Career lesson: I got too comfortable in my job

I stayed way, way too long in a northern university because it was so convenient.  Within walking distance of home, the job came with a large sunny office with three desks, a sofa and armchairs and a dozen stacking chairs for holding tutorials.  My timetable was light with one day free of teaching, there was a swimming pool on site, excellent colleagues, super students, and the lady who ‘did’ my office agreed to ‘do’ for me at home too.  Why would I move?  So I didn’t.

But it wasn’t good for me.  After a year or so I could do the teaching with no preparation, just walk in and perform.  I tired of this, and got the students to video my lectures in the micro-teaching suite so future students didn’t even come to lectures, they watched the videos in the library instead and I did extra tutorials.  I took on extra responsibilities, always the first to volunteer because I was bored, coasting along.

I prepared submissions for new degree courses, visited students on placements abroad, did voluntary classes in Academic English for foreign exchange students, and did the timetable for 57 staff.  I was appointed to various Faculty Committees, then to the university Monitoring and Evaluation Group, a sort of internal inspection, and became the external member of a fruit salad of degree courses from Information Science to Architecture via Nursing Studies.  I became Governor of three local schools and in my spare time I did a PhD in Languages and a RSA Diploma in Computing. 

This got me interested in the university’s new mainframe computer, and I did voluntary computing classes for final-year undergraduates.  I also dabbled in it myself, but before I finally left I did go to see the Director of Computing and showed him how I had hacked into the Permission Files of all users, including his.  He was grateful for the opportunity to improve security procedures.

These were ways to fill my time and my mind and were not part of a career plan.  In fact the range of activities probably played against me as I was seen as the eternal volunteer rather than someone likely to get up and go to another, more challenging, post.  When I applied, unsuccessfully, for a promotion, someone on the appointments board reported back to me that the verdict had been: “We’ll keep her anyway; as a married woman she’s captive”.  This was thirty years ago; nowadays they might think it but wouldn’t dare say it.

Captive, was I? I sat and thought: “What do I like doing, what am I good at doing, what do I want to be doing in the future, and what do I need to do now to get there?”.

Lesson learnt
I should have done this years earlier, instead of accumulating responsibilities in a haphazard way.  I liked strategic thinking, I was good at generating ideas for doing things better, I wanted to lead like-minded colleagues to provide the best possible educational experience for students.  By prioritising tasks and responsibilities that emphasised these aspects I took the first steps to achieving my dream post: Head of a school in south-west London where I worked with a team of outstanding teachers to help 1,250 pupils towards achieving their dreams too.


Jennifer Longhurst was, until December 2007, the head of Surbiton High School, an independent school that is part of the United ChurchSchools Trust Group of 10 independent schools and 15 Academies.