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Getting to know the geography department

“Teachers in the department were all committed to learn; they shared ideas and sparked off each other. They were keen to introduce new ideas and innovations and were willing to embrace change.”

Ofsted, 2011

Topics on this page:

  • What does a geography department look like?
  • Geography staff
  • Teaching timetables
  • The geography department handbook
  • Geography meetings
  • Learning to teach within the department
  • What is a good geography department?
  • Ofsted and the geography department

What does a geography department look like?

Every geography department is different. The opening quote describes the characteristics of a good geography department in the Ofsted report, Geography: Learning to make a world of difference.

Take every opportunity offered to you during your training to visit different geography departments and meet the teachers. In some schools, there may not be a ‘geography’ department, instead geography teachers will work within a humanities department or faculty. Geography departments vary in size; this depends not only on the student numbers in the school, but also on the number of geography examination classes that are taught.

In most schools, the geography department will have a base, where all geography lessons are taught, geography materials are stored and there may be a geography staffroom or office.

To assist your introduction into school, find out about how the geography department fits into the overall structure of the school and its resources and facilities. Familiarise yourself with the geography base and where things are kept. Listen carefully when you are first shown around the department – make some notes that you can refer to afterwards as this will avoid you having to ask endless questions!

Geography staff

Whatever the organisational structure in a school, a geographer will ‘lead’ the subject, with a title such as ‘head of geography’ or ‘geography subject leader’. 

The other geography teachers will also have special responsibilities, perhaps for fieldwork, managing resources or for the curriculum for particular year groups. Again, it is helpful to make notes of these, as well as the special geography interests and expertise of different teachers.

Introductions to part-time teachers and non-teaching staff (e.g. teaching assistants, technicians) are equally important, and you should note their responsibilities and the times when they are working in the department. Often senior staff contribute to geography teaching, and you need to identify their geography role.

Teaching timetables

Find out where the master copy of the geography teaching timetable is to be found, and ask for some help in translating it! 

This is an important source of information for a new teacher in a department. It can tell you not only when geography teachers are teaching and are not teaching, but also which teachers teach each class.

 While you are in initial training you will have a personal timetable for classes you will observe and those you will be teaching.

The geography department handbook

Much of the practical information needed for geography teachers, including policies, curriculum documents and practices is usually gathered together in a department handbook. This is an important source of information. Read it: it will provide answers to many of your questions!

If this includes a ‘vision’ for the department or its aims for teaching geography, it will give you useful insights into the geography ethos and priorities of the department. Further information can also be gleaned from geography displays, which often celebrate aspects of students’ work of which the department is particularly proud.

Geography meetings

Most geography departments have regular meetings, to which trainee teachers should be invited. If you are, these will help you to understand a geography teacher’s wide-ranging responsibilities, both curricula and pastoral. Some meetings will be for ‘professional development’ where curriculum changes or new teaching approaches may be discussed.

As well as formal meetings, informal or ‘ad hoc’ meetings will be important in the life of a geography department. Use these to listen to and engage in the professional debate about geography teaching and find out about the pros and cons of different approaches. Remember to be a good listener, as well as contributing your own views.

Learning to teach within the department

As a beginning teacher the more you immerse yourself in the life and work of the geography department, the more you will learn. However, you should remember that geography mentors and teachers are allowed limited time specifically for training you to teach; their main responsibility is teaching their students.

Nevertheless, most geography teachers are very generous of their time in supporting, advising and training new teachers and you should respect this. One way to do this, is to prepare carefully for your regular meetings with your geography mentor so that best use is made of the time available.

Obviously, the main way you will learn how to teach is through practical teaching experience and you will be given opportunities to teach classes in a range of ages and abilities during your training. But there are other ways too. Look for opportunities to broaden your experience – suggest ideas, if your department have not already thought of them. For example, you could:

  • Participate in fieldwork
  • Get involved in examination marking and moderation
  • Help to write students’ reports
  • Attend parents’ evenings
  • Visit other schools and educational sites
  • Attend courses and conferences.

Specific training activities that you will undertake in the geography department include:

  • Observing lessons and discussing these afterwards with the teacher. You will observe different teachers and classes, in geography and other subjects. Try to focus on different aspects of teaching and learning in each observation and think carefully about what you want to find out. The web pages on this site will give you pointers to this. You will learn a lot from reflecting on others’ practice in comparison with your own. Observing experienced teachers should not be confined only to the early stages of your training.
  • Collaborative teaching, where you share the planning and teaching with an experienced teacher. This can be very helpful when you start teaching and, later on, when you are trying a different aspect of teaching or beginning with a new class.
  • Extending your subject knowledge. During your time in a geography department you should use the opportunity to learn from these teachers’ specific expertise. Ask for help on geography topics where you need support; teachers can usually point you to some helpful resources. In return, offer your own area of geographical expertise – perhaps to prepare some teaching resources for the department.
  • Learning about assessment. Time in a geography department gives you the opportunity to experience teaching, but also to experience practical assessment. Use this to understand expected standards for students in different year groups, and how to measure students’ progress in geography. Different approaches are used across geography departments, so use the opportunity to understand the rationale and practicalities of the assessments used in each department you experience.

 What is a good geography department?

One of the difficulties for any new teacher is deciding how well the department you are in ‘measures up’ against others. A good geography department is much more than good examination results. Geography is a dynamic and exciting subject and a good department will be one that recognises this and communicates their enthusiasm for the subject to their students.

It will foster a spirit of enquiry and give all students a rich variety of geographical experiences. It will teach a lively curriculum that is topical and that inspires students to find out about and understand the world they live in. It embraces new technology, such as GIS, to support teaching and learning. A good department has a collegiate approach to teaching so that ideas are developed and shared, and has links with other geographers locally and nationally; it sees itself as part of the geography community.

Discuss your experiences with those of your fellow teachers. Look at these articles from Teaching Geography that give examples of good practice and use these as a benchmark for your experiences:

The Geographical Association awards schools with the Secondary Geography Quality Mark. This recognises quality and progress in geography leadership, curriculum development, learning and teaching in school. As well as acknowledging excellence within a whole school, they also indicate effective team leadership and high-quality geography teaching.

Ofsted and the geography department

Every school has an inspection from time to time. What does this mean for a trainee teacher?

From September 2019 Ofsted school inspections make a ‘quality of education’ judgement which will particularly focus on the curriculum of the school. A sample of subject departments will be subject to ‘deep dives’ during an inspection. This could involve the geography department in inspectors’ visits to lessons, scrutiny of pupils’ work and discussions with pupils and teachers.

However, inspectors will not observe lessons given by trainee teachers and will not take trainees’ performance into account when assessing the quality of education in the school. Inspectors will meet any trainees employed by the school on a school-based salaried route to assess their support, mentoring and induction.

You can find out more about Ofsted inspections of schools at www.gov.uk.