Recently I’ve been asked advice by a few people who have been charged with turning around under-performing departments. I wouldn’t say I was an exert but I have some experience of this having run 2 departments in different schools and improving outcomes for students, by identifiying, utilising and developing the strengths of my team, in each case.
As result of recent conversations I was originally going to write a checklist for things that I’d recommend, based on my own experience and observing other successful leaders, for improving a department. However it has now morphed into what I would consider the most important things that all leaders need to do upon being put in a new situation or faced with a new problem.
I am a child of the 80s and remember having road safety talks galore in primary school. The slogan we had to remember to avoid being knocked down by a bus was “Stop, Look and Listen,” I’d like to propose that it’s also a handy thing to remember in leadership.
Stop –In leadership people have often been promoted because they know their stuff, its tempting to want to rush in and change things, especially if you are new and want to prove yourself. It’s also common for people to come to you wth problems that they want solving, sometimes its quick and easy to give them the answer but quite often it may not be the right thing to do, especially in the long run. In many situations it is actually best to be counter- intuitive and do nothing initially, not indefinitely, which brings me to the next point.
Look- The reason why I’d advocate pausing before action is that it gives you time to look around. Assess the situation. How can you solve a problem or improve a situation when you don’t have all of the facts? Maybe you were going to implement a new marking policy because thats what made you successful in your last school but actually if you’d taken time to speak to staff and students you’d realise that marking in your new place is brilliant- its the fact that teachers ask too many lower order, or closed questions in lessons that is holding up learning. So how can you appraise the situation? Literally look, look at lessons, look at work, look at assessments, look at data, look at responses from pupil or parent voice, look at anything that will give you information about te situation that you wish to improve. Don’t forget to look slightly beyond your own parameters, you are head of Science? So what, go and see what is happening in other departments- maybe they do things better than you or maybe its a school wide issue. What’s happening in your region? What’s happening nationally?
In this section I can not stress enought the importance of asking questions. People mistakenly think that leaders have to be some type of oracle with all the answers. Wrong. Nobody knows everything, the best leaders, just like the best teachers, know how to ask brilliant questions. I have learnt to ask questions that I do not know the answer to but that will help me and the people concerned get to the truth and from that to develop a solution together.
Listen-Who should you be putting these brilliant questions that mentioned the above to? It depends on the situation but in brand new situations, especially ones where there is a lot at stake, I’d say every man and his dog. Sure, ask staff but don’t forget students and parents too. Be careful to remember non- teaching staff too. They are often slightly more objective , because they deal with a mixture of departments they also notice patterns that aren’t immediately apparent to others. Talk to visitors to the school. Ask counterparts in other schools, ask advice from people outside of education. When these people talk to you listen, not for the words that validate what you already think or what you have decided to do before talking to them but to what they have to say that will lead you to the truth and a better way of doing things- even if that means proving yourself wrong. Here I’d like to recommend an excellent book related to asking better questions as a leader in any sector Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership) by Michael J. Marquardt.
Having done the above you are now equipped with enough information to improve things. Depending upon the issue, the time period may change. In small daily situations the above may be done in 5mins but going back to my original reason for writing the post (those wishing to turn around a department) I’d say it should be something that you do for 2- 4 weeks as it sets the tone for the type of leader you will be. Somebody who seeks the truth and real, sustained improvement for students not just a person keen to implement unneccessary or ineffective change in order to justify your existence.