Cooperation between subject leaders

James Ashmore

James Ashmore is the coauthor of The New Middle Leader’s Handbook. He has spent 11 of the last 13 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a specialist leader of education. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.

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Originally published on 5th May 2017. Originally published on 5th May 2017.

If you’re a subject leader, you have to make friends in school strategically. If you’re the head of English like me, you firstly need to befriend whoever guards the gate to reprographics needs the bounciest, sunniest, most dribblingly sycophantic version of you that you can muster. We’re talking bottle of wine at Christmas, chocolate egg at Easter, flowers on their birthday. Because they can do something that you could never do since the highest qualification you’re likely hold is in English Literature (or the one pertaining to your subject), a degree that required you to pontificate on postmodernism for 2 hours a week – they can fix the photocopier, a machine so psychopathic, so actively engaged in the utter destruction of your soul, that it makes HAL 9000 seem like a Care Bear. “I’m sorry James, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” you imagine it says as it mangles your Year 10 mock exams in its hot, metal, inky gob.

Next, the caretaker. Not in the way you do when a workman is round your house installing a new dishwasher – where you suddenly start graphically swearing every third word and calling them ‘mate’ – but enough that you’re on first name terms. You will need stuff doing, stuff that needs someone who’s had ladder training (I know, how hard can it be? It’s just some mobile steps!), stuff that involves lifting heavy, dirty things, stuff that only big blokes in blue overalls know how to do.


Finally, and most crucially, you need to make friends with the head of Maths. There’s no need to go “You need to know an ally when you see one.”as far as I did and marry them, but by God do you need to know an ally when you see one. You see, you are very much in the same boat, and it will be up to both of you to make sure that boat is not the RMS Titanic. You’re both in charge of the two most important departments in the school, whose results can bring either plaudits or pain. You need a relationship, to paraphrase Dickens, that fans the flame of cooperation with the wing of friendship.


Now look – we need to get some of the twaddle that is spouted out of the way first, the rubbishy excuses that are peddled when talking about the two disciplines:


1. “Oh, but you see, English and maths are two very different subjects.”


Yes, they are. But you two need to find the commonalities of which there are definitely many. Look at this Edexcel GCSE Maths question:


“Buses to Acton leave a bus station every 24 minutes. Buses to Barton leave the same bus station every 20 minutes.


A bus to Acton and a bus to Barton both leave the bus station at 9.00 am.


When will a bus to Acton and a bus to Barton next leave the bus station at the same time? (3 marks)”


Hey, don’t stop reading to have a go at it. Now look at this Edexcel GCSE English question:


In lines 40-46, how does the writer use language and structure to show the relationship between the man and his wife? (6 marks)


Two wildly different questions, right? WRONG! “We expect our students to be virtual polymaths on a daily basis – the least we can do is match them.”Okay, maybe not capitals WRONG, but certainly lowercase wrong. There are similarities because both questions require students to draw on knowledge from their learning and apply it in new, unseen contexts. They both require a strategy and an approach. They need a method and a structure, they need to show their reasoning. For the Maths question, the student needs to quickly realise they are being asked to find the lowest common multiple of 24 and 20, while in the English question the student needs to realise they are being asked to systematically identify and explain language and structural techniques like metaphor or juxtaposition. What is more, you can also clearly see that the Maths question relies on a pretty high standard of literacy in order to access it and indeed to answer it, and whose department should be teaching them that? Answer – both.


2. “You English teachers are so airy-fairy!” / “Well, you Maths teachers are so pernickety!”


If you excuse the 1950s vocabulary, you can hopefully see where I’m coming from here. Stereotypes pervade. But I was a head of English who got a B in A Level Maths (oh yeah!), and I’m someone who visibly bridles when someone proudly, loudly declares their incompetence with numbers – “Oh, I can’t do Maths.” Would you say that about reading? “Oh, I can’t read a word, haha!” No!


How ridiculous to say that about Maths then, to brazenly identify yourself as an ignoramus. If you’re a head of English who struggles with the data analysis part of the role, who retreats to the cosy cardigan of your obliviousness, declaring, “I’m just not made that way” – learn!


Same goes for heads of Maths. Think literacy isn’t your job? Think again. We expect our students to be virtual polymaths on a daily basis – the least we can do is match them. Ensure your team understand this, too. This is your first step to working more closely with other departments, especially English. You could implement a joint observation initiative between your teams or, at the very least, get them talking to each other regularly about students they mutually teach, comparing approaches and strategies, and talking to those students about their progress and achievements in the other subject. This last idea is particularly powerful.


3. “In Maths, it’s either right or it’s wrong. In English, it’s much more open to interpretation. And you can’t revise for English, either.”


Nope. In English, it can be very, very wrong. That “open to interpretation” label can be as much of a curse as a blessing. English has rules, a multitude of rules with a multitude of exceptions to those rules that need to be learned through practice, practice, practice, by immersing yourself in the language. Only then can you confidently read a piece of 19th Century fiction you’ve never seen before or write a letter to a newspaper (a task that stubbornly persists despite the fact that, in the real world, these are now only written by fogies and cranks to moan about fortnightly bin collections or dog poo).


The rules for Maths exist within the rules for English for only a sure-footed understanding of the latter will allow you to fully understand the former. Try accessing that bus question above without first drawing on your intrinsic English skills, without picturing those buses leaving Acton and Barton in the little internal narrative you’ve automatically built around the question. The story of the question helps you to solve the problem.


Now that those myths have been well and truly dispelled, back to you and your new best friend. You should certainly regularly meet - once a fortnight should suffice. Have agendas focused solely on the improvement of both your subjects in parallel looking at progress and attainment, pedagogical approaches, students worthy of praise or causing concern; think of this as peer coaching.


Next, get your intervention planning right – you cannot be scrapping each other for the same underachieving students. Do this early and often so that you can ensure your focus is always on the most appropriate kids. Talk about pupils, find out about them, visit them in their Maths and English lessons. You are the leaders of two departments who teach every child in the school all the time, so make it your business to get to know every child in the school – not just the naughties or the ones who are falling behind, but the silent middle, too, the ones who do everything that’s asked of them and just get on with it. Jointly praise, co-write letters home to students who are excelling in both subjects…in fact, co-write loads of letters home to raise the profile of your collaboration with parents and carers, too.


What else? Pool resources, do each other a favour at least once a week, take it in turns to bring the biscuits, hold joint department meetings once per half term and get your teams working closely together…and on and on.


This might be a simple shift or it might be a seismic change. Either way, it’s definitely doable. So do it.


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