Getting ahead

Shortly after being appointed as Head of Geography at my new school, I drafted a post with the intention of sharing my experience with those who may be looking at making their steps towards similar promotions. I deliberately didn’t post it at the time as contracts and such like were confirmed. Having rediscovered the draft, I have tried to tidy up the tenses to publish it now – my apologies if I have missed any and suggested some kind of time travel!

As a child my mother used to tell me that I was always trying to run before I could walk. In truth, I did progress from slithering around to walking, albeit clumsily, very quickly. Given such a mindset it comes as little surprise that I have harboured desires for promotion since I was training to be a teacher. This ambition had been tempered a little in recent years by the comfort of working in a school which I enjoyed being a part of, making me happier to wait a little longer for that internal opportunity, rather than scouting the job adverts constantly in search of new horizons.

Whilst not actively looking for jobs, I would have the occasional look just to see what was happening, as much out of curiosity as anything else. I supposed that if something jumped out at me then that may change things. Well in January, a job did jump out at me: Head of Geography at the school which I did my first teacher training placement at. I always thought that I’d like to work there and what harm would there be to apply and test the water? Then on a temporary TLR and having fallen short of an internal pastoral appointment, it would be informative if nothing else, to see how I benchmarked against other candidates.

So apply I did and having always been capable of putting in a really good covering letter, I wasn’t overly surprised to be shortlisted for interview. The nerves commenced. Naturally I did some thinking about the role and prepared some ideas for how I would fulfil it. Despite training at the school, I arranged to visit and try and fill in what has happened since I left. As chance would have it, it was an Assistant Headteacher who I’d trained with who gave the tour. The vibes were good and the department had great potential; it could be a really good challenge.

In the process of applying I discovered that a really good friend who I’d trained with was also applying and he had also been shortlisted. Come the day of the interview it transpired that we were the only two attending. Knowing just how good he was, it did nothing for the nerves. At least, I thought, I knew that if I was unsuccessful that the job had gone to somebody I rate really highly.

A day of reckoning

The school was really welcoming and the Headteacher made a point of introducing herself before the formal process began. The first task was to prepare a presentation which you would give at the start of the formal interview. The subject of the presentation was your vision and priorities as Head of Geography. Given the preparation I’d done, I was well-placed and confident to do this. I might even go so far to say that I enjoyed it.

Next up was the lesson, which I always worry about most. I appreciate that as a middle leader one needs to have a reasonably clear view on outstanding teaching and learning, but I can’t help but believe that it is still highly subjective, especially when you don’t restrict your view of teaching purely to that defined by Ofsted. I very much wanted to keep things simple as I only had 25-minutes. I think you need to show thoughtful planning, clear delivery and the ability to build excellent relationships with learners. Engagement and pace are also critical, but the trickiest part is how you tackle the issue of demonstrating progress. In my planning I made it very clear that this would be assessed through questioning, debriefing and the completed worksheets. Indeed during the interview, which I will turn to shortly, I stuck my neck on the line by stating my views on demonstrating progress, making my views clear about learners somehow being able to accurately rate their own progress after twenty-five minutes through some form of traffic lights, or level ladder, or thumbs up/down. I think it is important to have clear principles that guide you and I certainly made mine clear!

With the lesson out of the way, it was just the interview left. As I said, I felt that I was well-prepared and that I would be able to communicate what I was all about clearly. I gave my presentation, which seemed to be well received by the panel. I don’t think its appropriate to share exact questions that I was asked after the presentation, nor can I remember all of them anyway, but here are some of the topics which arose:

  • How my teaching career has developed and how I would define it – I said that I placed an emphasis on relationships, with learners and colleagues, looking to ensure that they find geography engaging and enjoyable.
  • What I consider my leadership style to be – providing support and direction, collaborating with people and leading by example.
  • An example of my leadership – I talked about a successful school exchange trip which I had led, which involved the complexity of meeting the needs of a range of stakeholders including learners, colleagues, senior management, support staff, parents and other schools. It also required careful planning. Ultimately again it was about building positive relationships to ensure everything ran smoothly.
  • What my priorities would be as head of department – I said that my first priority, which was continuous, was building a strong and successful team; my short-term priority was introducing the new exam specifications successfully; my longer term challenges were helping to meet English Baccalaureate recruitment whilst making Geography accessible, ensuring KS3 engages learners and supports future success, and building external links to support learners and staff.
  • How I would respond and manage the challenge of the new specifications for Geography at GCSE and A-level – working collaboratively, within the department and beyond the school was essential. I pointed to my experience of delivering Sociology as a new A-level to me and Government & Politics as a brand new A-level at my current school, as evidence that I could take the challenge on intellectually and practically.
  • How I would assure the quality of my department – I discussed methods such as lesson observation and book scrutiny. I said that the most important thing was instilling a culture that such activities were intended to be supportive and not intrusive.
  • What was my view on moving to setting classes by ability – I said that I had experience of setting and mixed-ability classes and could see the benefits and drawbacks of each. Knowing that setting was something the school was looking towards, I said that I would be happy to go with setting so long as there was flexibility to meet the specific needs of individual learners in terms of support, behaviour and so on.
  • How would I deal with an underperforming member of staff I said that this was again a question of leadership style and of ensuring that staff are given the support that they need. When asked what would happen if the support didn’t work, I answered that it would be an issue to escalate to senior leadership.
  • What kind of CPD would I need – the fact that this question was being asked at interview was interesting in itself. At a time when some schools are cutting back on CPD, it was refreshing to know that resources would be available. I said that I wasn’t huge fan of the day-long training course as some kind of silver bullet, preferring instead CPD opportunities which emphasised implementing new initiatives and building a network of support which can be drawn on into the future.

There were also questions about difficult parents and the usual safeguarding questions together with questions on diversity and equal opportunities. I wasn’t sure how long it lasted but wasn’t feeling too beaten up by the end of it.

My friend and I had agreed to have a quick post-match drink after we’d both finished, which we did, although the nerves of waiting for a phone call didn’t make it the easiest of social occasions. I have never enjoyed waiting for anything, but I wasn’t expecting a phone call quite so soon. In fact I was driving on the motorway and luckily was able to take the call on speaker phone, having to apologise if it sounded like I was shouting! It was then a case of trying to maintain lane discipline as I was told that I had been successful and that the job was mine. To make the ending of the story even happier, a week or so later I found out that my friend had been successful as getting his own Head of Department role at another school.

What lies ahead?

Having had something of a ‘smorgasbord’ job that developed over the past four years, including teaching two new subjects at A-level and a responsibility for Geography at Key Stage 3, it is interesting to focus entirely on Geography once again in the new job. There’s plenty of work to do, but there is an opportunity to make a real impact by ensuring that in a period of substantial change, learners can still enjoy and achieve in geography and colleagues can feel supported and successful.

Bittersweet success

I had a good vibe about the school and this was only enhanced by the interview day. I had been looking forward to the new challenge since my appointment and have really enjoyed the role since September. That said I was in the position that I was very happy at my current school, I enjoyed working with the vast majority of the pupils and I continue have so many great friends amongst the staff. I had some amazing opportunities such as the opportunity to teach Sociology (unsought-after but enjoyable) and Government & Politics (strived for and relished); trips to Martha’s Vineyard, Italy and New York; the chance to coach a football team; getting involved in staff training; mentoring PGCE students and hosting numerous performing arts showcases. It would have been easy, perhaps too easy to have stayed, but sometimes you need a change to help shake things up.  I like to think that I left on a high and am keeping in touch with people, both professionally and personally.

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