Pastoral leadership: purpose, positivity, prioritisation and progress

What does it take to be described as a “great Head of Year” by colleagues, in only your second year in that role? We asked Susannah Meersand, who works at a school in the West Midlands, about the challenges that responsibility for Year 10 has brought her, and how she has approached them.

Susannah’s students will “be able to make good choices”
Susannah has a clear sense of what she wants for her students. She hopes they will be “able to make good choices by themselves… to be able to independently decide, ‘What would be a good choice for me in this situation?’” This is something which applies whether students are “angry at something, or whether they don’t like this particular lesson or they are struggling… They need to learn independently to make good choices.”
Susannah recognises that making good choices is “a really difficult thing to teach”, but she sees it permeating her work with students. She approaches it through “good conversations with them, through morale boosting.” She sets out to give her students confidence, “meeting them, making time for them so that they feel valued, and if they do then they feel confident making those choices.” She also sees the importance of “sanctioning them when they don’t make those choices so that they learn the right way to go about things. Speaking to parents so that you’ve got a parental and Head of Year communication, so that you are both on the same page.”
In practice, the role of Head of Year is very varied: “It could be anything.” This includes parental issues where you might need to go and meet parents “on the spot,” pastoral issues relating to friendship concerns and very rare incidences of bullying. She also manages behaviour, “dealing with incidents… sanctioning pupils, putting pupils on a Head of Year report and then monitoring them on a daily basis, meeting parents regularly of those pupils who are struggling with their behaviour. Rewarding pupils if their behaviour improves.” Susannah focuses on having strategies and “making sure things are followed up quickly.”
“A few positive phone calls home”
Susannah is aware that ongoing pressure to deal with problems can skew the role and seeks to control her approach to it: “I think it can become quite negative and it’s only now where I’ve been doing it for a year that I can step away from it a little bit and think, how would I like to improve in my role? I think I’d like to become a bit more positive. So, this week I have actually requested teachers to log behaviour more positively, because I think that’s something that teachers, including myself, don’t do as much as they should and I’m going to start collating those positive logs and really start rewarding those pupils who are consistently being positive in their lessons. So, a few positive phone calls home or praise postcards, certificates, which we are going to be doing in a couple of weeks in assemblies, and just rewarding those pupils that deserve it.” Susannah’s colleague described her ability to balance having “very high expectations for the students, but everything that she does is done in a positive way.” So, even for a student seriously misbehaving she addresses this positively, helping students “see where they’re going wrong” and showing their teachers “believe that they can change their behaviour.”
What is it that “actually needs to be done today”?
This sounds like an awful lot to manage – but Susannah has a plan to deal with this: “It’s important to have many, many, many to do lists. That’s what I would recommend for anyone starting: prioritising and having three different lists of things to do and saying, ‘Which one actually needs to be done today?’ and making sure you follow those ones through.” Communication with parents is her most important priority: “Making sure they’re in the loop of communication.” For Susannah, prioritisation means she believes a teacher can “have a work life balance and still have a responsibility in school. I think it’s just about prioritising and balancing those things.”
“You don’t learn anything unless you ask questions”
Susannah became a Head of Year rapidly, but a couple of things helped her to learn swiftly about the role. Initially, she was asked to take on the role, and it was “quite a quick turnaround, but I just learned as I went.” Susannah had a fellow Head of Year to shadow “who was brilliant” but every day was a different challenge, and Susannah found that she “learned from experience.” Susannah also relied on: “Questions. You have to ask so many questions and I’ve realised that people think that questions are like a sign of weakness, but generally you don’t learn anything unless you ask questions. I think the more you ask, the better, and the more you learn from the questions asked, the better. So I asked Heads of Year that have been doing it longer, and I still do this in my role: ‘What would you do in a situation?’ ‘How would you follow this up?’ So shadowing, and learning from fellow heads of year was key.”
Susannah’s clear sense of what she wants for her students and positivity in approaching them, coupled with her ability to prioritise and improve her own work appeared to be working for her and her students. When we spoke to some of her students, the impact her work was having on them seemed clear. One student described how Susannah is “always there for you, if you need to go and talk about something, or discuss a problem, she’s the one to talk to, and she understands.”
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