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Undertrained, overstretched, and essential
Heads of departments play an important role in school leadership. IAN KEESE would like to see some changes made to improve their lot.
USUALLY the focus on leadership in a secondary school, and rightly so, is on that of the principal. However, as good as principals may be as leaders and managers, their effectiveness in improving the quality of learning in a school depends ultimately on their being able to influence what happens in the individual classroom. In a school where 40 classes may be operating at the one time this would be an impossible task without the cooperation of the head of department.
Where the department head does not offer this support, an important link in the chain is missing. However, little research has been done in this area in Australia. I would like to reflect on the roles of the head of department, and suggest a few ways in which their important role could be enhanced.
What are the roles of the head of department?
I HAVE seen lists of head of department responsibilities that run to two pages, but simply put, they fall into two categories: one with respect to their own department, and one with respect to the school as a whole.
Within their own departments, heads have primary responsibility for the implementation of the curriculum, the student learning within their subject areas and the quality of teaching of the individual teachers. They are usually the first point of contact between the school and students’ parents, and it is only when student problems are seen to be wider than that within a single subject that the senior executive becomes involved. The qualities that make an individual a good head of department can mean that they take a leadership role in the wider community, or within their subject associations.
However the other side of their role is just as important. They should have a direct line to the senior executive of the school. Here it is vital that heads of department convey clearly to the senior executive their staff ’s reasoned critique of school policies and their consequences, but also ensure that their own staff understand how their aspirations must fit into the overall framework of the school.
The qualities of a good head of department
TO FULFIL these roles, heads of department must be good classroom teachers, who are continually reflecting on what methods will further improve student learning. They must have a deep love for and knowledge of the subjects for which they are responsible, and always be looking for ways to widen their knowledge of both their subjects and good educational practice.
In the hectic environment of a school they must have a high level of management skills. They must have a good understanding of how the school operates and be able to convey this to their staff. They must have the ability to prioritise among rapidly changing demands, and have good time management skills.
They need to be emotionally secure individuals, and have a highly developed emotional intelligence, so that, in the face of all the challenges that arise in the day-to-day life of a school, their staff can feel secure, know that their contribution is valued and feel pleased to turn up for work each day.
Most importantly, in all their interactions with students, parents and teachers it should be apparent that what guides them is their deep concern for the welfare and best interests of the individual student. This is most vital when talking to parents—rather than telling a mother how lazy her son is, it is far more important to discuss with her what his interests and aspirations are, and ways in which he could become more engaged in the subject.
IT WOULD be a rare person who had all these qualities. Dr Steve Dinham from the University of New England has done extensive research on the satisfaction level of different groups in the education systems of Australia, New Zealand, the USA and England and found that, of all levels in the school system, the middle executive were the most stressed and least satisfied.
Two factors could come into play here. One is that the frustrations arise because the demands placed on heads of department are too great in the time allocated to carry out their role. In most schools they have a teaching load only slightly less than the classroom teacher, and are often responsible for senior classes as well. They have about four hours a week (or 50 minutes a school day) beyond that of the regular classroom teacher for all the extra duties associated with their position.
The other factor is the lack of suitable training and support for such a specialised job. There is a big gap between being a good classroom teacher and being able to effectively run a department. Training can occur in formal or informal ways, but this is usually on an ad hoc basis, and there is usually no further professional development once a person has become a head of department.
One further problem: if someone had all the qualities I listed they would be seriously considering promotion rather than continuing as a head of department. In NSW, as in most State systems, the salary of a head of department is only marginally above that of a classroom teacher on their maximum salary.
ALL OF these problems have solutions, some obviously easier to achieve than others. I feel a reduction in face-to-face teaching to make more time for administration would have a negative effect as it is vital that the head teacher stays close to the classroom. I have seen good training programs, but they need to become an essential part of the system.
Finally, I would suggest two more radical solutions. One way to encourage qualified people to remain as head teachers would be to have incremental increases in their salary, so that after ten or fifteen years they could have a salary more closely related to that of a deputy principal. Another way would be to give them periods of secondment for a year with the education department in areas such as curriculum, professional development or assessment. This would enrich their own professional development; the knowledge they gain would be of value to staff on their return to their faculty; and it would give an aspiring member of their faculty, working as their replacement for the year, on-thejob training.
When one has developed a good team of teachers, and has a mutually beneficial relationship with the senior executive, the role of a head teacher can be one of the most satisfying in a school. Every day they can feel they have made some difference to the lives of students, teachers and parents.
Dinham S et al (2002). The Secondary Head of Department: Key Link in the Quality Teaching and Learning Chain, Quality Teaching Series—Paper No 2, Australian College of Education.
Dinham, S & Scott, C (2003). Pressure Points: School Executive and Educational Change available at www.literacy.unisa.edu.au/jee/ Papers/JEEVol3No2/Paper3.pdf
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