Four ways to create a positive departmental culture

Middle leaders are often described as the key figures in making schools run effectively. Part of their power stems from creating a departmental culture, and the effect this has on the way a team of adults works.  It was fascinating to learn about how Dani Quinn (‘10 Ambassador) has sought to do this within her department.  In our recent visit, we spent time both with Dani and Saila, who teaches maths alongside her, and spoke to them about their departmental culture.

Sharing a love of the subject
Dani feels that she and her colleagues thrive, both in their enjoyment of working with children and a love of maths.  “We share that with each other and do a lot together to reinforce how much we enjoy maths and enjoy sharing it.”  One way of reinforcing this is continuing to learn about, and struggle with, maths themselves.  Dani’s colleague Saila explains that Dani: “Always comes with puzzles to the maths meetings.  So, we start off a maths meeting with a really difficult challenging puzzle and we all sit there for 20 minutes trying to work out this puzzle.  It’s for subject knowledge and also to see how we could introduce that with students and what challenges we’re facing, and when we give students these abstract type puzzles, what challenges they would face, and we’re a bit better prepared for it.”
Sharing planning
Both the school and the department walk a line between sharing key principles in planning, and enabling teachers to tailor lessons to their students’ needs.  Dani describes the planning as “very consistent, but very focused on thinking about the right sequencing of ideas, the right sequencing of examples and questions, and then a very open culture… a shared vision of what good teaching is without it being too prescriptive.”  Saila explains that Dani shares her expertise in planning: “Dani showed us how she goes about deciding a scheme of work.  Then, in that I could see where there was space for shared planning. What Dani tends to do is make all the slides and flip charts for the lessons on the scheme.  So the bulk of lessons are already prepared: if there is anything that we want to tailor for our classes, then we do that ourselves.”
Sharing improvement
The school as a whole has a culture of regular, developmental observations and practice, and Dani stresses that “everyone’s very open minded about being watched, getting feedback, everyone really wants to improve.”  Saila talks about how Dani will “come in and watch me use those strategies that we’ve discussed in coaching and I feel like it’s helped a lot and that things have become second nature.” However, it’s noteworthy that this task, too, is seen as a shared one.  Dani stresses this: “We constantly discuss together what the good teaching is going to look like and what’s going to be successful.  When a lesson doesn’t work, we discuss it together like, ‘That lesson wasn’t successful so we need to change this scheme’ so rather than it being immediately a blame thing, just always open minded about changes.”
Sharing wellbeing and workload
It isn’t just a matter of shared planning – Dani also looks after the wellbeing of her teachers.  Saila describes Dani as: “Really inspiring.  She’s always trying to help in the sense that if there is any planning that can be shared, she’ll always share it.  She’s always looking at staff wellbeing, in that she always evaluates what we’ve done.  She’ll be like, ‘Is there any way that we can do this or that?’  We can balance workload, for example.  So, yes, she’s always trying to help and I really like the fact that she’s full of ideas and it kind of inspires me and motivated me to want to do better as well.”
There are many elements to success in the maths department at Dixons Trinity.  Much of it appears to stem from a form of leadership which, rooted in common goals and purpose, shares the effort, the challenges and the enjoyment of the task.
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