7 Tips for Primary Subject Leaders

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As we all mentally steel ourselves for the September classroom, lots of us will be going in as subject leaders. For those doing it for the first time, this can be as bamboozling as it is exciting. As a subject leader, you hover delicately between classroom footsoldier and school leader, and it can require an intricate balance. As a teacher, you know how busy teachers are, then as a subject leader, you know that lots needs to be done and it requires a group effort.

I am still relatively fresh to it and am going into my third year coordinating Geography at my school, which is a 1,000 pupil primary in East London. Here is my random smattering of tips and ditties.

1 – Know Your Role
Being a subject leader in your school can mean something very different to being a subject leader in other schools. I had friends in smaller schools where pretty much everybody was in charge of something, and the expectation on them was to manage resourcing the subject, and each teacher planned independently. I have friends in other schools where being a subject leader was primarily about accountability, having a designated person to keep tabs on how well the curriculum was being delivered. In my own school, the responsibility of a subject leader is to ensure that high quality planning and teaching is taking place, either by scouting out brilliant plans, writing them yourself or equipping teachers with the confidence and capability to provide strong lesson plans themselves.

Learn what is generally expected of subject leaders in your school. Don’t feel completely shackled to this expectation. If not much is expected of your subject, you should fight for its role and you can lead the fightback! Having a clear idea of what your senior leadership team expects will set you off in the correct direction.

2 – Beware Wheel Reinvention
I know my own tendency to prefer to do things from scratch – for me it feels good to do that, but I really underestimated how much time and effort I dedicated at first to simply doing what was already done by the previous coordinator. Take time to look through your entire inheritance. I got a cupboard full of maps, lesson plans, work samples and schemes for geography spanning back to the year of my birth. I purged it like a Corbynite and cast lots into the bin. Then later on, when I realised that that scruffy pile of stuff represented a decade of inherited expertise, I felt like something of a tool.

See the big picture at the top of the blog. That is what I saw last week in Fethiye in Turkey. An ancient dilapidated Greek amphitheatre was torn down and replaced with a concrete one. They have an amphitheatre now that is in ‘better condition’ but it has lost its beauty because it ignores the history of those thousand year old bits of intricately carved rubble. Don’t do that to your subject.

3 – Own It
There is a quite alarming point as a subject leader where you fully recognise the impact of your efforts, for better or worse. Mine was when I was quizzing my Year 5s and they demonstrating an abysmal knowledge of location – Which continent is Scotland? – and the. I realised… If they don’t know stuff because there are gaps in our curriculum, their weak knowledge is my fault. The positive version of this is when you spent time putting together a scheme of work with the teachers in a year group and then you hear the kids talking animatedly about climate change and how they can remedy society’s ills.

Own your subject. If you don’t promote it, nothing will get done. If you don’t support teachers, they won’t necessarily improve. Your role, as a subject leader in the primary school, is to be the face and the voice for your subject. You want to get to the point where the teachers are coming to you to ask random questions that show an engagement – our science coordinator regularly has to field questions about molecular models from teachers who struggle to explain it to kids as coherently as they would like. Own your subject and represent it well.

4 – Provide Opportunities
Teachers like learning, and given the pressures on schools to use their INSET time for school-based organisational training, many teachers feel rightly that they are getting a raw deal when it comes to CPD. As a subject leader, you can help scout out further opportunities for your colleagues to boost their skills and knowledge. You’d be surprised how many will take you up on it even in their own time. I set up a Global Issues Group of 8 staff from KS1 and KS2 and we collaboratively planned a themed week of Global Learning. 6 colleagues joined me at an after school event delivered by Ordnance Survey to build cartographical literacy.

By finding these opportunities, whether or not you provide the training or support yourself, you are actively improving the quality of the teaching in your subject. Colleagues who are actively engaged in your subject convey that passion when they are teaching it.

5 – Be Seen
So much subject leadership is spent in front of a screen – planning, researching, organising, ordering, monitoring and so on. It is important that your efforts are recognised and not only for egotistical professional reasons. You need to make your leadership visible – speak up in meetings about your subject, celebrate your colleagues’ successes and advertise the fact that you are working on all sorts of stuff. If you aren’t seen to be doing things in our accountability-driven school climate, you might as well not be doing them.

In our school teachers took part in a questionnaire designed to work out what they perceive to be the most practical use of their INSET time. Subject-specific training featured heavily. Our teachers feel most comfortable and confident teaching a subject that they receive regular training for – you can provide that regular training, either by getting in external support or by leading them yourself, which is less daunting the more you do it.

6 – Spectacle
Make a spectacle of your subject in some way. Have something that very clearly communicates ‘In our school, the subject I lead is important, interesting and invigorating.’ For history, our coordinator annually works with Year 2 on the Great Fire of London, and then all 1000 kids come out into the playground to see a fire tear through all the Tudor cardboard buildings they made. Our music coordinator puts on a termly Recital with the schools’ musicians. Our maths coordinator organises for expert mathematicians to come in and work with teachers and she plans themed weeks for the whole school.

The spectacle is not everything and the quality of your leadership of the subject should be based on the quotidian day in day out teaching of your subjects. The spectacle is important though, as it is a public display of your values and the kind of approach you wish to take to your subject.

7 – Enjoy It
Enjoyment is infectious and as teachers we are not that different to our kids. If someone tells you how great something is with a face like a bag of nails and then just leaves you empty handed to get on with it… you distrust them, care less about what thy preach and do less. If someone clearly has enthusiasm, expertise and a passion to promote their subject, people tend to listen in.

Think of it this way. As a subject leader, you have the privilege of owning a little block of the life of the school. You are helping to shape what the kids come to see as important – indirectly, and sometimes directly, you are affecting the learning of kids in your school from EYFS right up to KS2. You are the leader of your subject, and that gives you creative license, freedoms and opportunities to innovate. It is enormously empowering and you have a responsibility to yourself, the kids and to the subject itself, to make it good.

Go forth and prosper!

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