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Teacher Titles: how to be a good Head of Year

Updated: Feb 13

What makes a good Secondary School Head of Year?

I distinctly remember the first time I landed my first pastoral promotion at my current school. It was 8 years ago and I had worked there for a few years. I felt comfortable with the school, the staff and the pupils and knew I was ready for something new. Something more than just being a Tutor.

Firstly, I think positions like this require an element of luck and timing. In the time I had been at the school, I could probably have counted the number of Head of Year vacancies that had arisen on one board marker stained hand. It’s just one of those roles people tend to stay in. For a long time. I turned into one of those people. Secondly, I have to stress that I was working at a good Independent School. That doesn’t mean the behaviour was perfect, by the way. Private Schools still have bullies, alcohol issues and penises sketched around campus. Even on 19th Century oak tables.

But I loved it. Every year I worked with frustrated students, staff and parents. No email could ever be pasted, even if I maintained the same positive message of support. No phone could ever go the same way, even if I leaned on previous experiences for support. It was a CPD heavy role, that’s for sure. Just without the booking fee and train journey.

I knew a few colleagues that have moved on to other schools and they had embraced the pastoral route and are embarking on their own Head of Year roles now. They messaged me to ask for my tips and advice. I loved the conversations I had with them, listening to their doubts and their worries. The title above seems to be a regular search, so I figured I’d share a little bit of my experience here. Of course, every school is different and the interpretation of job roles can differ, but I believe the following 5 tips are helpful for anybody working pastorally in a school.

1) The Holding Email

Sometimes something lands and you have no choice but to get straight to it. Archie has punched Ollie on the Astro. Tillie’s just stormed out of Physics and told Sir he was the worst teacher she’s ever seen. It happens and within minutes or hours, you’ll have calmed down the student/staff member, given parents a call and patched things up in the hope the world can resume the next day. Which will probably be Thursday. These things always happened to me on Wednesday. But sometimes your inbox will ping with one that can wait. As long you handle it well.

In tray example: Reception email you to tell you ‘Mrs Nelson has called: her daughter is being completely wasted in the current Maths set and she demands a move right away. It is unacceptable and she wants a call. She had this issue 5 years ago in Primary School too.’ You could of course call her right away, cancel the overdue marking session you had pencilled in on Monday and endure the same words repeated down the phone for 15 minutes. Or you could email Mrs Nelson, thank her for the call, let her know you are teaching all afternoon, but to email you the reasons she is ‘suggesting’ the move.

Hold your nerve, don't make bold claims you will call her ‘first thing’. Be realistic and honest. With such matters I would need to talk to the student, teacher and Deputy Head anyway. Let her know that. You aren’t going to solve this one in a day, so there’s no immediate rush. Chances are, she will be much calmer the next day too. Something will have triggered it and, as long as you have made the effort to send a thoughtful holding email, that parent will be comforted that you can and you will look into this for her tomorrow.

2) Always maintain positivity

Easier said than done, I know. We all know those colleagues in the Common Room that walk around campus with a spring in their step, stopping to say hello, genuinely asking and caring how you are. You know the ones I mean, they are sometimes so smiley it’s uncomfortable. The kids love them too. But some really heavy conversations will be coming your way every working day as a Head of Year. You’re a great pastoral leader so you’ll be confidently working through them, always learning as you go.

But remember, no matter how heavy they are, no matter how many tears you’ve seen that day, it’s just work. You may have read that and grimaced. Perhaps you live your days through your students - their successes and failures, their detentions and awards. I just think the ability to separate yourself from the emotion is so, so important. It links to the previous point above too. Taking stock. Taking a moment, a day. Processing. And remember, no matter how negative the situation seems, your calm positivity will always shine through. An upset staff member, an emotional parent. Step back, consider their motive. Chances are you are on the same side.

3) Plan for the pinch points

It’s deep, dark November. It’s dark when you drive in. It’s dark when you get back in your car again. Some things are timeless. So are the wheels falling off for certain students in the final weeks of half terms. This one in particular for me. You can wait around for those emails to land, of course. Or you can be as pro-active as possible to try to ensure they don’t happen.

Sometimes, try as we might, we can’t prevent. Kids need to make mistakes. It’s healthy for them after all. I’m thinking more the scuffle on the Astro in the final week as tempers flare over little Charlie Timms’ shirt getting ripped as he bombed down the wing to whip a cross in. I’ll generally spend my lunchtime (yes, even if I am not on lunchtime duty that day) wandering these areas at certain times of the year. Just in case. My presence may not stop a flashpoint, but it might make it easier to tidy up if I witnessed it firsthand.

4) Choose your communication wisely

A quick email? A phone call home? Sometimes how busy you are will decide this for you. But when you have the ability to take a little time over a situation, consider the parent’s perspective. Part of this is knowing your parents, of course.

Over time, you will get to know their style. You’ll know if they are as measured and reflective as you are, even if things have gone badly. You’ll know if they are more demanding and, if you don’t get to them before their lovely child does in the car home, you’ll open your laptop in the morning to a stinging email copying all the big guns in; the Head, all the Deputies, School Reception and probably the student themselves, just for good measure. For me this links back to Point 1. Even in a difficult situation, a good holding email, assuring them of your specific actions before calling them tomorrow, will go a long way.

5) Avoid the corridors:

I like to think I am one of the staff members I mentioned in Point 2. I’m always smiley, I take the time to listen to people and I am a positive person. As a close colleague would tell you though, I’m not sociable. I don’t sit in the staff room to take in a good crossword and I’m not always first to say yes to a department get together. Sometimes I’m last. Sometimes I politely decline. This is because of a point I made earlier, I believe in a bit of distance sometimes.

In my experience, teachers that get together, no matter the venue, well….they moan. They can’t not talk about work. I don’t take my work home with me. I believe firmly in work/life balance. If I feel a certain gathering around school will result in Mr Brookes banging on about one of my year group over asking me what my plans for Christmas are, I’ll be on my way home before they’ve cracked open the first packet of crisps.

It’s the same with corridor conversations. I promote stealth mode. Get out of the corridors at choice times. Staff will stop you. Even if you pretend to be busy. Even if you’re building up a bit of pace. Your year group…..Phil, I’ve just put Button in a detention because….These will happen every day if you let them, especially at key times in a term (See Point 4). Reports deadline looming? Parents Evening last night? Keep away from the corridors.

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