An age-old battle for young heads

Fledgling teachers can bring a lot to junior leadership roles - but they must tread carefully

For those who want them, additional teaching and learning responsibilities can be taken on as early as two years into an education career. And, contrary to what some may think, young teachers about two to five years into the job are ideal for a junior leadership role in schools: they tend to have enthusiasm and drive in abundance, few out-of-school commitments and valuable recent experience of different school settings and the most up-to-date education theories. These qualities mean that they are usefully placed to challenge the status quo in the school for the better.

However, one potential hurdle for the young school leader is that they are likely to have control over colleagues with substantially more experience than themselves. This can be tricky, leading to insecurity on the young leader's side and potential resentment or lack of respect from the experienced teacher on the other. Often, the situation can be resolved through trial and error, which may be disruptive initially but will, with luck, result in a good working relationship. Things don't need to be so haphazard, however, as young leaders can use structured strategies to lead their more experienced peers effectively.

Leadership is about directing the resources that you have available, allowing them to work to the best of their ability to deliver the highest possible learning outcomes for the students in your school. A leader does not need to be an expert in everything, they just need to see the big picture and direct their team towards it. So insecurity should not be a factor.

As for building a relationship with more experienced and potentially difficult colleagues, first you need to understand your colleagues' motivations. Some teachers are driven by excellence in their subject, some by caring for the needs of the child, some by results - a combination of all three is desirable but rarely found. As an effective leader, your challenge is to harness which driver is pushing each of your colleagues and use it to deliver outstanding learning. Don't try to enforce different drivers; if you do, you will end up with negative results.

Second, you need to establish good two-way communication. Listen to and respect your colleagues' experiences, whether a policy they remember was successful or not - just because something was tried years ago and failed, it doesn't mean it won't work now. Whatever the outcome of that policy, ask what should have been done differently. This question can often be revealing.

As a young leader, if you listen and show understanding, you are more likely to receive the same respect back. Admitting your mistakes is part of this, too. It shows you are human. It is unrealistic to believe that every decision you take or idea you implement is the right one. Simply listening to your experienced colleagues shows that you are prepared to learn from others.

Third, it is important to build a feedback loop. Choose a colleague elsewhere in the school or a trusted member of the team who will tell you honestly how you are performing. It is important to have a safe way of building confidence and learning to accept criticism.

Finally, be clear with your objectives. If your team understands where they are going, they are more likely to understand each of your decisions along the way. They are also more likely to suggest alternatives that utilise their experience and deliver your objective with minimum disruption.

Even following these strategies, it is important to realise that you cannot please everyone all the time. Remember, too, that the experienced staff member can be a valuable asset rather than a foe. Treat them as the former and you often find that any potential problems are minimised.

Steve Pomery is head of seniors at Vinehall School, East Sussex, southeast England

In short

  • Young teachers have great enthusiasm and fewer external commitments, making them ideal for junior leadership roles.
  • Young teachers have recent experience of a number of different settings, allowing them to compare, contrast and challenge practices.
  • For success, they need to understand the motivations of other teachers; establish effective two-way communication; accept criticism; push at the right time to achieve success; and accept the loneliness of leadership and build a support mechanism that allows them to get feedback on their plans.
    • What else?

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