A breakdown of...early-career progression
"But if you love it here, why would you leave?!"
A lot of people seem slightly surprised when I introduce myself as a Head of Department at 28 years old. They then proceed to fall off their chair when I say that this is actually my second post and that I was made HoD after just a year of teaching, aged 23. In this post, I will explain the series of unfortunate events that led to me becoming a freak of the profession and what I took away from this Frankenstein transformation.
Now, I must start and say that this is not supposed to be a 'braggy' post. I need to clarify from the start that any progression has not necessarily been due to my amazing teaching or leadership skills (although, my CV certainly claims that it is...) - instead, is is perhaps just an indication of the current state of education in England. Teachers, particularly young, enthusiastic teachers with a degree of intelligence, are quickly swallowed up into middle management and pastoral roles. While this is excellent for some, it can often be a poisoned chalice for others. This is certainly what happened to me.
But, how did I get here?
I need to start off by saying that I absolutely loved my first school. My first job out of university was in publishing and I spent most of my days in an underground bunker sifting through archives. Kill me now. So, when I stepped into my first teaching role in a performing arts school on the 1st September, it was like a whole other world. I remember walking up the gravel driveway for my interview and hearing the melodic sounds of a grand piano as a group of ballerinas sachayed across the windows. I instantly texted my friends - "This place is like Fame..." Do I like classical music? No. Do I go to the ballet? I'm northern, of course not. But, was this better than image checking scans of seventeenth-century manuscripts? Most definitely.
During the honeymoon phase of the Autumn Term, I completely threw myself into the job and, in March of that year, I was appointed HoD.
Again, this was less about anything I had done and more due to the existing HoD angrily handing in her notice during a bust-up with SLT. For the next six months, I had to work under a woman whose job I was taking from under her, who resented my very existence and who did everything she could to avoid any contact with me. After just six months, ultimately I was no longer considered a NQT. The formal induction process was effectively abandoned, there was no more mentoring (aside from the odd couple of lesson observations from SLT) and I became a middle manager at 23. Albeit, this was leading a department of 1.5, but still, seriously?!
This was everything that I wanted, albeit MUCH sooner than expected. Even from my first week, I was itching to make tweaks to the outdated curriculum, inject new life into the tired old classroom and start using technology to transform student learning. So, over the next few years, this is exactly what I did and the department went from strength to strength.
However, I couldn't help feeling as though I was becoming a bit of a 'hollow' teacher. On the surface, I gave off the impression that I had been 'in the game' for years, but this was often just a clever use of smoke and mirrors (as well as me just looking haggard from a lack of sleep). In reality, I was pretty much just throwing bits of IT 'magic' at certain tasks and the middle-aged workforce would jump back in amazement. If they would have inspected these interventions more closely, they would have seen that they often lacked pedagogical awareness; I simply did not have the grounding in basic teaching practices. I had full-on impostor syndrome.
So, between January and March, I set up the standard TES alerts to notify me of teaching jobs in the area. Emphasis on the word 'teaching' - I was relinquishing my Head of Department responsibilities and joining the front line once again. While this seemed like a drastic step down to my former colleagues and Head, ultimately I knew that it was the right decision. I spent my last couple of days at school in floods of tears, living my Oscar-winning actor fantasy as I burbled: "I just have to do this..." before doing that final over-the-shoulder look back. Farewell...*
*Don't worry, I got over this pretty quickly. I went to Bali over the summer and drowned my sorrows in buckets filled with vodka and powdered energy drinks (I was still in my mid-twenties after all!)
The new school
Flash forward to 2019 and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my current school. While they have been really good to me, offering my a higher position every year (Second in Department, followed by Head of Department), I do not hide the fact that this is not my 'forever school'. I sometimes struggle to connect with the students here, the management is a little too traditional for me and I don't think I 'live' the values that the handbook says I should exude. However, this backwards step to a teaching role has been so useful for my development, and here's why:
1) Experience --> With only one school under my belt, it was easy for me, as a new teacher, to have a blinkered view of the teaching profession. However, entering a new environment provided so many opportunities to experience different behaviour management systems, rewards, sanctions, schemes of work, trips...the list goes on. Having this experience has provided an amazing opportunity for my own career development - it has meant that I can reflect on which system has worked best and can implement this going forward.
2) Clarity --> Taking on another school has also provided me with a little more perspective on what I want out of the teaching profession. I realise now that this is not just a job for me - if it was, then I would have remained in my previous HoD role and milked the TLR bonus for another few years. Instead, right from the start I was calling out for professional development and mentoring; I wanted to become a better teacher. When I realised that my new school was (again) unable to provide me with that, I decided to explore other avenues, such as the Chartered Teacher Programme and the Winston Churchill Fellowship. I sometimes wonder if I would have applied and completed these programmes had I not made the leap into another school. Do you know what? Probably not.
3) Self-confidence --> It is definitely a boost to your self-confidence when you can walk into another school and deliver lessons to a decent standard. I think even colleagues and senior leaders sometimes worry that there will be some teething problems with new staff (maybe even some permanent ones, given the state of the teaching profession in 2019!) So, the fact that I was able to find my feet in a new school certainly offered me a little more awareness that this is the profession I am supposed to be in. If I would have remained in the same school, then I am not sure I would have known the true extent of my teaching capabilities? Would I ever have been stretched and challenged? Even after two schools, I know there is still a long way to go to achieving this goal (if that is even possible!)
So, what advice would I offer to new teachers thinking of moving on? Well, I think that even if you love your first school, you need to ask yourself whether you are learning and growing as a professional. It may be that your current setting has offered you amazing mentoring support and continues to stretch your pedagogical knowledge each and every year; however, this is unlikely in the majority of schools today. So, if you are just staying for your colleagues, for the commute or for the students, then you may have to accept that this may hinder any progression in the long run (if this is even what you are after).
So my advice would be to take the leap after three to five years or so. You may end up in a pile of shit, but it is better to know what this looks and feels like than to not know at all! For ambitious teachers starting out their career, who may have their sights set on senior leadership, it is essential to have experience in three key areas: classroom teaching, departmental contributions and school-wide initiatives. Can you really get all of this from just one or two schools?
But what if you are not interested in senior leadership and simply want to remain in the classroom? Well first of all, with the pressure from OFSTED, parents and governors - who can blame you! Yet, I still think that gathering a broad range of experiences from multiple schools in your first ten years is beneficial. You will no doubt want to bring the 'best you' to your 'forever school' (I can't believe I am using these phrases...); but how will you know that you are doing that if you have only had a narrow and comfortable introduction to the profession? Having the self-awareness and self-confidence to know in yourself - 'I am the shit' - will completely transform your approach to the profession. This is only something that can come with experience.
However, for many people, taking the leap away from a first school is a huge decision and there are so many factors to consider; it is not all about personal and professional development. Thinking to yourself: 'this will look great on my CV!' will does not quite make up for unruly pupils, budget cuts and poor management - your wellbeing and enthusiasm for the profession is what matters most. So, whatever decision you make, just ensure that you think it through completely. Speak to colleagues, friends, family and the Twittersphere to gather some advice before you take the leap. After all, you will need lots of people there to give you a helping hand if you end up in that pile of shit!