“You’re a senior leader first and a teacher second…” Really?

I write this post in response to a tweet from @leadingspark a couple of weeks ago, after this comment had been made and they wondered what others thought.  I sent out a few tweets, but realised that in order to explore the issue properly, I needed more time and space.

The relationship between teaching and leadership is an interesting one.  I fully accept that some teachers have no desire to move into leadership roles.  Anne Williams has written well on this.  I am pleased that both the Chartered College and the new Institute for Teaching are exploring ways in which teachers who wish to remain in the classroom can continue to be challenged, developed and inspired.  Justine Greening commented on the issue here.

I believe stimulating and rewarding professional development opportunities are arguably even more important for those who do not actively seek promotion via the leadership route.  If they are to continue to find their role within the classroom compelling and satisfying they may need to find ways to stretch themselves, so that they do not, over time, become less energised and motivated and potentially less effective.

I realised in my first few years of teaching that, much as I enjoyed it, I was ready to move on to the new challenge of trying to encourage colleagues to achieve their professional best, in addition to working to get the best from the pupils I taught.  For me, moving to a Middle Leadership role, then Senior Leadership and in due course Headship was a fascinating and fulfilling professional journey.  I continued to teach, including during my ten years as a head.  However, the focus of my role did change.  I taught, as a head, in order to get to know and to build positive relationships with the pupils.  I taught one lesson each week with each Year 7 (four or five forms each year) and was paired with their usual English teacher so that if I were away from school the class would be taught as usual and their education wasn’t disrupted.  Getting to know each individual Year 7 pupil’s name by October half term was important – and after 7 years of doing this I was privileged to know well, and to have built a relationship with, each pupil in the senior school.  I considered this made me a better head, and that was the key driver.

So as a head, I would definitely say it was about headship first and teaching second.  As a Head of English, Head of Sixth Form and Deputy Head, the teaching of my subject was more central to my role, and being an effective, credible teacher from Year 7 to the Sixth Form was a key part of being a successful Middle and Senior Leader.  I don’t think I had to be the best teacher in the department (though it wouldn’t have been appropriate if I’d been the worst…)  My job was now to support and challenge everyone else to achieve their professional best.  As a leader I had additional responsibilities and priorities, and it would have been disingenuous to have pretended otherwise.

So how do strike the right balance?  This would be my advice to teachers with Middle and Senior Leadership responsibilities:

  • You have to accept that you will do less teaching, and you may find you have less time to spend on planning, preparation and feedback to students. You still have to do the job well, and be credible and respected as a practitioner, but you need to recognise that this is not your only professional focus now.
  • You should continue to be a positive role model as a teacher, so arriving for lessons on time, being prepared and conscientious and meeting deadlines are still crucial. This doesn’t become less important just because you have leadership responsibilities.
  • However, failing to fulfil leadership tasks because you are prioritising your teaching role is not acceptable, and might lead to the comment: “You are a senior leader first and a teacher second.” Careful consideration of priorities and judicious allocation of your time should enable you to honour your responsibilities as a leader and as a teacher without either jeopardising the successful fulfilment of the other.
  • If you find your roles as teacher and leader constantly in conflict, you need to have a full and frank conversation (positive, polite, professional, private) with your head to discuss what is going awry. If you decide the two roles are not compatible because the ethos of the school means that teaching and leadership responsibilities are regularly in tension, you might need to consider a change of school/context before coming to the conclusion that either teaching or school leadership are not for you.  It could be within a different school and a different leadership team, with a different set of values, you feel less torn.

I know this is a sensitive and complex issue, and thanks go to @leadingspark for making me think more deeply about this.  I’d be interested in the views of others.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: John Berry

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