Afraid of heights

5th December 2014 at 00:00

Ambition is a good thing. In further education, the most obvious ladder to climb is the one that leads from first-tier management to the principal's office. I'm often asked if I'm keen to reach those giddy heights. I am not. I don't have the right skill set and - I say this with love - I'm not a psychopath.

I've met a lot of principals and have found them in the main to be passionate people, dedicated to the welfare of their students and staff. However, to be in a position where you have the final say over decisions that can affect tens of thousands of people, you have to be devoid of self-doubt and fear. You have to unapologetically believe that your judgement is right, when people's entire lives hang in the balance.

If that pathological egocentric certainty is twinned with an equally formidable moral compass, then I am more than happy to serve at their pleasure. Long may that band of power-hungry overlords reign.

But if you have no intention of moving into management, the opportunities for career progression within colleges are few. Those who are ambitious to be the best teachers they can be are often nudged towards the Advanced Practitioner or Learning Coach route. Although these sorts of roles recognise a practitioner's expertise, they often extract the teacher from the teaching environment to work exclusively with colleagues, which is surely a kind of madness.

Teachers are one of the most difficult cohorts to teach. I revert to my teenage self within minutes of being in a group training situation and have to routinely talk myself out of drawing a penis on the nearest surface. But however troublesome we can be, we do not reflect the typical FE demographic.

Dual professionalism is defined as expertise in a specific vocation in addition to pedagogical practice. People who coach other teachers yet are not contracted to continue their own classroom practice are not dual professionals. The structure of this role undermines their authority as a resident expert. Yet it would be so easily fixed by spending just a few hours a week with real-life students.

Although I have only ever taught part-time, a few years ago I chose to step away from the classroom and focus on more strategic endeavours. I soon knew I'd made the wrong decision. I missed the energy of the students and the camaraderie of the staffroom. Within six months I had come to see teachers as "them", not "us". On returning to the classroom, I was anxious that I'd forgotten how to teach or interact with young people.

It was, as it turned out, like riding a bicycle, but I was surprised at how quickly my absence changed my outlook. That experience magnified my concerns about decisions made by leadership teams who never roll their sleeves up.

We need leaders to ensure that FE colleges thrive as dynamic organisations, but the people who facilitate the core business are the teachers; without them colleges would not exist. It's time that more thought was put into creating pathways for career progression for those who are ambitious to be the best teacher possible.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons


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