Preparing to Lead a Geography Department: 1. How do you get ready and apply?

Being a Middle Leader is a challenging task, to be sure, but one that can bring real satisfaction and reward for those who want to be involved in academic leadership and work within their subjects.

However, unlike in some other Departments and subjects, there are very few opportunities to take a formal role in which you can apprentice towards subject leadership in Geography careers. We don’t tend to have second in Department roles very often, so how can you understand some of the challenges of the job, or prove to an interviewing panel that you are ready for it?

The first thing to do is to understand the different components of an academic Middle Leadership role. Once you’ve done that, then you can look to demonstrate the competencies in different areas: explore what is already in your tool kit, or experiences. Of course, every school will have different perspectives and weighting, so this is some generalised thinking based on my experience of what people are looking for in general, and “at best”. I don’t think (m)any aspiring HoDs tick all the boxes on this list, and you shouldn’t feel you have to do that either! But recognising the breadth of the toolkit, and all the components that you *could* work on – hopefully – is a positive experience. It gives you areas where you can focus, strengthen and develop, even if you can’t develop other ones right now!

Academic and subject confidence/passion. 

First, and foremost, you are your subject. You should be able to represent it confidently in talking to students, parents, prospective students, prospective parents. You should be able to explain why it matters for an options choice – without even talking about the other considerations. We don’t persuade people to do Geography because there’s no future in History (one of my favourites!) – we should be able to be eloquent about why Geography matters in principle. You should be able to inspire students about your subject. You don’t have to be the world’s best public speaker – but you should be an excellent classroom teacher – and be able to inspire other teachers, too.

Often, Geographers get confused with other subjects or themes – I don’t mean that you’re well travelled, or that you’re a conservationist/Extinction Rebellion member. Those things are fine – of course they are! – but they aren’t what it means to be an academic Geographer, particularly if you’re applying for an ambitious and academic school: it’s about understanding, exploring the connections, showing the awareness of scale, place, space and interconnections. 

How do you show that? Well, you’ll probably need evidence of a Geography degree – or strongly related, to start with. At more academic schools, that is likely to be straight Geography. You may have additional qualifications (e.g. a Masters’, further education) in your discipline – an MA in Educational Leadership etc. is for aspiring SLT, in my opinion, rather than making you a better subject leader! Are you a Physical Geographer? A Human Geographer? Know your topics, strengths, weaknesses, understand how the courses are taught and which areas you’d want to read up on. Read up. Show you care about your subject – are you a member of the GA? The RGS? The Chartered College of Teaching? Have you got Twitter, a blog – how do you engage with the world? What books have you read recently for interest? What did they teach you? How do you keep in touch with the subject – as an adult, not at student level – and show your interest. In an ideal world, you should have coached and supported students to transition beyond your work, too – have you got experience of advice on UCAS and subject applications for Geography?

Responsibility for Academic Performance, and Tracking

Being a Head of Department is more than just being a great teacher. Ultimately, you need to be accountable for the outcomes of students, either directly in your own teaching, or in the teaching across your Department. This means you have to be able to understand student performance – think about assessment, what it shows, tracking and supporting progress – and to deal with the top, middle and bottom end challenges of students who want to be inspired to excellence, students who need to be strongly supported to achieve their best, and to support those who have somehow fallen behind where you know you can be. In an ideal world, you might have some specialist insight – have you been an examiner? Have you done moderation, or NEA courses, or approaches that help you consolidate your experience beyond just your current school? 

Some of this is the kind of experience that’s hard to get formally. First, and perhaps most important to my mind, I think you’ll probably need to have shown you can deliver exam results yourself – whether at KS4 or KS5 depends on your context and school. And that context matters, and you should explain it. A brilliant teacher who has got great results consistently in an 11-16 school would, to my mind, be a safer bet to recruit as a HoD than a teacher who has got inconsistent outcomes in an 11-18 context. It’s up to you to define “great results” – you’ll need to explain the changes you’ve made, or the improvement against your own context. If you show you’re adding value – however that’s defined in results, or recruitment for subject – that’s the key thing. 

Second, you want to be able to show that you can understand what would be needed to manage and see ‘the bigger picture’. You may be able to ‘co-ordinate’ a Key Stage as a development point – running the curriculum, or ensuring people are on track. I’d want to show evidence of thinking about data – not saying you have to be an Excel wizard, but you need to be confident that you can understand and use data as a tool to inform your knowledge of your students. If you can’t run a Key Stage, think about what you “would” do – and what thinking you’ve done. There’s a huge literature out there – do you read any of it? Do you know what the options are? Have you got opinions – maybe even done some ResearchEd Home conferences, or some Seneca Learn online CPD? To an extent, you’ll have to do whatever the school does – but you want to be able to site that within some wider framework of your values, your perspectives and your thinking about data, management and assessment. You want to be able to give specific examples of ways that you have monitored, supported and delivered for students within your context, and know how that would apply to a wider team. 

Third, I think that should sit within a wider context of thinking about pedagogy, values and vision. You should know what’s important to you, and why. Whether you’re progressive/traditionalist, a fan of Rosenshine, Michaela and Lemov, or you idolise Sir Ken – it doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is that you do think, you have thought about it, and that you’re able to articulate your views on education and how you want to contribute to it. This should be a key part of your application process, I feel – you want to make sure that you’re the “right person for the right place”. There’s no point being a dyed in the wool progressive, and applying to Michaela. You won’t fit. There’s not a “good” or “bad” narrative – it’s about fit. To an extent, Middle Leaders are a little less ‘fit critical’ than Senior Leaders, in my opinion – you can work within a system and be a little more maverick and experimental – but it’s still something to be aware of, think about and consider. This should come out in your cover letter/application – it’ll be key to developing your Department vision, and the relationships you want to build. 

Leadership & Management of People

This means – ultimately – that you’re going to have to be responsible for leading and managing people, and a Department. 

A number of the “management” experiences will not be things you can necessarily do elsewhere – HR, for example. However, lots of the key components of management and leadership *can* be obtained through other experiences in schools: perhaps in the pastoral sense, perhaps in running a club, extra-curricular event or experience, or sports team. This is also where whatever your life before/outside of school can be really relevant – if you have previous career experience, or if you have club/hobby skills that can be brought in to the environment. A trip or visit might give you budgeting experience; a sectional responsibility might help you to understand how to organise resources, or do administrative tasks. Leading a volunteer group might help you show some components of this, too. Think about how you manage time, workload and responsibilities – how do you delegate? How would you describe your organisation skills? If you want to consider the bigger picture of this, then I think reading Kat Howard’s book on wellbeing is an excellent starting point. 

Ideally, you want to show that somewhere, you’ve actually been responsible for a group of people and getting them to achieve a task. HoDs have to line manage their teams: coaching them, thinking about their development, but also monitoring, supporting and helping them to progress on the journey. In this way, you’ll be able to tackle the conceptual questions of how you deal with difficult situations, or how you hold people to account. How do you support people? What’s your style? What’s your way of dealing with issues? If you’ve got specific examples and experiences to draw on in interview, then that’s a great bonus! You can read lots of leadership models from the business world, and get drawn in – and plenty of people make a living out of leadership philosophies of education, too. Dip your toe if you want; but be aware that it’s a huge pool, and you might easily find yourself thinking far too much about concepts, when you want to be developing your expertise and experience. Personally, I’d recommend Sam Strickland’s work (Headteacher of the Duston School, amongst many other things), and I think that’s heavily linked to the wider work of Simon Sinek (leadership theorist). Have a read of “The Infinite Game”, or look through his TED talks (Start with Why, Trusting Teams). 

I think it’s also important to think about the distinction between “leadership” and “management”. The latter, to my mind, is how you get something done. Leadership is about figuring out what you want to do, and inspiring people to join you on it. As a HoD, you’ll be responsible for leadership AND management – creating a vision, a philosophy and team that wants to go to a destination with you. Leadership is a choice, and an active component; not just conferred on you when you are appointed as a HoD. This is very likely to involve change. Inevitably, there will be change to manage – whether that’s academic, curriculum, or style of teaching. Have you got experience of leading change, and understanding the dynamics of that? How can you show it, and understand the need to manage it sensitively, and with consideration of your team? Again, if you haven’t got practical experience, think about what you can read, study and consider in principle. I’m a huge fan of Capt. L David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around” – there are some great TED/Google talks, and his work is based on Stephen Covey’s 7 Principles, which you may also enjoy. For me, this comes again to your subject enthusiasm and experience – what do you believe Geography is about, and what you can achieve as a Department?  

Nice to Have: Fieldwork Experience

One of the ‘big things’ that Geography Departments, and HoDs in particular, are linked to and associated with is fieldwork. To an extent, this will be very context specific – some places will have an extensive and developed fieldwork programme for all year groups, with “awe and wonder trips” to Iceland, or Kenya, or wherever. 

If that’s the kind of school you are applying to, it helps to have experience of fieldwork. There are a number of different levels of experience you might have. At the lowest level, that’s participating (local, residential, international) and being able to say that you’ve been on trips and delivered NEA etc. Stepping up from that, you can show experience of leadership of trips and budgets (local, residential, international), or the academic combination of teaching course work and controlled assessment, designing resources and embedding fieldwork in to teaching. These are potentially things you can volunteer for and become involved with, even when you’re not a HoD – in fact, often, HoDs love other people running their trips!

Nice to Have: Wider Experience

Of course, no teacher – or HoD – exists solely within their Department. You are normally expected to play a part in the wider life of the school. Think about what that, and those roles have taught you about leadership, or about what you can bring to the role as a middle leader. Whether you’ve been a tutor, or been involved in cross-curricular activities and projects, these are sources of skill development and evidence of your potential as a middle leader. Even better if you can show ‘change management’ experience in a different context – this is how I introduce a Debating Club, or an Eco-Society, or a… something. 

Really Nice to Have: Whole-School Experience

One of the biggest steps in to Middle Leadership is that you have to work within and recognise the whole school context. Your Department is your domain, but it will sit within a wider framework of development for the whole school, and you will need to manage a multitude of competing interests at different levels. For some people, it’ll be about defending your Department from threats – others about expanding and dealing with wider concerns – and however you do that, there are times when it’s helpful to have some whole-school project experience.

Look to see if there are things running you can be part of: research groups, working groups, committees, tasks or parts of your school’s Development Plan that you are keen to action. The more you can practice that strategic mindset, and operating at the whole-school level, the easier you’ll find it to do and talk about as a HoD.

Reflections:

I don’t know how many people are ever “ready” to be a HoD and step in to the role perfectly formed. It takes time, and experience to build up your competence – and the support and coaching of an excellent peer team to become confident with it. 

I’ve shared my thoughts on what you might think about – and I’d stress that these are definitely only my own thoughts from a perspective of working in relatively small ranges of schools! If this has helped, you’ve got questions, or you want to add – please do comment & get in touch – would love to hear your ideas!

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