Roger Smith considers ways in which headteachers can help their staff make the most of their careers

As a headteacher I always wanted to work with colleagues who would be as good as or better than me and I still think this is important, because if our schools are all going to be effective then everyone who works in them has to be able to do their jobs successfully. Remember, as with fashion – where purple might be the new black, ‘satisfactory’ is the new ‘not quite good enough’. One excellent teacher in a sea of mediocrity will not make a school successful and one poor teacher in an otherwise effective school will lessen its effectiveness significantly. Good schools don’t just happen. They require hard work and systematic planning. Teachers, teaching assistants and administrative staff need to be able to progress. They need to know that there are ways forward in their careers that will mean higher status, more opportunities and, of course, more money. This will inevitably mean more responsibility and require more leadership and management skills. The question is how do we recognise the potential of teachers, teaching assistants and administrators? How do we help them recognise their own skills and how can we help them realise their potential?

Knowing your staff
An efficient recruitment process as well as a structured and effective performance management policy is very important. You will know what your school needs because of your development plan and will know what is possible financially because of your close knowledge of your budget. This is important because in both recruitment and internal promotions you need to be able to give honest answers to colleagues about what is and is not possible.

If your recruitment process works you will have an enthusiastic and effective work force. In fact, you will be part of the successful group referred to on page 3 of Ofsted’s Continuing Professional Development for Teachers in Schools that were ‘able to identify teachers’ professional needs well, and relate them directly to whole-school plans for development and improvement.’ The report tells us that ‘in most of these schools there were good consultative systems in place to involve staff in identifying their professional development needs.’ I am not sure what is meant by ‘good consultative systems’. For me, it is about talking to staff about their present roles, what they want to do in the future and then trying to match their aspirations to what the school needs or what another school might need.

The most effective forum for this is performance management and it is the future targets that are important. But, perhaps the most important question is really about where each member of your staff wants to go next? Some will have modest aspirations and need to be told how good they are and what they could and should be aiming for. Some will be aiming too high or wanting to move forward too quickly and it may be necessary to find ways to suggest more realistic aims. Some of the key questions that you can encourage your staff to ask themselves could include:

  • Where am I hoping to go within the next few years?
  • Where have I come from?
  • Am I successful in my present job?
  • Am I the right person for future promotions?
  • What exactly is available to me?

What exactly is available?

It is easy to know what jobs are available in your school and, of course, once you know this plans can be made to restructure and recruit people to either fill vacancies or develop a completely new role. But our staff may also rely on us to give them advice on what their future career routes could be. These could be relatively minor shifts in what they do. For example, gaining more experience by teaching a different age group or, in the case of teaching assistants, specialising in supporting different areas of SEN. Part of most people’s career progression will involve more money and more responsibility. This cannot mean just doing the same job. Promotion almost always means being expected to lead by taking on a leadership role which will almost certainly be linked to managing the work of colleagues. This can range from simply being responsible for a curriculum subject and staying firmly rooted in the classroom or moving into more serious leadership and management roles as a key stage coordinator, assistant head, deputy head and eventually headteacher. Some teachers are good leaders and some aren’t, but could be with the right kind of focused support. Leadership itself is exercised at many levels and we all need to recognise where our colleagues will be successful. It is like making sure that the round peg actually goes into the round hole. They will need our advice during the performance management process and also at other times when jobs become available because any promotion implies that the person who is promoted can actually do the job. All good teachers are effective leaders in their own classrooms because the actual process of teaching is about influencing, directing, setting targets and objectives and using appropriate resources to reach those targets. At the same time good teachers will also be able to directly and indirectly influence colleagues. Many teachers and, in fact, many teaching assistants are brilliant at this. Some are better than others at functioning as a leader at a wider whole-school level and being more responsible for larger decisions and whole-school standards. If we are going to offer advice on career structures we need to have a good overview of what is available. We also need to know where to go for the most up-to-date information. This is particularly true as roles and pay scales seem to be constantly changing. Teachernet is a good place to keep yourself up to date and being up to date will benefit your staff. Most teachers will follow a fairly predictable route through the main pay scale and then, post threshold, move on to the upper pay spine. Performance management will determine how successful they are in following this routine career path. Classroom teachers who take on more responsibility, usually for curriculum subjects, may be awarded Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payments and it is possible to become an advanced skills teacher (AST), which means moving on to a different pay spine. Teaching assistants who want to develop their skills even further can become higher level teaching assistants (HLTA).

Developing future leaders
There are many career routes, but those teachers who want to be doing what we are doing in a few years’ time will need to lead as soon and as early as possible. We might be able to develop their skills but if this is not possible they will need to be helped to move to a different school.

Leadership can be dependent on context. We all take account of the situations we find ourselves in. We identify weaknesses, diagnose what needs to be done and shape our actions and styles to the current needs of the school. There is no single best way to lead but it is important to try to distribute leadership across the school. Teachers aspiring to be deputy head teachers and headteachers need to practice their leadership by leading from the middle. In other words leadership needs to be shared. This means choosing the right people so that decisions can be taken by teachers who are closest to the action. These colleagues do need to be aware that as middle leaders they are responsible for improving the quality of teaching and learning within their sphere of influence and, at the same time, are held accountable for those improvements by their senior leaders. Many of us find this kind of delegation difficult so choosing and developing the right person is essential. The up and coming leader might find their role difficult and often frustrating. They have to be certain that it is what they want to do.

Choosing the right people
Performance management is the key to understanding and knowing our staff. If we have developed possible future leaders and know that some of our teachers want to take on more responsibilities as TLRs, for example, we have to give them the right advice in terms of actually knowing how to get the job they want. Offering advice of what jobs to go for is relatively easy but most jobs mean an interview and, as we all know, they can be fraught with difficulties. So what advice can we give? Follow the three golden rules:

  • Do your homework – what is the job – do you want it – can you do it, does your performance management reviewer think you can do it?
  • Present yourself honestly and professionally during any preliminary visits, presentations you might have to give and during the interview – by being punctual, having the right clothes and behaving professionally at all times.
  • Be prepared for disappointment as it might not be possible to walk into the first promotion that you apply for. Maintain your self-esteem by recognising that any rejection is about the job and whether the interviewers think you can do it – it’s not about you as a person.

Interview techniques

The actual interview with its face-to-face questions and answers is often the key to promotion. If you know that colleagues are going to be interviewed it is important to discuss the kind of successful interview techniques that can mean the difference between success and failure:

  • Be quietly confident.
  • Walk into the interview room briskly with head held high and greet the panel.
  • Sit still – don’t fidget – make eye contact and smile.
  • Listen to the questions and ask for clarification if necessary.
  • Try and answer the questions as a professional conversation.
  • Use your knowledge of the school to feed into your answers. To do this effectively, if you are an external candidate, you will need to have been very attentive during your preliminary visit.
  • Don’t ‘go on’. Look for signs that the interviewees are losing interest – glazed eyes, sideways looks at each other, fidgeting, etc. Draw to a close quickly by saying – ‘I could say much more but, unless you want me to add anything, I think I will stop there.’
  • Don’t try and bluff your way through. The panel will more than likely be seasoned campaigners who would rather hear something like, ‘I’m sorry that’s not something I know a lot about, but I would be very willing to learn.’

Good people get where they want to go eventually, but they deserve all the help they can get. We all need to know our staff, understand their strengths as well as areas that need to be improved. Supporting their applications and encouraging them to aim high will improve their self-esteem and raise their morale. Colleagues who are valued, even if it means losing them to promotion, will work harder and be confident enough to help us all to raise standards.

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher