Am I too old for a leadership role in teaching?

This media-manager turned teacher turned edtech whizz is giving teaching another go – and is hoping that this time, his age doesn’t hold him back

James Gardner-Martin

Leadership, school leadership, becoming a head, headteachers

Last month, I turned 50-years-old. I celebrated surrounded by friends and family, all dressed up in Great Gatsby gear and sipping bubbles out of fake crystal champagne glasses. 

It was a very different scene to 10 years before, on my 40th birthday. Then, I took the opportunity to tell my loved ones that I was leaving a very well-paid media job for teaching. 

At the time, it felt like the right thing to do. The media industry is a young person’s game and even in my late thirties I was witness to contemporaries getting the chop or being elbowed out as the corporate wheel of takeovers and mergers turned. Teaching felt like a secure, steady job where I could forge myself a new career before it got too late.

Now 10 years on, I find myself asking: was it too late?

Five years into teaching, I landed a position as head of department at a thriving new free school in Eastbourne. I had secured the job despite colleagues advising me I was “too green” and “needed more experience” before applying for even second-in-charge jobs. 

This is my first concern. Despite having previously managed a team of nearly 100 people at Sky TV’s headquarters, when at an interview for a second-in-department job, I was sent home in the lunchtime cull, and was told that I needed more management experience.

Thankfully, they weren’t all like that and I secured the head of department job soon after. Four years later, I was ready for the next step again. That’s where the problems started.

Despite a number of assistant head adverts encouraging middle management experience, every one that I applied for that year didn’t have the courtesy to write back to me. 

Eventually, I got an interview for a head of sixth form which was also an SLT position. The feedback I got was very positive: I’d sold myself well, explained my suitability for the position and impressed the governors. However, I ended up losing out to a colleague 20 years younger than me. You’ll excuse me, then, for starting to think that age must have something to do with this.

And so I left teaching for the edtech world, having been offered what – on the face of it – seemed like a very attractive proposition promoting a product I was already using in the classroom. It’s a route that I’ve seen many of my colleagues – particularly those on Twitter – take. It seems that when many hit a brick wall in teaching positions, they naturally turn to other roles in education. Consultants, content and resources producers, examiners, textbook authors, professional bloggers and researchers all were classroom teachers at one point or another.  But edtech wasn’t for me. I found myself working in a very small team of enthusiastic and talented young people, feeling very much out of place and answering to a “boss” on a daily basis for the first time in 10 years. Say what you like about teaching, but once that door is shut or that lesson bell has rung, you’re your own master.
So I’m giving it another go. I’ve stepped back into the hamster wheel and have secured a position in charge of key stage 4 languages at a large, well-respected school from September. I took the job for a number of reasons, including the fact that the head instantly recognised I had senior management in mind and offered to include me in the school’s leadership training programme. 

Perhaps it’s just a case of finding the right school, or the right career path, for that age barrier to disappear in a puff of smoke.

James Gardner-Martin is a former teacher who's looking forward to returning to the classroom this year. 

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