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18 May 2021
By Zoe Enser

Developing Your Subject Team

One of the most difficult things I was tasked to do as a Head of Department was developing my team. As a leader I was responsible for ensuring not only high-quality teaching and learning but also high-quality opportunities for my team to develop. It is not always clear how to do this effectively. Teachers, much like our pupils, arrive in our teams with a wealth of experiences and are often quite a disparate group. I have led wonderful teams who have come from disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and politics as opposed to from English language or literature routes. Even with the domain of English comparative literatures and a huge range of possible routes to examine, the knowledge they hold is not guaranteed to be the same. That is just in terms of the knowledge they may or may not hold before we even consider what they understand in terms of effective pedagogy and how they have been able to reflect on this.

It can also be easy too for department meetings to become about how many books need to be ordered or a behaviour issue in a particular class, so where do we get the opportunities to develop our team and importantly how do we go about it? Using Ross McGill’s idea of Mark, Plan, Teach I think can help us to improve how we develop our team.

1. What are the Issues?

Just as with changes to curriculum or introducing interventions, we need to spend time exploring the issue. This ideally would be with your team. There needs to be an audit of need and often teachers will know which areas they need to develop without needing to be told. However, this needs to be linked to both department and whole school priorities so that will require careful unpicking of the issues and how you might go about developing them. This will provide a starting point and an end goal (what you want to achieve) and this can be as a team or as an individual. Try to be as specific as possible about the issues as this will help to define how you will go about addressing them. It might be that there is someone on the team who needs to spend some time exploring the poetry being studied in a unit or looking at how to make the best use of modelling. Whatever the issues are, make sure people are clear about them and why they matter.

2. Plan or Develop a Curriculum

This is the really intricate part of the process. I am forever returning to the idea of the curriculum being about a route, course of journey and I think when we are considering professional learning in our team, we need to think about the journey we are going to take our team, and ourselves, on. We need to think carefully about those issues we have identified in that first stage and then how we will address them over time. If we know we have people who need to learn about a particular aspect of the curriculum, we need to plan for how and when they will be supported to do that. It might not be in the meetings this happens for the individual, although dialogue across the team will help the learning process, especially feedback on what they have been developing.

If it is about something everyone in the team needs to develop, we need to consider where this will also be given time in the meeting cycle. If it is something like modelling where are the opportunities for people in your team to learn about this, try it out and reflect further. As subject leaders we can’t assume this will miraculously happen and just leave for the next performance management meeting. We need to build those opportunities into a curriculum plan for our team across our department meetings, INSET days and the reading, exploring and reflecting that happens in-between those.

3. Teach or Provide Opportunities for Input

As I said above, we can’t just assume learning will happen. We need to create opportunities, so actually delivering material to our colleagues, calling on others to deliver, sharing reading, podcasts, videos or other ways to provide new learning. Not everyone has access to this or is in a position to make time for it, so again we need to help create it. There is also a wealth of information available out there, but we don’t want people to feel overwhelmed, especially when starting out in an area, so some curation can help. There will be a huge amount of expertise in your team of course or in other schools in the area, so making use of those is going to be significant. There is sometimes nothing more powerful than seeing someone you know understands your context or is delivering these ideas day in day out in the classroom with all the pressures it brings. Don’t be afraid to bring in new ideas too. Hearing something brand new can be reinvigorating and when you are able to visit other schools don’t underestimate how important this can be.

4. Mark Again or Rather ‘Assess’ the Progress

We need to have opportunities to assess the impact of this curriculum, again just as we would with our students’ learning. We need to return to the issues our department curriculum is aiming to address and then look at the progress and refine as need be. Did the professional learning undertake actually have the desired impact? So, if you have had people in your team attending CPD sessions or reading up on retrieval practice are you seeing firstly that this is happening, but secondly that it is making a difference to student outcomes. What do you notice about the way students retain information and the impact it is having on them?

And as they say, rinse and repeat.

We should plan this carefully, preferably with our team to ensure they have some agency here, focus on our aims. Then provide some input, either in a meeting, during an observation of a colleague, reading or research and then we ‘mark’ our progress, before we once again return to the plan in our cycle to see what needs to be refined. This process may happen over a term, a week or alternatively a whole school year or even longer. The whole point of continuous professional development is that ongoing continuous nature which needs to be encouraged and having clarity around what you want to achieve and the steps you will take to achieve it, is important.

We want the best for our students and we also want the best for our teams. Evidence indicates that teachers who feel supported to develop are happier, have better outcomes for their students and generally are more likely to remain in the profession. If we think carefully about how we are doing this not only across the whole school but with our teams, then we can only be doing a good thing.

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