A new way of thinking about teacher talent management

Want to avoid losing staff because of a perceived lack of progression? Give them a tour of duty, suggests Mark Steed

Mark Steed

Teacher recruitment and retention: A new way of thinking about teacher talent management in schools

When principal at Berkhamsted School in the UK, I used to give a bottle of champagne in assembly to every colleague who had completed 100 terms at the school.

It was a small token of recognition for devoting their working life to the school. In my seven years working there, I gave away four bottles!

Indeed, it is very unlikely that many millennials or Gen Z teachers will "carry their bat" in the same way, as education mirrors what is going on in wider society where the idea of working for one firm and getting a gold watch on one’s retirement is long gone.

Today we talk about “portfolio careers”, and job-hopping is no longer a red flag – rather it is an accepted norm in the wider employment market.

Considering this, then, is it time for us to take a new look at careers within the profession, and for schools to develop a new relationship with their teaching staff?

The traditional model is school leaders try to find as much talent as they can get their hands on and squeeze tight to keep them. This approach is understandable. There is a global teacher shortage and, increasingly, talent is hard to find, particularly in specialist subjects.

It is also often much easier to retain staff than recruit new ones: after all, the whole recruitment process is costly, time-consuming and disruptive.

In this context, it is not surprising that school leaders often play all the cards at their disposal to retain staff.

Ultimately, it is often cheaper to allow a teacher to move through threshold, to award (or create) a TLR or additional non-contact time, or simply to make a recruitment and retention payment than to risk losing the colleague.

Teacher recruitment: becoming a talent pipeline

However, an alternative model recognises that those coming into the profession, characteristic of their generation, know their market value and are more proactive in wanting to progress their careers.

Rather than trying to tie these talented young people in, this approach seeks to harness their drive and ambition to benefit them and the school.

For this to happen, both the school and the teacher need to invest in the process: the teacher needs to make a commitment to the school to drive some area forward for a given period of time; and the school needs to make a commitment to the teacher to develop her by providing suitable training and career-enhancing experiences.

Tours of duty

One way to look at this is in terms of a "tour of duty" – a concept borrowed from the military.

A teacher joins the school, say as a subject leader, and commits to a "tour of duty" of developing some aspects of that department for a period of, say, three years.

At the end of that time, the school and the teacher can renegotiate a new tour of duty in school.

This might be in the same role focusing on new challenges for the department or perhaps it might involve moving into a different role in the school, perhaps as a faculty lead; or it could mean parting friends as the colleague moves on to an opportunity in another school.

This latter approach has much merit in that it develops the school into a talent pipeline, which is constantly attracting dynamic middle and senior leaders who are driving school improvement.

Training roles

The tour of duty approach also allows schools to develop their next generation of leaders.

At Kellett, we are in the process of restructuring the senior school SLT. As part of this process, we are creating four assistant head roles (academic, data and exams, co-curricular, professional development).

These positions are great training roles, where the incumbents can learn different aspects of senior leadership.

The plan is that they might move around these roles every couple of years before moving on to a deputy headship, either in the school or elsewhere.

This approach not only develops the individuals, it also keeps everyone fresh, and gives the school greater resilience as there is a wider knowledge within the SLT.

Avoiding the ‘dead man’s shoes’ scenario

High-performing organisations recognise that talent needs to be fostered and given opportunities to develop and be promoted.

They have long recognised that the “dead man’s shoes” approach to career management is a recipe for talented individuals either to leave or to go into a cycle of decline.

Their solution is that it is an accepted feature of their career structure that senior figures will be asked to move aside after they have had a good run in a role, thus creating opportunities for the talent that is coming through to be promoted.

Here, again, the tour of duty model is helpful because it provides the opportunity for school principals to unblock the promotion pathway.

This entails having a conversation with a middle or senior leader stepping down from a position of responsibility to move into a new role.

Striking a balance 

Talent management is important, but, of course, schools need to strike a balance. Not every teacher wants to rise up the ranks.

There will always be teachers who just want to teach, and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, having every member of staff on a short-term tour of duty could be a recipe for mayhem.

The most effective schools are the ones where there is a balance between talented individuals moving through the school and the stable core of teachers who have been at the school for a period of time and are guardians of the school’s ethos and values.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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