Recently I was working with the head of a maths department. After a good proportion of the day had passed he said to me “I feel like the jigsaw is starting to come together – like I’ve sorted the edge pieces now and things are starting to look a bit more like a picture.”
I initially agreed, but then a thought struck me: it was perhaps a bit more like several jigsaw puzzles had been all mixed up in the box, that they had been tipped out on the table and then sorted into piles of pieces: one pile for each jigsaw. Perhaps then we had started to find the corners and the edges along with some semblance of order.
You see, we had entered the room that morning believing that a whole-scale review and rewrite of the maths curriculum was necessary. By the time we had started discussing analogies about jigsaw puzzles, we had worked out that the curriculum was not the main priority, and that it certainly wasn’t the most imminent concern. We had also decided that there were several other steps for development that were not as pressing, and which could be left until a later date: these jigsaws we bagged up and put back in the box, less jumbled, more ordered, but to be tackled another time.
Throughout the day we’d also referred regularly to the ‘backburner’. The temptation as a school leader is to attempt to have everything cooking at once – all four rings blazing away. But, eventually, the gas will run out, or the cost of keeping everything going will rise too high for it to be feasible to carry on. The leader burns out, staff burn out – trust is destroyed, motivation goes down the pan and impact is lost. No, there are always things that must be kept on the backburner; jigsaw puzzles that must be put away for another day whilst another one is focused on.
Here's three ways you can begin to work out exactly what you need to prioritise for your area of responsibility:
Does it match with the whole school priorities?
Get hold of the school improvement plan, find out what is being prioritised as a whole school and analyse whether or not your planned developments will support those whole school priorities. For example, if use of modelling and explanations are a whole school priority, assess whether or not that needs to be a priority in your subject, or whether by working on that whole school priority teachers will improve in the area you're looking to develop in your subject. If you're not sure, run it by a senior leader. The last thing you want to be doing is asking teachers to do another thing on top of some already heavy whole school priorities.
Have quality assurance (or monitoring and evaluation) processes identified these priorities?
Many outside factors can influence our decision-making as middle leaders. We can look at country-wide trends, what everyone on Twitter is doing, what OfSTED are currently making a song and dance about, and we can decide that we absolutely must revamp our reading corners or that our curriculum intent statements simply aren't fit for purpose and they must all be rewritten by next Tuesday. Although these trends can provide a prompt to reflect on current practice, they are not to be confused as judgements on current practice.
Instead, look at your own internal assessment of the current state of play within your area of responsibility. Ask other leaders as well what they think about how things are. Think about what is currently happening and base your decisions about what to improve next based on that.
How easy will it be to implement?
Some improvements are quicker fixes than others. Our temptation can be to want to change the world - to prove that we are brilliant leaders with our fingers on the pulse and that no job is too difficult for us. But quite simply, we can't change everything at once and prioritising what we can change now and what must be left until later can be decided by thinking about how that change would need to be implemented.
I'm forever referencing the EEF's Putting Evidence to Work - A School's Guide to Implementation document to the leaders who I work with. So much of the process of rolling out a new idea comes before the roll out - more than you might think. If you're thinking of doing something new in your subject, then consult this oracle first and take its recommendations seriously.
For example, a curriculum re-write is a long job, and best not rushed. However, whilst you're plugging away at that in the background (in all that spare time you have! But seriously, ask for the time you need if you're going to do something like that) you can be making more imminent changes - things that don't require so much in the exploration and planning phases of implementation. You can then look at the things you want to change in separate chunks and stagger when you are going to take the necessary actions.
Applying all three of the above strategies to your prioritising process will set you on a good path towards making the positive changes you want to see in your subject. There are plenty of other considerations to make too, so think reflectively and ask yourself lots of questions about your subject. This free-to-download document should help you to do this: