Reflections on Becoming a Head of Year.

Photo Credit: hmerinomx via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: hmerinomx via Compfight cc

When I was appointed a science teacher at my current (and only) school I looked forward to meeting my new form on their first day back from the summer holidays and getting to know them. I was a little disappointed to be given a year 12 form. Colleagues thought I was strange as it was perceived that a year 12 or 13 form was a gift in regards to workload. Many colleagues reported trying to get onto the 6th form team for this very reason. Pastoral care at this level is challenging. The range of issues that come up are varied (as with any year group) but more adult in nature and more frequently complex than lower down the school. For a fresh-faced NQT with zero pastoral experience I was ill equipped to deal effectively with this challenge. I think colleagues wanting to get on the 6th form team hadn’t appreciated the experience they already possessed from dealing with the lower years.

It was midway through my NQT year that I knew the direction I wanted my career to take. After realising I wouldn’t achieve this in the 6th form team, I requested to be given a year 7 form the following September. My head of year was a fantastic role model. He knew exactly how to get the best out of his form tutors and, in turn, allow us to get the best out of our tutees. I had the pleasure and privilege of taking that form all the way to year 11 and gained invaluable insight and experience of pastoral care and intervention at each year in a high school. In January 2008 I was appointed as acting Head of Year remaining part of the same pastoral team in which I had been a tutor. I was given the role permanently in May later that year.

My opportunity to move up to Head of Year came in 2010. Two posts became available, the first was a maternity cover and the second a permanent position. My instinct (along with the advice from my current Head of Year and mentor) lead me to apply for the permanent position. I had a crisis of confidence and nearly changed my mind. The permanent position was being advertised externally, whereas the maternity cover was an internal advert. I worried I wouldn’t be able to compete with external candidates having only ever worked at this school. The maternity cover was tempting as it would allow me to develop the experience before taking on the job permanently. My mentor was having none of it. “Do you want to babysit some else’s year group or do you want your own?” The truth was I wanted my own year group and the permanent position was for the new intake of year 7s. The ideal situation for any new head of year. I applied for the permanent position.

The day I found out I had got the job was one of the happiest of my career. The huge amount of planning and preparation that I had put in up to this point had paid off. In my feedback by the deputy head at the time, I was told that she wished she had filmed my interview as it was an exemplar for others. Now the hard work really began!

My first year felt like a crash course in pastoral care. Nothing I had done up to this point had prepared me for the role. My mentor had carefully filtered the tasks he had given me to take on as his deputy. He had given plenty of experience with the day to day tasks I would encounter like dealing with behaviour, managing reports (including PSPs) and investigating incidents and making decisions over sanctions. My experience in liaising with HODs, SEN and external agencies was somewhat lacking and whilst I knew it was part of the role I never appreciated how challenging this could be. I was now expected to attend PEP meetings, CP conferences, Core group meetings and all without knowing the process, my role in proceedings or being prepared for some of the information that is disclosed at these types of meetings. Sometimes I felt like a fraud; everyone looked to me to know what to do and I pretended that I did but inside, at times, I felt out of my depth.

There were a few things that got me through my first year as a pastoral leader. The first was my line manager. She was always at the end of the phone, whether it was her office or her mobile. She met with me every week no matter how hectic her schedule and I always received minutes for these meetings which kept me on track. She supported with difficult parents and difficult students with both advice on what to say and by offering to be present in key meetings. Most importantly she provided constructive feedback about how I was doing which gave me the confidence to grow into the role.

The second were my fellow heads of year and the inclusion manager. We met twice a week. The first meeting was to discuss the implementation of school policy and procedures, attendance and punctuality strategies and any key calendar events. The second was a weekly meeting with the educational psychologist. This was a forum where the heads of year could bring a case study to the group and we would explore possible reasons behind specific behaviours of students or of the feelings they invoked in others (including ourselves). This group allowed me to voice my frustrations and concerns in a safe environment. It gave me new insight into why things may be happening and allowed me to stop feeling so helpless. The group was not solutions focussed. It just gave me a new perspective on things, sometimes suggestions were made about ways forward because one of the other year heads had experienced a similar situation. Most of the time it just gave me pause for thought which, in turn, caused me to handle the situation slightly differently – even if that meant being less angry or frustrated.

The third were our amazing learning support department. I had a year group of 252 students of those about 80 came under the old SEN classification of school action or school action plus and then a further 11 were statemented. The school has one of the largest provisions for SEN in the borough. The provision includes one of the largest learning support departments (it’s the biggest department in the school), a speech and language base and an ASD base. I had a number of students across the range of the autistic spectrum, some who would find the move to a large secondary school extremely challenging. I also had some students transitioning from a very small primary behaviour school. Both the head SENCO and the KS2-3 transition SENCO were outstanding. They met with me prior to the year group starting to advise me on setting up the new tutor groups. They were at every year team meeting, arranged lunchtime advise sessions for subject teachers to share strategies that were working. They were usually my second phone call (after my line manager) if an incident occurred involving one of these students. They were always at parent meetings, guided me through professionals meetings and then through the whole change of placement process with SENAS once we realised that we were not able to meet the needs of a couple of the students.

Four years on my year group are on the final leg of their journey through secondary school. They nearly broke me in year 9 when puberty arrived with a vengeance. It was hard to watch the children I had been entrusted to support in year 7 turn into these unrecognisable quasi-adults struggling for independence and some sort of control over their lives. It was all forgiven in year 10 when they made me so proud during “suited and booted” day and their work experience that followed. I have had 2 students successfully complete a pastoral support plan and been witness to the fresh start of 3 students in my year group. Two of them from the PRU and the third was a managed move from another local school. All five are making good progress and predicted to do well in the summer. I have said goodbye to a number of students, 45 in total which is quite high. Most of these either moved to another country or were moved to another borough (as a result of government changes relating to housing and benefits). Five were found more appropriate provision where their highly specific needs were better catered for. Six were given a fresh start at another school and most are doing well. Unfortunately one was permanently excluded.

I remember when I first announced I wanted to be a head of year. Not one response was positive. Some of the things said to me were “its a really tough job, you won’t get any satisfaction.” “Look how many people apply for these posts that should tell you something” “you won’t get any recognition and you won’t get any thanks” “why on earth would you want to deal with poor behaviour all day” “you will loose your work life balance”. None of these responses were made by a head of year and that probably says something about the role. People perceive the job to be one filled with negativity, dealing with poor behaviour all the time, not recognised as an important role within the school (except when you then have a real issue with a child a head straight for the head of year)! I am glad I ignored all the negative comments because from my perspective it is the best job I have had. It took a while for me to adjust to my new role and for a while my work-life balance was out of whack but all I needed was patience and experience to redress the balance. Yes I deal with behaviour issues, and it can be difficult to plan tasks during my frees (there is no such thing as “free time” in my line of work!) but I am not doing this by myself. I have a team of tutors, an assistant head of year and a pastoral support advisor to call upon should the need arise. I also have a line manager who I can ask to support. The work that my team have done with my year group has been recognised at all levels in the school and I know that it is valued.

As I prepare my year 11s to get through the stress of their final year I truly understand that I have one of the most important roles in the school. The best pastoral care is like the glue holding everything together; you only notice once the glue starts to lose it’s stick.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Becoming a Head of Year.

  1. Great post! I can empathise with many of the points you raise having completed my pastoral journey last year. Good luck on the final leg of the journey – it will be tough but so very rewarding.

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