13 tips for a new Head of Year

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I was 20 when I took over my first year group as Head of Year 10. I spent six months before that as Assistant Head of Years 10/11, so in terms of pastoral experience most people would say I didn’t have much! I was fortunate to work with some very strong, experienced Heads of Year who helped to make sure I hit the ground running whether that was in the handover or after taking up the job proper. What I found is that guidance for new Heads of Year isn’t freely available through many other means – I’m somebody who likes to read around a role, get advice from as many sources as possible so with that in mind I thought a great first blog post would be this; 13* tips for a new Head of Year.

They aren’t in any order, but I hope that you might find them useful if you are about to take on the best job I ever had!

*it was 15 but some of them worked better together as a package – I realise 13 is a strange number!

1. Stay organised from the start
One of the biggest changes to your working life when you become a Head of Year is the influx/overload/nightmare that is the amount of emails you’ll receive. It’s easy to forget one after you’ve read it, particularly if it is something small within a busy day, but somebody cared enough to send you that email, to talk to you about one of your year group and it always pays to follow-up (before it hits you harder down the line!). You’ll also never be able to walk down a corridor again without somebody grabbing you, whether it’s for a quick chat about Jacob in 10XY, to pop into a lesson or to support with an issue. Those demands on your time quickly rack up and it’s easy to let things slip through the cracks.

Different people will clearly organise themselves differently but here’s a small, and by no means exhaustive, list of ideas from my own practise/other HOYs I’ve worked with that might help you stay organised:

  • Set up email folders and flag anything you haven’t responded to – check these at the end of every day to check items you need to follow-up.
  • Get a small notebook for your pocket/person and a large notebook for your office. If somebody stops you in the corridor with a task either get them to email it to you (if they aren’t really bothered, trust me, it won’t arrive) or write it into your small notebook. At the end of the day I used to transfer any tasks from that and my emails into the large notebook as a to-do-list for the next day. This can also be a good reflective tool to see where you are spending your time.
  • Set up your diary early – whether it’s electronic on your email system or a physical diary. I had both so that I could easily check if I was available whilst in a meeting or off-site but an electronic calendar for other people to check my availability (pastoral admin etc.).
  • Keep on top of any admin you receive – you’ll receive requests for all kinds of information about students whether it’s admissions information to/from new schools, external agencies requesting information or governor reports the list is huge and scrambling to fill them in last minute will make your life more difficult.
  • Prepare for parental meetings ahead of time (more on meetings later) but make sure you have any information printed and checked before you take it into a meeting. You’ll spend a lot of time meeting with parents in all likelihood so getting this process down from the start will help you in the long-run.

2. Pop into lessons

As a new Head of Year there’s no greater way to get the temperature for your year group than to pop into lessons and see how they are doing, rewarding any good behaviour/achievement and re-enforcing teacher expectations for those who aren’t quite there yet. This might not be something you’ve done before and it may take you a little while to feel comfortable knocking on somebody’s door and asking if everything is alright. At the end of the day your job is to support staff and the pupils within your year group and by being seen in/around lessons you will make it clear that you could arrive at any time which can be a good motivator for students. Some of my favourite moments as Head of Year came when a teacher would welcome me into their room and speak glowingly about student’s behaviour, their work or attitude. 

When it comes to those opportunities to see your students in classrooms as a new Head of Year some teachers will see you as the answer to their prayers because you’ve walked into their worst class and you’ll be immediately pointed to issues. If this is the case it isn’t your job to deal with classroom behaviour issues – it’s easy to be dragged into issues that would never have reached your door just because you walked in. Re-enforce the expectations of the school and the teacher but don’t be tempted to try to ‘fix’ the issue by removing a pupil or doing something that wouldn’t have occurred naturally within the school systems. Clearly there will be exceptions to this and it may be appropriate for you to step-in but don’t make that the norm as it will defeat the purpose of popping into lessons – you won’t get to see your year group.

Other times you will be welcomed with open arms and pointed to students who are working well, classes that are fantastic, this is your opportunity to shower them with praise and really ‘love’ your year group. Recognise their efforts and drag along those students who aren’t quite there yet.

Occasionally there will be times that a member of staff may feel uncomfortable with your presence for any number of reasons(you may be interrupting their flow, they might be trying something new, they may be struggling with behaviour) – on these occasions I would tend to ask the following two questions, aloud, for the class to hear; “Good morning Sir/Miss/Mrs X, are you having an enjoyable lesson this morning?” and “Is there anything I can do to help?” sometimes adding in a question about whether they were particularly pleased with any students. You’ll quickly get the feel for the room – as a teacher sometimes other people walk in at precisely the wrong time – if you think you’ve done that for any reason, don’t feel the need to stick around, you can always come back on a different day!

3. Be visible
This links to popping into lessons – try and be as visible as you possibly can around the school. I made a point of going out on gate duty every opportunity I got. It’s an opportunity to say good morning/goodbye to your students and a chance to engage with other members of the school community. It’s equally a chance for you to catch any students you might have missed during the day and to speak to individuals about how their own day was – particularly useful if you have students on report to you that are prone to ‘forgetting’ to come and see you. If your school doesn’t have some sort of ‘meet and greet’ in the mornings this could also be something to introduce. HOYs/SLT on the doors in the morning greeting pupils, checking uniform, picking up issues from the previous day, giving out reports etc. It takes 20-30 minutes out of your morning each day, but I found saved me a huge amount of ‘chasing’ time when I had to go and pick pupils up to do the same thing. 

  • Leave your office door open during the day when possible.
  • Wander around the site at break/lunch times and interact with pupils.
  • Greet/say goodbye to students in the morning/afternoon.
  • Attend extra-curricular events for your year group.

4. Communicate with parents

Parental communication, and by extension co-operation, is one of the biggest keys to your success as a Head of Year. Make sure there is some sort of communication that goes out when you take over the year group to let parents know your contact details and that you are the new year head.

Most parents will want to work with you to ensure their child’s school life is the best it can possibly be – almost all parents will want to ensure their child’s school life is the best it can possibly be. Some might not be keen to work with you in that regard. Courtesy and respect goes a long way in building strong working relationships with parents – the vast majority of your communications with parents will likely be by phone. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve sat with a member of staff who starts a phone call to a parent with “Hello, it’s Mr X from school, John was a nightmare in his DT lesson today”. Those kinds of opening messages get most parent’s backs up straight away, don’t do it. Introduce yourself, start by asking them if they are alright, if they have a couple of minutes to talk and you’ll often find they are much more willing to engage with you. That’s not always the case and sometimes parental conversations are difficult but if you’ve taken the time to be respectful at the start of the conversation you will have at least set the table for a polite conversation.

It’s easy to get caught up in the negatives as a Head of Year – make sure you also call parents for positive reasons and follow-up the excellent things you’ve seen when you’ve been in and around lessons in the school. Make a note of 5 students during the week who you are going to ring home for on Friday afternoon and enjoy those moments.

5. Think of and articulate a year group vision

Your school will have a vision, an ethos, a culture and your year group will be an extension of that. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your own vision of what kind of young people you want to lead. If you can communicate your expectations with your year group through a vision you are much more likely to see them buy-in. What do you want staff to say when they talk about Year 10? How do you want your year group to be viewed within the community? You have the opportunity to shape this through year group activities, tutor time, assemblies and more. 

I made it clear with my year groups that respect was of paramount importance – that it wasn’t earned but given as standard. That I expected to see every interaction, whether that was student to student or student to staff, based on mutual respect. It didn’t change the fact that we aligned with the school’s policies/vision etc. but it did help to form an identity and a group to be attached to.

6. Build strong relationships with tutors, stakeholders, external agencies

You need your tutor team to have your back – they may have isolated pupils for you, cover the tutor team briefing or plan a tutor time activity. They will be the ones who see each and every one of your year group, every day. They will be the ones, on the ground, helping to turn your vision into reality. Support them, visit tutor time sessions, ensure that any tutor time work/activities are resourced and ready to go for them. I think tutors, and the time that they have with their tutees, is of huge importance to the culture of a year group and by extension, the school. Many schools have moved towards, or are moving towards, tutor time being an extension of other lessons (English catch-up, numeracy sessions etc.) and I think this underappreciates the value a tutor holds to their tutees. If you can provide opportunities for your tutors to just be with their tutor group, getting to know them, supporting them and re-enforcing year group/school messages then do it – you’ll see and feel the impact. 

Of similar importance is ensuring that the relationships you build with external agencies and stakeholders to the school are strong and supportive. You will, more than ever, be engaging with professionals outside of the school to support your most vulnerable students. Make early links with these people, introduce yourself through colleagues who will have already been working with them and develop an understanding of how these agencies work with schools and the thresholds that must be met before they can support your students.

7. Be respectful, and supportive of, staff concerns
Through your role you will be exposed to a wide variety of different behaviours exhibited by your students. These may be things you’ve never had to deal with personally, that are extreme or perhaps, in your eyes, trivial. I always followed the mantra that if somebody raises a concern with me, no matter how or big or small, it deserved to be followed up. You may not be able to do so immediately, but that person felt they needed support – whatever the issue may be you can either do something to address it yourself or help them devise strategies so that they can fix it themselves. You will also be exposed to things you find devastating, hilarious, annoying, tiring and much more – remember that you aren’t alone in your role. You are part of a pastoral team and, particularly while you are new to the role, you should access support as you need it.

8. Keep accurate records and start as you mean to go on

You will be asked for information about students constantly. Whether that is by SLT, parents, colleagues or any other stakeholder who may need data. It is in your best interests to ensure that you are keeping accurate records of student information that you are responsible for from the very beginning.

If you are responsible for minuting meetings that you lead, then make sure they are typed up while it’s still fresh in yours and other’s memory in case anything needs to be clarified. 

If you are responsible for recording or analysing student data for your year group, then keep this organised whether that’s in electronic or physical folders.

A Head of Year I used to work with converted me into producing a year group folder at the start of the year with contextual information for the year group inside. It contained things like lists of pupils within particular groups (PP,SEND, EAL, CLA etc.), records of meetings/minutes and the levels of each, support and intervention offered to students, behaviour/achievement/attendance/academic data. It’s a great resource to refer to and will allow you to keep important information for your year group quickly at hand.

9. Build a knowledge of your year group before you start

Hopefully you will get the opportunity to hand over with a previous year head if you are taking over a year group. The quality and time afforded to these will vary but done well are an incredible resource for a new Head of Year to tap into. Try and find out who the characters in your year group are, strategies that work in difficult situations/how to motivate particular pupils, information about your tutors, any major moments that occurred in the previous year or useful historical information such as students who engage with external agencies.

If you aren’t able to have a handover (and I really would push for one unless the situation of the person leaving makes this difficult) then you can find a lot of this information out for yourself. Have reports run for all of the information above that’s on your schools MIS system such as the previous year’s behaviour and attendance information. Print the year group’s photos and try and match some names to faces – particularly if you know which students you are likely to be engaging with most. Introduce yourself to your tutors informally and begin to look at the school’s tutor time schedules/resources.

10. Network with others

There are lots more opportunities for networking outside of school for pastoral leaders than there were when I last held the position as recently as a couple of years ago. Make use of local networks if you have one – why not see if your school can set up a collaborative pastoral network if one doesn’t exist in your area?

There is also much more support available online through social media networking now and there are all sorts of Twitter accounts, groups and chats that you can participate in and ask questions to. Begin with the three below and you’ll be off to a good start:

@UKPastoralChat

@SafeguardingHr

@Pastoral_School

11. Use every opportunity to check your year group standards

The Head of Key Stage 4 when I started as Head of Year 10 was the first one to say, ‘The standards you walk past are the standards you accept’ and you need to live that as a Head of Year. If you walk past boys in your year group with their ties off, if you ignore the girl in the lunch queue who pushed in, if you don’t confiscate the basketball that’s being bounced down the corridor then you are accepting these things. Everything you do sends a message, whether it’s intended or not, because you are the beacon for that year group. It’s not always easy. You might be dashing to a meeting, expecting a phone call, heading off to teach but as much as possible you need to live your standards and make sure your year group know that they won’t get anything past you.

Take every opportunity as one to develop and demonstrate those standards, whether it’s while you are grabbing a drink at break, welcoming students into assembly or popping into a lesson.

12. Shadow an experienced HOY
There’s a lot to learn as Head of Year. I was fortunate to spend time as an Assistant Head of Year to some excellent and experienced HOYs and so was exposed to the great ways to run meetings, to speak to students, to resolve issues, talk to parents and more. Unless you have a completely new team around you there will be a wealth of experience on offer and you should make the most of that. If you know a colleague is holding a meeting and you want to see how they run it, keep it on track, to time and achieve all of their goals then ask them if you can sit in. If you are struggling with keeping students calm in whole school detentions (when you might be exposed to other year groups) then ask for strategies from others in your team who you’ve seen do this well. Those are two examples in a multitude of skills/activities you will need/undertake as a Head of Year – if there is something you want to do better then shadowing somebody else is a great way to improve.

13. Make time to look after yourself
The role of a Head of Year is a demanding, often exhausting, and sometimes horrible job to do. It’s also an absolute joy, one of the central cogs of a school and the best job I’ve ever done. You will be exposed to information and situations that will shock you, upset you and drain you. It’s important that you have a professional network at school in which you can discuss these issues – supportive colleagues in the pastoral team are there to share the weight. Offer yourself to the team as well, it doesn’t matter if you have been a year head for 1 year or 20, there will still be things that are difficult to deal with and sometimes a supportive chat is exactly what you need.

Equally as important is taking time for yourself – it’s easy to dwell on things that have happened at work in a pastoral care based role. Thinking about a child who has been taken into care on the Friday evening, the child you know is sitting next to a parent’s hospital bed. Those children may need your support in school and you can’t offer that if you’ve broken yourself down by over-thinking something you can’t help. Take the time to relax at home and unwind – make sure that you are the rested and energetic version of you that can really make a difference to their lives. 

I hope somebody, somewhere will find use in those tips. The role of a Head of Year is forever growing and changing. If you do want to discuss any of the above, feel free to talk to me through Twitter @connoracton. Good luck!

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