When to say yes to unpaid work - and when to say no

Is it ever a good idea to take on an unpaid role in school 'for leadership experience'? One teacher shares her thoughts

Laura May Rowlands

Teacher careers: When should a teacher accept unpaid extra work?

Picture the scene: an email pings into your inbox. It’s an advert for your dream role, for the next academic year within your school.

Whether it’s a taste of seniority on the leadership team, responsibility for a department or phase, or leading on an exciting project, it’s a great opportunity to try out a new role in a time-limited opportunity.

But here’s the catch: it’s on a voluntary basis. Maybe it's termed "acting up". Maybe it's billed as an "associate" role or you'll be able to say you "lead a project". Whatever the name, it amounts to the same thing: free work.

Your hand hovers over the "apply" button. After all, it is your dream role, there for the taking. But is it worth it? And if you say no, will this damage your future career trajectory?

Teacher careers: When you should agree to unpaid extra work

Sometimes the right answer is to hit the apply button. But only if the job meets your needs, as well as the headteacher's – and, indeed, the school's.

Ask yourself, will doing this role give you a chance to experience the job role without the permanence of actually being formally appointed into the post? Perhaps this will be a chance to have the best of both worlds – a kind of "try before you buy" situation.

But be honest, too, and consider if you have the capacity to do it. Will doing this role negatively impact on other important aspects of your life? It might be that it is worth taking this opportunity to prove to yourself and your employer that you can take a task, attack it with gusto, and make a real difference to the pupils in your setting.

The chance to be mentored

Another reason to say yes might be the chance to be mentored.

In a volunteer role, you are likely to be given a mentor, or at least a more-experienced member of staff to check in with, bounce ideas off and generally use as a sounding board.

This is a great way to develop relationships and widen your network. And, of course, in a volunteer role the responsibility for the outcome of the job cannot rest solely on your shoulders.

When to say no

Schools run on goodwill, of which teachers have a lot. But no one has an infinite supply.

Before applying, it’s always a good idea to have an informal chat with whoever is appointing: this should give you clear guidance on what the role will entail and how you’ll be supported in it.

You also need to be clear on what you’ll get in return – whether it’s time, a budget, opportunities outside your workplace or a coach or mentor to work with.

If it’s not explicit what you are getting from this, then it’s just free labour.

Too often, ambitious teachers are told that this is "great experience" or even "essential" to be able to move on or up in their desired role.

The truth is, this simply isn’t the case. It is unscrupulous to mine the energy of a teacher trying to better themselves and their school when there is no recompense other than a bullet point on a CV.

This is particularly apparent when the oft-promised permanent role is never advertised, but the volunteer role is, mysteriously, once again vacant.

Good schools that truly wish to develop their staff will invest – either in time or in remuneration.

Negotiating a good deal

So, you’ve weighed up your options and decided that, on balance, the opportunity is too good to pass up.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t negotiate a deal that is going to develop you and benefit your career. After all, isn’t that the purpose of a voluntary role?

A good employer will understand this and will try to accommodate the needs you have in order to be able to do the job effectively.

Extra PPA or leadership time, although expensive for schools, will inevitably be vital for you to do the job – you will need time to plan, meet with external stakeholders, visit other schools or observe other teachers.

What if they say no?

If this just isn’t possible, then you should ask what other time can be given. Think outside the box: can you be relieved from certain duties or from having a tutor group?

The bottom line is the fact that it is unreasonable to expect a teacher to take on extra responsibilities with no time, no financial incentive and no other discernible benefit, and it’s important to be honest about this at interview.

And if the answer is a firm "no" to any of these, then it may be that you’re dodging a bullet.

Laura May Rowlands is head of English in a secondary school in Hampshire

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Why international teachers should receive financial CPD

There's a lot to learn working in another country - not least the financial situation and how to use your money wisely, which is why perhaps a CPD session or two would be a worthwhile investment
David Keating 30 Jul 2021