The visible and invisible HOD

It’s endlessly inspiring to see the honesty and generosity of teachers who share so readily their classroom practice and leadership efforts in blogs, tweets and anything else that exposes these experiences to critique and conversation on social media. We’re an incredibly brave profession for sharing and being open to debate.

On Friday I enjoyed spending a day with fifteen music teachers from across the UK and beyond (one from Munich) to explore GCSE composing. I’ve not grown bored of spending a day with teachers and exploring approaches that will help develop confidence in working with a diverse range of pupils to write effective music for GCSE. Over the several years I’ve delivered these courses I still find myself very nervous before: just like in the classroom, I can’t deliver the same lesson twice. I keep tweaking, modifying and responding to the teachers in the room.

I always treat the teachers like pupils; I don’t explain activities until after we have completed them. I love seeing the collective bravery to do them. There’ll be the odd teacher who is a little reticent, would rather have a quiet day and be given a chunky pack of material they can take back for “immediate use” whilst there is always a group who are energised, dive in and take everything seriously. I love seeing how this latter group subsequently energises the first group.

I enjoy seeing that moment when teachers realise how their Year 9s must feel on a Friday afternoon when they set the class a creative task. It’s demanding to have to engage in this way in Music, and teachers can lose that perspective when they’re not engaging in rapid music-making themselves. Classroom Music is a rather rapid version of the music world, and we expect pupils to switch into this musically creative mode rather urgently when they arrive at music lessons. It does take planning and skill to create the environment for a class music lesson to work well. Working with teachers has made me work more at this moment of switching to musical-learning mode, and how the starts of my lessons develop the right kind of attitude, behaviour and thinking to enable the creative work to flow.

Working with teachers is demanding. They’re an unscrupulous group who are highly aware of the efficacy of what you’re saying and are ready to debate and critique. Standing up and sharing one’s philosophy, vision and approaches to teaching is a rewarding test of these ideas. You get instant feedback and instant challenge. I love that. Getting questions is wonderful, but equally what I enjoy is seeing the camaraderie of the delegates grow. By the end of the day they’re often sharing contact details and chatting about their work and lives as if they’re old friends.

I’ve met nearly three hundred music teachers over the last few years who have attended my courses. Many more if I include those I’ve met through conferences or smaller sessions I’ve delivered. It’s such an exciting profession for how we love to share generously and behave with collective intelligence. We are spoilt for choice with music subject associations that seek to champion this collective intelligence, and thanks to the Chartered College of Teaching I think we have found a coherent professional body that is the right forum for channeling teacher agency. I’ve grown as a teacher since its inception. I hope more continue to join and see this is the best vehicle for creating a hive of excellent expert teachers.

The Chartered Teacher Programme pilot will come to an end in March 2019. I have enjoyed this programme immensely and felt it has been a natural extension of my working life and my approach to teaching. I can’t recommend it enough, and I think the challenge of completing assignments and examinations amidst a demanding year is a testament to expert teachers: we do our utmost to juggle the multifarious demands of the role and it seems crazy to add yet another ball to juggle, or plate to spin. I guarantee you’ll be pleased you did. Despite it feeling a very visible course it surprised my how invisible it can be in your working life as the changes to practice might not be ones colleagues will glimpse immediately. But it definitely develops over the course, as more and more ideas filter into your practice you’ll find yourself talking with increasing enthusiasm about classroom practice and with a feeling of increased credibility as you’ll feel the impressive weight of the speakers and content provided in the Chartered Teacher Programme. I implore you to share your experiences and make colleagues aware you’re doing the programme as it’ll pique their interest immensely.

Why invisible and visible? After reading from a blog post about a HOD’s experiences they mentioned staff come to see you lots and ask advice. They do. This is the best part of being a HOD and one I think can be underrepresented in the job description and timetable allowance. Being available and able to listen are key. I’m still working on both of these. When you become invisible to the department a collective anxiety develops, and an over visibility can appear too inspectorial. But there is also the visibility of your role in promoting aspects of your department’s work (ensuring the work and your team are visible). When these things are visible you can sometimes be invisible, as the collective success might require gratitude to be placed on another member of the team’s shoulders and not your own as HOD. It’s not about us as an individual, but about us as HOD creating a team that succeeds for pupils. This might mean you become invisible so others can be seen.

My piano teacher used to describe the lessons like I were an apprentice clock maker. Each week I would go away with my antique clock and take it apart at home, tinkering with aspects of the mechanism and then rather than put it back together I would gather up the pieces and then display the dismantled clock to him for discussion. There is an intense vulnerability about sharing our dismantled clock, our work-in-progress. We normally keep all this invisible and only show the finished lesson, the finished schemes, the finished clock. I love the dismantled clock moments, making the usually invisible visible. The more we can actively seek opportunities to share our work-in-progress, reason our thinking through speaking with our colleagues I think the more we realise we’re on the right track. We also have opportunities to grow when our ideas are challenged. Being brave to hear the challenge and feedback is something I’m still working on.

Collaboration not competition. Collaboration involves being visible, whilst competition means being invisible to the competitor. It just takes one side to spread out the dismantled clock mechanism and direct others to the pieces that we’re working on and to invite contributions that illuminate aspects what we otherwise might miss. I was always convinced I would know what my piano teacher would say but every lesson he’d illuminate an aspect of the mechanism I’d missed. Being open to contributions that illuminate unknown opportunities for growth takes bravery. Music lessons create that resilient bravery to hear at times difficult feedback but as musicians we crave it. Only through difficult feedback can we grow. Only by making us see the previously unseen difficulties can they be consumed and tackled.

I think my CPD courses are very much like clock workshops. We start with me laying out the components of my antique clock and by the end of the day every table is covered in clock mechanisms. We all leave with a greater awareness of how the final clock will look, but we’re more enthused to spend time with the components until they’re working effortlessly. In fact I am sure we all leave with more questions than answers.

I really need to make this clock analogy invisible again. Bit too much?

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