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How to get on the leadership ladder

If you want to be promoted and take up a leadership position spend some time just thinking about your future. Write down what you would like to experience in your career, sketching out each stage and think about the route you might take towards that ultimate destination. This is the first stage in visualising your career goals. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later chapter. Your early career is when colleagues form opinions about your abilities, skills and reputation. If your colleagues and bosses form positive opinions about you, then you are ready to consider the next move.

Speak out! Speak up and volunteer.

I must make it clear from the minute I started training as a teacher I wanted to be a headteacher. I don’t know if that is admirable or arrogant but that was my goal from the start. By way of explanation, the only experience I had to draw on was as a pupil in seven schools, in three countries. My parents moved around the UK as my father worked his way up the corporate ladder and as the oldest of their children, I changed schools rather more than would have been ideal for any child. I seemed to be regularly adjusting to changes as I moved between schools which were all very different in character. The headteachers I came into contact with were also very different and as a pupil, I felt the headteacher’s influence on the school’s character was very significant. If anyone asked, I was quite happy to say I wanted to be a headteacher and was looking for promotion as soon as I was ready. That honesty in the 1970s tended to be viewed sceptically and most colleagues would have said to themselves and others “who does he think he is ……” It didn’t hold me back in any way and I would advise any aspiring leader to say out loud that they want to lead. Admitting the ambition is the first stage in visualising your goals. I have a strong belief that visualising a goal in life is helpful and having that clarity of purpose makes success more likely. Although I had a clear aim of getting a headteacher post by the time I was 40 I didn’t have a route-map of any sort planned. I didn’t take the traditional route through successive promoted posts in schools, indeed I spent 7 years working in education, outwith schools. I merely applied for posts that interested me and found myself being interviewed for a headteacher post by a roundabout route.

Ambitious staff should volunteer for opportunities when they arise - most headteachers will only be happy to find that someone wants to work on something that others want to avoid because it is difficult or involves risk. Trying something new and risky is when you will learn the most about yourself and the institution you work for. It is often difficult to speak out in meetings as a junior member of staff but if you have something useful to say you will only do yourself and members of your team a disservice by self-censoring. If you find it intimidating, run your thoughts past a senior member of your team for support and advice in advance, they may be able to help bring you into the discussion.

Seek feedback

All the time you are unpromoted you should be learning and preparing for the next step. Solicit feedback about your work and don’t wait for the annual reviews, which tend to be sanitised. If you really want to improve you need to dig out any negative feedback and work to improve. The negative feedback will be of the most useful to you – don’t take it personally but look on it as a “gift” which helps you improve. This is why volunteering for additional “unpaid” duties can be so important, as these will stretch you and you will learn more by being involved. As a note of caution don’t volunteer for anything and everything. Assess which tasks you can take on with a reasonable chance of success, without impacting on your core work and it helps if you are genuinely interested in the tasks you are volunteering for. Don’t let enthusiasm to help, detract from the time you need to devote to your teaching.

Share your work

If you are willing to put a lot of extra effort into additional duties it makes sense to do them to the highest standard possible and if they are then worthy of sharing, do so. Don’t hide your work, seek review and use this to improve on it further. In my first two years as a teacher, I volunteered to get involved in some educational research with external researchers. I thought it would be interesting but didn’t realise it would be as notable on my CV as it was. I enjoyed the work so much I put a lot of effort into writing assessment materials for use with pupils. I had prepared them to a much higher level of professional presentation that was usual for assessments, little realising that it made them more easily published and I was then asked to write accompanying articles to explain their use. Suddenly the audience for a very small part of my work was national and international rather than just my own school. Another example of work-sharing is purposely publishing your work. The first piece of work I had published was an audio-visual presentation I had written for my own classroom, in my second year of teaching. It does take quite a bit more time to write something to a publisher’s standard, that people will pay money for. The advantage is your work has a wider audience and incidentally, you get some payment for it – although you’ll not get rich publishing for an educational market. These examples of sharing work are not everyone’s “cup of tea” but there are always opportunities in an organisation to shine beyond the core essential work.

Commit yourself to the work

I have never understood the minimalist approach to work. Getting to work just in time and leaving at the first opportunity. If you are always clock watching and doing the bare minimum you shouldn’t expect to be promoted. Anyone wanting to get on at work has to bring their whole self to work. What I mean by that is you have to realise, work is not just a series of mechanical processes, you are connecting with people and working in teams and that involves making a real human connection, giving at least a little of yourself. Colleagues who play together, work better together. The mutual support colleagues give each other cements the teamwork that is so important in making progress in any organisation. Many aspiring leaders are prepared to go the extra mile, but it is also important to strike an appropriate work/life balance if you hope to sustain a leadership position for the long term. Well- rounded teachers and headteachers have a life out of school.

Do the core job well

You are employed to teach and help young people achieve the best qualifications they can. You can expect to have your examination results examined and compared against other staff. The way you teach, the response you get from students and their results all contribute to your reputation within the school. If you teach in a non-core subject, then the numbers of students choosing your subject may also impact on your reputation. I’ve found that teaching “success” comes from two complementary approaches to teaching. Making your teaching interesting and focused on what is necessary to achieve results in exams. The two are not the same. I’ve come across some popular and interesting teachers who just don’t get the exam results their students deserve. Some teachers are good at getting exam results but have a very limited range of teaching methods which can make their lessons a bit on the dull side. I would advise striving for a happy medium, never lose sight of the fact your students want to do well and achieve qualifications but make your teaching is as enjoyable and participative as possible. Students who enjoy your classes and have really engaged in them will remember and learn better.

In order to do the core job well, it is worth reflecting on a few simple tips that I would offer anyone new to teaching.

Firstly, establish simple classroom rules which you expect pupils to follow and you will enforce – in well-run schools classroom rules are common to all classrooms and part of its behaviour management policy. Firm, fair and consistency are what you are aiming for.

Get advice from colleagues on what works well in the classroom – build up your arsenal of techniques.

Keep your individuality and sense of humour, you are building relationships in any classroom situation.

Don’t worry if your lessons don’t all go according to plan. Be prepared to stop and do something else instead.

Always have a few short tasks up your sleeve to call on at short notice.

Give your lessons a structure, outline the aims, teach and review.

Keep a stationery supply in your classroom, sadly pupils forget pencils, pens etc. It shouldn’t hold up the lesson.

Develop yourself

Don’t wait for opportunities to be handed to you – look for opportunities to develop yourself professionally and learn new skills. When I started teaching, I wanted to learn about pupil support and curricular changes in my subject area but there were no training opportunities offered by my school or local authority so I decided to seek out courses I could apply for, myself. There was no internet then, so research was the “old fashioned” way, on paper. I found evening courses in other local authorities I wanted to attend so I wrote to the people organising the courses, asking to join them, offering to pay my own way if required. As it happened, I was welcomed to the courses and only covered my own travel expenses.

I also applied to colleges of education for courses in school holidays to widen my skills base. In the absence of any provided professional development, I sought it out.

Nowadays you are less likely to have access to training as restricted but if you can’t find the opportunities you are looking for in a school or local authority offering – there is nothing to stop you helping yourself – undertaking online university or college courses for example. School’s will expect all members of staff to train in order to be able to contribute towards the school’s priorities, but these won’t always meet your own individual needs. Identify new skills or knowledge you want to pursue and discuss how best to meet these aspirations with your manager.

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