Leadership - Why be a senior leader?

In part two of a series about career development, we look at the rewards of joining the SLT
15th May 2015, 1:00am


Leadership - Why be a senior leader?


There comes a point in middle leadership when you get fed up of your limited power and influence. You realise it is time to step up and become part of an acronym: the SLT beckons.

I realised I was ready for the senior leadership team after a particularly chaotic parents' evening. I was the new head of English in my third school, eight years into my teaching career. When it came to our first parents' evening of the year, I realised how differently schools organise such events. There was no appointment system here and parents queued in a fairly random way. If they joined a line that was slow-moving, they could become quite tense - and by the time they reached the teachers' desks they were often not in the most positive frame of mind.

It seemed clear to me that there were better ways of doing things. I went to see the headteacher, who agreed it might be time to make a change but he wanted to ensure that everyone was in agreement. He asked me to present my views at an upcoming staff meeting.

I stood up to speak, full of enthusiasm and the naivety born of relative inexperience. I talked about alternative systems and how, I thought, we could improve ours to make it more positive and purposeful for staff and parents.

I quickly became aware of my audience's negative body language. There were no nods or smiles, just stony stares and folded arms. When I finally got to the end and asked for questions, I was given a grilling by staff who "didn't see how it could work", "didn't feel it was right for this school" and weren't even prepared to try it before making a decision.

A chance for change

I drove home that day feeling bemused. I thought I'd presented a compelling case, clearly and confidently, but I'd got absolutely nowhere. It took me a while to work out what had happened. I was the newly appointed head of English. Parents' evenings were nothing to do with me. Who did I think I was?

I knew then, in the early days of my time as a middle leader, that one day I would feel the need to be a senior leader. I wanted to be able to suggest whole-school changes, even to something as relatively minor as this, and at least be taken seriously.

I loved being a head of department. Enthusiasm for my subject had taken me into a career in teaching in the first place and I was enjoying working with my classes. In this role I had the chance to have an even greater impact on what happened across the English classrooms, working closely with the rest of the team. However, I didn't feel that I made much of an impact on the life of the school beyond that domain.

That's not to say that joining the SLT is for everyone. For many heads of departments, being immersed in their subject and holding a position of influence in that sphere is as far up the ladder as they want to climb. But for others, here are six reasons why the leadership team might appeal:

1 Whole-school scope

Although you will continue to do a significant amount of teaching, suddenly your area of responsibility (whatever that may be) affects the whole school, rather than just your department. This enables you to make more of a difference to more learners and work with more staff.

2 A bit of clout

You have the authority and the status to take on more substantial challenges and make more of an impact in a strategic sense, rather than simply an operational one. You have a greater opportunity to work with the headteacher, governors and the rest of the senior team to shape the school's vision. All staff - teaching and support - should be consulted on decisions, but you are making things happen.

3 Developing staff

Whatever your area of responsibility, developing staff is likely to be a part of what you are able to achieve. Seeing others grow in confidence over time is hugely satisfying. As a senior leader you have the chance to support your headteacher and the rest of the senior team, in addition to supporting, challenging and helping the rest of the staff to mature.

4 Facilitating excellent teaching

Your work can enable teachers to do a better job; you need to see your role as one that facilitates the best teaching and learning, not one that adds pressure and makes it harder for staff to perform at their best.

5 Leadership experience

If you are considering moving to headship in due course, this is important preparation. The parameters widen and the range of areas you are involved in extends significantly. You will work with many different groups across the school community and may also build key relationships beyond the school gates.

6 Broader horizons

If you are eager for a new challenge and are ready to be tested, you will find being part of the SLT stimulating and rewarding.

For me, senior leadership was a natural, enjoyable and satisfying next step after my time as a head of department. And when I became a deputy head several years later in my sixth school, I discovered that they didn't have an appointment system for parents' evening. When I spoke to the headteacher, she said: "If you want to try a different system, go for it."

Just think: what would you like to change if you had the opportunity to do it?

Jill Berry has worked across the independent and state sectors in leadership positions. You can find her on Twitter @jillberry102

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