5 tips for building a successful teaching career

Progression in teaching is a ‘different beast’ compared with other industries, says a career-change international teacher

Philip Mathe

How to build a successful career as a teacher

In 2008 I left my career in IT sales and retrained as a teacher.

I did so because I wanted to teach. I had no plans for leadership, career progression or personal development. In the world I came from, you progressed through success, by moving companies or overachieving against targets.

There was no such thing as CPD. If you needed to upskill, it was on you. If you identified gaps in your skillset, you fixed them to ensure that the person behind you never caught up.

Experience counted for nothing. Age wasn’t a factor. Nothing was guaranteed and promotions were almost always based on hard facts. If you were good enough, you progressed.

Almost immediately I realised that the world of education, and progression within it, is a very different beast. It's complex, subjective, sometimes random and never assured. Decisions can be made for reasons of nuance. Politics and personality come into play.

Career progression for teachers: how to get ahead

In education career paths are often carefully planned, stepping stones are clearly laid out and often very public, and CPD is an expectation of employment. It didn’t take long to adapt.

Teachers don’t generally job hop like in industry. Taking the longer path is expected. Planning your progression is far more intricate. Knowing the path you want to follow: academic, pastoral, curricular or administrative, and setting out on a journey of personal development tailored to realise your ambitions.

Yes, teachers see jobs and "take a punt" and, yes, teachers fall into opportunities due to circumstance, but the majority I have worked with could tell you in detail their five- or ten-year plan, and many could map out their entire teaching career over a coffee.

For the first time since deciding on my university degree, I sat down and planned out the future. I looked forward and tried to decide where I wanted to be.

I’m not going to set out my career plans here – they are not for sharing – but I will share some of the things I learned along the way:

1. Nothing beats experience

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Heraclitus

There is no substitute for experience. Experience shapes the way we react and deal with things and will shape the teacher and leader you become. It helps you to develop stability in adversity.

Learning how you will react to certain situations makes you steady in your approach and more consistent. Remember your experiences. Banking positive and negative encounters and recalling these is key to showing true preparation for progression.

2. Build relationships

“Even the Lone Ranger didn’t do it alone." Harvey MacKay

Education is a relationship-based profession. Everything we do involves the building, maintenance and development of relationships. They permeate throughout a school and those who progress successfully are often those who learn to develop, cultivate and utilise those relationships in positive and powerful ways.

Seek out those who can support and guide. Work with those around you and above you. Develop an understanding that this will benefit both parties, and utilise others' experiences to shape your own.

Some take this to an extreme and the clique culture of schools is certainly present even today. The key to ensuring that your relationships are beneficial is to choose them wisely and develop, nurture and care for them. They are likely the most powerful career developer you have.

3. Broaden your skillset

Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety is the cure.” Petrarch

You can look at variety in two ways. Some would tell you that specialising is the key to progression, whilst others will believe that good leaders engage as widely as possible. Some of this will be determined by the school you work within and the schools you want to progress to.

The best leaders I have worked with turn their hand to any project with confidence and knowledge. Get experience across your school, seek out opportunities, don’t be afraid to say yes and challenge yourself.

4. Stay ahead of the curve

“You must always be able to predict what's next and then have the flexibility to evolve.” Marc Benioff

Education never sits still. It's constantly evolving. Just look at the past 18 months. Schools shift, flex, develop and grow. Those who can flex and adapt are always more likely to progress.

The ability to see where the winds are blowing and steer towards them is crucial in educational leadership. We gain these skills by putting ourselves in different situations and working with others to mould opportunities within our schools. If you can predict the weather, you will always know what shoes to wear. That's hugely attractive to a future employer.

5. Be patient

Patience is a virtue, I'm learning patience. It's a tough lesson. Elon Musk

I am not a patient person. A headteacher whom I respect hugely once told me, “You must learn that not everyone will run as fast as you. Sometimes you must slow down.” I hope he reads this and realises that I listened to what he said. 

Education is certainly not a fast-paced, dynamic industry. We sometimes like to think it is but having experienced the cut-throat, parry-and-thrust nature of high-stakes business, I can assure you it is not. It is very cathartic when you realise that it is OK to take a breath and slow down. 

Philip Mathe is director of sport at Brighton College Al Ain in the UAE

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