Novices at the helm

UNDER THE THRESHOLD: A new series for recent entrants to the profession

Newcomers tread a fine line when they make an early move into management, writes Janet Murray

Taking on new management responsibilities within the first five years of a teaching career was once a rarity. But difficulties with recruitment and retention and the modernisation of the profession have changed all that.

Increasingly, those in the early stages of their career are curriculum or year-team leaders. Yet many find that their fresh approach to leadership isn't always flavour of the month with their colleagues.

"The older colleagues I manage are very stuck in their ways," says Fiona Bradley, an English teacher and curriculum team leader for media studies at a secondary school in Leeds.

"They rubbish new initiatives and won't comply with them. I feel everything I do is constantly under attack.

"I recently gave a presentation to the department about starter activities.

I'd put in lots of work and hoped to get people enthused. I was met with a chorus of, 'I've never done a starter activity in my life and certainly don't intend to now.'"

Victoria Hems, a primary teacher in London, agrees. She was thrilled when she was asked to be a special needs co-ordinator after two years' teaching.

But it has been an uphill struggle.

"I introduced tracking sheets for all pupils with special needs so that we could monitor their progress, but I've met with so much resistance," she says.

"Most colleagues think that if they ignore things for long enough, I'll stop asking. I have also tried to get staff to complete individual education plans on the computer. It's extra work in the short term, but in the long term it should save everyone loads of time.

"Despite providing two in-service days with my deputy head and offering to go through it all with staff individually, they are still dragging their heels."

Ms Bradley has also had to put up with snide remarks and is exasperated by her colleagues' poor motivation.

"We have regular departmental meetings, but the more experienced staff never turn up," she says.

"Most leave as soon as the bell goes at 10 past three. Nobody wants to share ideas or resources."

She believes her colleagues' dismissive attitude is due to the fact that she is in her early 20s. Yet late entrants to the profession are just as likely to encounter difficulties, particularly if they have held a senior post in another profession. Their previous experience is undoubtedly of value, but they might still have difficulty persuading the "We've always done it this way" crew.

Ian Bauckham, head of the Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, an 11-18 comprehensive in Tunbridge Wells, believes that managing more seasoned staff can be a sizeable challenge for teachers in the early years of their career.

"Throughout my career, I've had to manage older, more experienced staff," he says. "When I took up my first head of department post in London, I was the youngest in the department. You have to accept that some people feel threatened by change or new ideas, and that can cause them to put up barriers.

"I've learnt that while you have to value people's experience, you have to be able to filter those who are resistant to change, but you can't be seen to dismiss people's experience. You have to show that you are willing to listen to others."

Steve Thorp, director of operations and services at the Teacher Support Network, agrees. "You have to be sensitive, always acknowledging people's experience," he says. "As a leader, it's important to remember that you're not just there to co-ordinate ideas. You're there to share ideas. To get people on your side, you need to build collaboration. It's also an issue of accountability. As well as being open and listening to everyone's ideas, you have to let them know that the buck stops with you."

With some colleagues, a little flattery can go a long way. Asking individuals for help with specific projects - particularly ones that use their areas of expertise - can make staff feel valued. In the long run, this can make for more supportive colleagues. But that approach has to be carefully balanced with authority, says Mr Thorp, who warns that too much flattery can be mistaken for deference.

Mr Bauckham adds: "Whatever your age or experience, there will be times when you have to make unpopular decisions. You have to be impervious to any accusations that you're an 'upstart' or 'above your station'. But if you've been open every step of the way, while gently reminding people that you're in charge, you shouldn't make too many enemies."

Being in charge can be tricky for younger teachers. Fresh out of college, sometimes only four years older than the sixth-form students, it can be difficult to develop that crucial air of authority.

Will Thomas, a former head of science, now a training consultant, says:

"When you're feeling out of your depth, act as if you 'can', as if you're 'capable of' whatever it is you have to do. This can help you to feel more authoritative."

Dressing in a professional manner can also help. You don't need to ditch the parka for tweed jackets with elbow patches, but a suit or smart business attire help you look and feel the part.

In the end, says Mr Bauckham, it all comes down to how well you do your job.

"Most reasonable people will be able to see that you're doing your job to the best of your abilities," he says. "If you're doing that, it shouldn't take you long to win people over."

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