"During my ITT we had a session on progression and next roles," says Chris Clark, a teacher based in Leeds. "We were all asked where wanted to be in 5 years. Lots said head of year, second in department and so on. It came to me and I said I wanted to be the best classroom teacher I can be. Awkward silence was followed by incredulity about why I didn’t want to get on."
I know what Chris means. During my formative teaching years, phrases like “she’s become an assistant headteacher before 30” were bandied around much more than “she’s been a great teacher now for 10 years”. The “wow factor” was more often attributed to the former statement than the latter. “Doing well” seemed to be equated with moving up the ladder the quickest.
My own career very much followed that trajectory; I held no fewer than five different leadership roles in my first eight years of teaching. I wanted to progress. I wanted to build my career. I was ambitious. The only viable way for me to do that was to take on leadership and management roles. There wasn’t a burning passion inside me for strategic visions, data tracking or hosting departmental meetings. I did like to take a leading role on teaching and learning, I still do, but what I’ve realised is that our education system is restricting so many who like to share good practice from within their classrooms, who like to create resources, like to read and write about teaching. It is restricting them to one role – classroom teacher. There is rarely a progression model for pure teaching and learning.
So, moving up the only ladder available, many teachers not only struggle to jump through all the hoops but also experience a conflict between teaching and leading. When newfound time pressures come to bear, middle and senior leaders often need to make stark choices on a day-to-day basis – produce the best lesson or series of lessons for these children or produce the best plan for the development of my department or team. Sometimes, it’s a straight shootout between one-word lesson plans and one-word departmental progress reports. Of course, that’s a rather extreme example, but smaller sacrifices need to be made every day. For me, classroom teaching usually won out. I struggled to let go of the finer details of my teaching. I had to wake up in the morning and feel as though I had my lessons fully prepared for that day. This was a problem, because my team needed me and the department needed more care and attention than I was giving it. That’s not to say I neglected any of my core responsibilities, it’s just that my priority, rightly or wrongly, was always what was happening inside my classroom. This professional conflict was a contributory factor to my temporary burnout in 2015.
"An interview I had for a teaching role was cut short after I ‘lacked ambition’ in wanting to be teaching well when asked that ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ question," says Shuab Khan, confirming that some still suffer from a prejudicial disposition against the “ordinary” classroom teacher. Staying in the same school as a classroom teacher isn't lack of ambition if your ambition is to help students achieve theirs.
When I tweeted the above statement, it received a huge reaction. In my view, it’s so important for us to create a narrative that sets full time classroom teaching on a par with leadership and creates the opportunities for teachers to be rewarded for staying at the chalkface. Advanced skills teachers still exist, but there are fewer of them, and usually in subjects like maths and science. I think it’s crucial that roles are created in schools with high grade TLRs and with zero leadership and management responsibilities attached. This would clearly demonstrate that great teachers are great teachers: no one should feel like that’s not enough, whether that’s in status or in salary.
“I’ve been at my school for 13 years,” says Caroline Fletcher, a history teacher in Manchester. “Done the odd ‘extra’ thing but prime focus for anything I do in my job is always to get better at teaching to help the kids I teach. I have no shame in telling people this when they ask why I’m still “just a classroom teacher”.
The Caroline Fletchers of this world need more than our respect and a pat on the back, they need healthy financial rewards and a path towards their own form of career progression. It’s a scandal that our core purpose can be so institutionally sidelined.