let’s say we have a good idea to improve teaching in the school. Better questioning perhaps, or exit tickets, hinge questions, learning styles, clearer modelling…* Whatever it is, how will it become everyday classroom practice?

We’re hardly short of good ideas. But sharing a good idea rarely changes classroom practice. A teacher may appreciate that using hinge questions to track student learning is a good idea. That’s not enough. They need to write the questions, test them, refine them and build them into classroom routines – alongside ninety-eight thousand and twelve other tasks. They need time, support, feedback and encouragement.

From whom? Who will pop into lessons, see how it’s going, discuss next steps, then see if they happen? Ideas (good and bad) often originate with senior leaders. But leaders can’t offer tailored, individual support – not to every teacher. They don’t have time for the observations and feedback. And they rarely have the expertise to translate a good idea into a viable strategy in maths, music and MFL.

So who does the day-to-day work, and provides the individual support, needed to improve teaching? It could be the instructional coach (I’ve written about making instructional coaching work here). But few schools have a team of instructional coaches. It’s more likely to be the head of department. I’ve enjoyed working more with heads of department recently: this post describes what seems to enable them to improve teaching.

1) They prioritise improving teaching

Alex has just been appointed head of department. She still teaches twenty lessons every week. She has many new tasks: exam entries, data analysis, setting cover. And she’s now responsible for managing a group which includes her peers (some more experienced than her), a fellow applicant for the role, and the former head of department – now a senior leader. Unsurprisingly, she prioritises keeping the boat afloat. She defers rocking it – trying to change her colleagues’ teaching – perhaps indefinitely.

Is she right to do so? Andy Grove asked ‘What is your output as a manager?’ (Translated from business-speak, ‘What do you achieve as a head of department?’) Grove contends that it’s not meetings and decisions – or exam entries and data analysis. Instead: 

The output of a manager is the output of the various organizations under his control and influence.”

(2015/1983, P.53)

Translated: the achievement of heads of department is the learning students experience in the department.

Is this obvious? If so, skip to Section 2.

If it were obvious, heads of department would believe it, and act accordingly. It’s certainly not universally acknowledged. Consider three heads of department:

  • Jane sees herself as a peer to her colleagues – but nothing more. She doesn’t believe you can – or should – try to identify teachers’ effectiveness. So she doesn’t believe she has a role in improving teaching.
  • Ali loves his subject. He’s passionate and erudite about curriculum design and resourcing. But he doesn’t share his expertise any other way: he doesn’t regularly observe – or even talk to – his colleagues about their teaching. Not even the department’s newest recruit.
  • Mark doesn’t know how his colleagues lessons are going. The timetable is blocked: he’s always teaching at the same time as them.

Jane, Ali and Mark articulate things I’ve heard from heads of department in the last few months. I respect their perspectives and their passion for their work. But in each case I wonder ‘Is there more you can do to ensure all students experience great learning in your department?‘ Is there more you can do to ensure that students taught by NQTs, by struggling colleagues, and in G14 (the old broom cupboard) all experience great learning? Exam entries, schemes of work, collegiality and your own classes matter. But they are parts of the whole: students’ overall experience matters more.

A couple of possible concrete indicators that heads of department are prioritising improving teaching:

  • ‘Improving teaching’ heads any set of priorities they write: their own objectives, departmental meeting agendas, meetings with their own manager.
  • They ask for cover to see their team teach regularly – because the priority is student achievement across the department, not just in their own class.

Is this obvious? Is it already happening? If so – if improving teaching is an accepted priority – how can the head of department do it?

2) They know where they’re going, and how to get there

First, knowing where the department is starting. Seeing is believing. Formal, graded observations have fallen out of fashion, but in many schools, nothing has replaced them (a hiatus encouraged by Covid). Without regular visits to lessons, it’s hard to know what teachers are doing well, and where they need help. Alex, new to leading the department, may want to observe with a senior leader or coach, to calibrate her conclusions about what’s needed. She can bolster her understanding by discussing and reviewing lesson planning and student work with teachers.

Second, knowing where to go, and how to get there. Heads of department usually know what effective teaching looks like in their subject. But knowing what to do and being able to help others do it are two different things, as anyone who has ever failed to teach a student an apparently simple skill (everyone) has experienced. The head of department needs to identify:

  • What to work on: one or two strategies worth encouraging among the team (for example, exit ticketshinge questionsmodels).
  • How to work on it: a couple of approaches to help teachers adopt these strategies. This might mean using an instructional coaching approach to offer feedback (more on how to do this here). Or it might mean sharing curricular planning, writing hinge questions together, or collectively reviewing student work (more on these approaches here).

Concrete indicators:

  • The head of department sees their colleagues teach regularly – every week if possible – and knows each teacher’s current priority.
  • Every departmental meeting includes collective work on a teaching and learning priority.
  • The head of department bends whole-school priorities to fit teachers’ needs and the subject.

3) They have time and support

I recently saw a former colleague, who described having been a head of department succinctly:

It’s the worst job in the world.”

There are a lot of good reasons why heads of department – over allocation, overtired, overwhelmed – may not be doing the things suggested above. These include:

  • Time: where schools are pursuing big projects – like redesigning the curriculum or writing knowledge books – they need time to do it. Even smaller projects – a bank of hinge questions, regular coaching conversations – demand allocated time. If improving teaching matters, it matters enough to provide cover when it’s needed.
  • Knowhow: as another head of department put it, “I taught for a bit, then I was promoted – but no one ever trained me in man management.” As a new head of professional development, I organised department time – but it didn’t occur to me to offer any guidance in how to use it. If heads of department are to observe, coach and refine their work, they need training, guidance and mentoring, formal and informal.
  • Support: in particular, I suspect it’s worth bringing heads of department together – perhaps without a senior leader in the room – to share experiences, ideas and hacks. Subject networks across schools can play a similar role, particularly for heads of small departments.

A concrete indicator: every question I’ve posed for heads of department above could also be posed to senior leaders, about the heads of department they manage:

  • Do they see improving teaching across the department as the priority?
  • Do they know what their teachers need to improve, and how to do it?
  • What time, expertise and support do they need?


Generic professional development can initiate improvement. But it can’t get us very far, because teaching maths and teaching music are too different. At some point, leaders have to devolve most of the work of improving teaching to heads of department. When they do, they need to be confident that heads of department:

  • Prioritise improving teaching – above anything else
  • Know how their teachers are doing, what they need to improve, and how to achieve this
  • Have the time and support this requires

If you found this useful, you may like:

* If you missed the odd one out in my list of ‘good ideas’ to improve teaching, it may be worth reading this.

Harry Fletcher-Wood is a former teacher, and is now head of school surveys for Teacher Tapp.

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