Teacher training is a strange beast. The moment a graduate decides on a career in teaching, there are a multitude of routes open to them – so much so that the government has undertaken a review of initial teacher training provision in recent years.
From a university-based PGCE to SCITT schemes, Teach First/Now Teach and distance learning while in an international school, the landscape can be confusing and more than a little overwhelming.
Now fast forward into the early years of a teacher’s career. Once past the Early Career Framework in the UK, teachers are then free to pursue career routes which play to their strengths and interests.
And this is where the profession faces a challenge. A teacher who is a strong classroom practitioner, and relatively well organised, is highly likely to be targeted for a leadership role as a head of department, or as a head of year if there’s a perception of pastoral strengths.
However, the leadership skills necessary to be a successful head of department are frequently undeveloped at this point. There is a good deal of skill required to hold a successful difficult conversation with a colleague. Likewise it’s tricky to strike a balance between supporting a colleague and holding them accountable in the face of an irate parent.
“There is a good deal of skill required to hold a successful difficult conversation with a colleague.”
Then there’s budgeting, development planning and meaningful results analysis, health, and safety, managing departmental extra-curricular contributions, trips and in-school subject based events…..the list goes on.
Your talented teacher, who was inspirational in the classroom may be terrible at having difficult conversations – yet may be catapulted in their first year into a situation where this is a very prevalent aspect of their role.
A few years into this baptism of fire, and the head of department becomes an assistant head, then a deputy head, and perhaps, finally, leads a school of their own. At all these stages, there is a step change in the level of demand placed upon them to be effective communicators, holding teams of people to account but able to lift their heads from the day to day and see the bigger picture.
By the time they become a head, they are launched into areas of employment law, financial and risk management, and safeguarding awareness which they may never have encountered in any of their other roles.
So what support do we give our talented teachers in managing this transition and what formalised structures do we have, as a profession, to enable them to succeed not just in their own career but in supporting others?
“At every stage towards leadership, there is a step change in the level of demand placed upon teachers.”
There is a wide range of government (and other) courses available to individuals and schools, but none are compulsory, and at the school level there is a challenge of resourcing this when there are so many other competing needs.
When recruiting to international leadership roles, the challenge is magnified. With short-term contracts the norm, it is quite possible for a teacher to enter the world of international education and hop between schools, accruing titles, and rising through the ranks at an accelerated rate, without staying in a role long enough to hone their skills or to have their impact measured.
So in the absence of a formalised leadership development programme for the various stages of a teacher’s career, what can schools do to recruit, develop, and retain effective leaders at all levels?
One solution is to insist on leadership training for promising individuals to prepare them for their next step and to try and retain them in the organisation.
Yet undertaking the course does not guarantee that a candidate will be an effective leader. I have interviewed and worked with several middle leaders equipped with a theoretical leadership toolkit garnered from a higher-level degree or NPQ which they can deploy. Sadly though, some have little ability to assess what the most effective strategy will be in the situation they are facing.
“Undertaking the course does not guarantee that a candidate will be an effective leader.”
Whilst these courses bring together groups of leaders to share ideas, they are all operating in very different contexts in schools with different cultures.
I am a firm believer in growing our own – identifying teachers with the potential to become leaders and supporting them with a range of opportunities, from external training to work-shadowing, secondments, and special projects, designed to support them in trying out the mantle of leadership.
This should always be backed up with a mentor, who takes the time to support the staff member with strategies and acts as a critical friend when things don’t go according to plan.
For senior teams, the benefits of working with a facilitator/coach to build the team’s strengths as a whole and in the context of the school should not be underestimated for the cohesion and focus it can bring. And it can bring a real sense of connection and support retention.