A good head for the job;Career development

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Kate Myers and John MacBeath ask why teachers want to move up the ladder

People become teachers for many different reasons. But few have odder explanations than the male head who once told a TES interviewer that he had decided to become a teacher when he was still in primary school.

"I remember going to see Mrs McOuat (his primary school head) and found her sitting in front of the fire in her office reading the paper," he recalled. "Although she spent a long time trying to convince me that this was the first time she had sat down, I still thought that this must be a wonderful way to spend your time."

But why do teachers decide to become heads? It can't be because they hope to have more time to read the newspapers.

In search of an explanation, we looked at the responses of 27 heads interviewed for The TES "Talking Heads" column between 1995 and 1998. Twenty were from Britain, two were from Canada, another two were from the United States and there was one each from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

They represented all educational phases and each had followed different career paths. In fact, all they had in common was that somebody, somewhere, had recommended them as a "good" head who would be an interesting interview subject.

When they were asked why and how they had become heads, their responses fell into four categories: the Inadvertents; the Premeditated; the Strategists and the Civic Servants.

The Inadvertents Few of them had thought about headship at the start of their careers. Many just climbed the next step up the promotion ladder without any career plan, and only knew they wanted to become heads when they reached the level of deputy.

The Premeditated They had their sights set on headship from the start. "Once I started teaching, I wanted to become a head because of the inspirational heads I worked with," said a male primary school head from Scotland.

The Strategists This group decided they wanted to be heads because they believed it was the only way to get things done. Impatience to "make things happen" had motivated them to move from the classroom to the larger stage of school management. There was a tension here, however, for those who got a lot of satisfaction from the classroom.

The Civic Servants The two heads in this category were both American. They were very different heads (one Hispanic male primary, from Albuquerque, the other black American, female secondary from Memphis) but both talked about their sense of civic responsibility. "This is the community I grew up in and it has now become virtually abandoned, leaving the poorest of poor families," the woman said. "I thought it was time to give something back." These American heads spoke without reservation or embarrassment about "service".

Although they may well have felt similar, none of the British heads spoke this way. This could be because of a culture in Britain that discourages overt discussion of community service, or perhaps because of the post-Thatcherite ethos of self-interest, managerialism and "me firstism".

It may also be due to their perception that the value of heads and teachers has been diminished by successive governments and the popular media. In this context, the feeling of belonging to a "noble profession" seems a little quaint and dated.

But whether they drifted into headship or set their sights on it from the beginning, job satisfaction came primarily from a sense of stewardship. It was working with young people and seeing them grow that made the job worthwhile - not the pay, performance-related or otherwise.

Kate Myers is professor of professional development in education at the University of Keele. Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University. This article is based on a chapter from their forthcoming book, 'Leading Learning Schools', to be published by Pitmans later this year

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