SLT job shadowing – getting a foot on the career ladder

Senior leadership coaching gives staff a chance to gain experience to step up to an SLT role, explain two participants

Maddy Jones and Caitlin Gray

School leadership: How senior leadership job shadowing and coaching can boost teachers' career prospects

In recruiting for senior leadership team job positions, many schools want someone with prior SLT experience – but how can you achieve this if you’re never given the opportunity? Catch-22 and all that...

But in our school we offer a number of ‘associate roles’ each year, whereby a member of staff is appointed to shadow and be coached by a current member of SLT, to facilitate moving into such a position in the future – a great talent and retention strategy and it brings new voices to the table.

So how does it work? Here, Maddy Jones, key stage 4 director at an international school in Malaysia, and Caitlin Gray, the associate to this position, offer their insights on the benefits that this offers and how to consider something similar in your setting.

Maddy Jones, key stage 4 director and assistant headteacher

How does the senior leadership coaching system work?

In our school, the associate role lasts for one year and associates might shadow a key stage director or vice-principal, depending on their experience.

They join the school’s SLT team, attending meetings and contributing on a whole-school level to the development and improvement plan in order to gain insight into the range of responsibilities of the role and to develop their own knowledge and skills for the future.

Associate and mentor meet regularly to discuss plans and progress towards goals. The associate role can take a number of forms, depending on the needs of the school and individual.

Some associates choose to work on one project over the academic year while others shadow the role more broadly to gain a better understanding of all the aspects that the role encompasses.

How do you help associates make the most of the opportunity?

An associate is not your PA – they are not there to pick up the tasks that you don’t enjoy. There may be some out there who believe in the art of delegating the more mundane tasks in the role so that their associates “get to know the ins and outs” of the roles, but, in my view, the purpose of the associate role is to allow teachers to get the experience and insight into the role before they decide if this is the right move for them. It’s not about unloading on them.

Teamwork and collaboration with my associate have been key this year. We started the year by looking at the plans for the year ahead in line with our school improvement plan and outlining what our key priorities were. We then decided together on the areas we would work on, together or individually but met regularly to make sure our vision for the year was aligned.

How do you guide associates through the process?

Leadership styles with your associate might be different but honesty and open communication are key in this partnership, especially if you want a good working relationship.

Remember, your associate is taking on this role as an additional responsibility alongside their main teaching roles.

Make your associate feel valued and part of the team. Hold regular meetings and stick to them. Embrace listening to another perspective on an idea and discussing some of the tasks or challenges being faced daily. Often, as a senior leader, you find yourself working away solo in your office getting through the day.

Sharing and teaching the role, explaining what and why you are doing something with your associate, actually helps to both rationalise and prioritise what you’re doing. It’s even helped me to find more effective ways of completing or changing tasks for the better. Be open to new ideas – leaders are always learning, too!



What are the benefits?

As well as helping with their professional development, having an associate working with you is also great for your own development.

I’ve certainly reflected on my own leadership style and developed the way I want to lead others. I’ve improved my own coaching skills and this is key in working with an associate.

I’ve enjoyed sharing my knowledge but this has been reciprocated. In return, my tech-savvy and innovative associate, who is also a fellow English teacher, has shared a wealth of knowledge with me to boost my own pedagogical practices.

Helping someone to develop in their own leadership journey is a big responsibility. We can’t afford to have bad leaders in schools, so giving the right advice and support is essential. It’s been a real privilege to have worked alongside my associate this year, who is now leaving for a promotion in another school.

Caitlin Gray, associate key stage 4 director

Why do it?

I have a range of experiences as a middle leader and am constantly looking for ways to continue to improve and develop my expertise. When the opportunity came up to apply for an associate role, I was keen to learn more about improvement at a whole-school level.

What was it like?

Stepping up to the role of associate and joining the school’s SLT team can be a daunting experience. Initially, I was nervous to speak up during meetings in case my comments were irrelevant or unwelcome.

However, these nerves were quickly allayed once I began to understand more about the role and the challenges that leaders face. Having a range of voices at the table is vital to ensuring the right decisions are made, leading to the best outcomes for students.

Associates, who often continue to teach a full timetable alongside the role, can provide the perspective of a classroom teacher, so that when discussions about the calendar or new initiatives arise, we can be confident that the impact of this on all staff members is considered.

How did I make the most of the experience?

The associate role can take a number of forms, depending on the needs of the school and individual. Some associates choose to work on one project over the academic year. However, I preferred to shadow the SLT role more broadly to gain a better understanding of all the aspects that the role encompasses. Personally, this allowed me to target areas of leadership I wanted to develop.

My experiences as a middle leader have been academic, so taking the lead on establishing and monitoring a coaching programme for Year 11 students and developing the ways in which KS4 tutor times are utilised has allowed me to develop a better understanding of the pastoral aspects of senior leadership roles.

It is vital to keep the lines of communication open between you and your mentor to ensure that you gain the experience you are looking for.

What did I learn from it all?

Learning opportunities have presented themselves in many ways aside from the obvious professional development that comes from shadowing a member of SLT. Hand-in-hand with the role, associates have met fortnightly for workshops on topics such as having difficult conversations and running successful meetings.

These sessions have allowed us to share our experiences in the role, offer each other support and advice, and continue our PD from a research-informed standpoint.

In the second half of the academic year, these sessions have been led by each associate in turn, where we have shared a specific piece of research or useful leadership tool with the group.

This has enhanced the confidence of associates in delivering CPD to others and encouraged us to develop an evidence-informed approach to leadership.

Being an associate this year has offered me invaluable insight into the role of senior leaders: learning from a mentor I respect and admire, understanding the myriad decisions they navigate on a daily basis and where precisely my own career aspirations lie has been hugely beneficial and I look forward to continuing to put what I’ve learned into practice.

Maddy Jones is key stage 4 director and assistant headteacher and Caitlin Gray is associate key stage 4 director at an international school in Malaysia

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