How to turn heads and influence key people;Subject of the week;Career development

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Building a teaching career takes more than going on the right courses and an impressive CV. Gerald Haigh tells two true stories

Mark started his teaching career in an up-market fee-paying school. He was working class with a heavy regional accent and at first felt like a fish out of water. Then he realised two things - that he was a good teacher and that instead of being in awe of his scholarly colleagues, he ought to watch them and learn. So he set about reinventing himself.

He realised he looked younger than his age, so he bought some sober made-to-measure suits. Then he practised speaking until his accent was hard to detect, and he set out to control his youthfully awkward and self-conscious body language, adopting that slow-moving grace which goes well with an academic gown.

With his new persona - and, of course, with his proven teaching ability - he went for some interviews and soon became a head of department in a prestigious school. There he became known as a wise, cool and cultured person with a twinkle in his eye and a dry sense of humour. He would hold court at lunchtime in a corner of the staff common room, surrounded by his admiring junior colleagues. When he wanted to speak to the head he would adopt a confidential, business-like air. He never looked back and progressed rapidly to headship.

Now take Max. He was hungry for promotion. Everyone knew it, too. Max returning ill-tempered from yet another unsuccessful interview became commonplace. Paranoia set in - someone was giving him bad references or passing on rumours about his private life. What other explanations could there be?

In truth, Max was the archetypal self-destructing candidate. He talked too much and too loudly before, during and after his interviews. On a tour of a school he would tell inappropriate jokes and make disparaging comments.

Worse, his behaviour was similar at courses and meetings attended by lea officers and headteachers. His distinctive laugh could be heard all over the room, as influential people watched his antics.

The story of Max demonstrates just how important it is to become known to the education community for the right reasons.

A retired primary head reveals that in her case the crucial move to deputy headship came about because her interest in sport made her a familiar figure to heads in her city. "They saw me organising the swimming gala and other inter-school events," she says. "People watch you in these circumstances and decide that perhaps you are the kind of person they could work with."

Crucially, her style was quiet and efficient rather than loud and self-important. Many heads want deputies who can, without fuss or constant referring back, translate policies and ideas into the practicalities of making timetables, moving children around, finding spaces and giving out tasks to teachers.

The big inter-school sports day is an obvious showcase, but there are others. Authority-wide musical events, for example, need organisers as much as they need musicians. Astute heads know this, and are at least as likely to warm to the person good-humouredly marshalling the massed choir as they are to the teacher on the podium.

But what of the new educational knowledge? What of finance, budgets, development plans and performance-monitoring? All are important, of course, but appointments are made by heads and advisers intent on preserving the integrity of carefully-built teams, and by governors who will be considering whether this is someone who will both command the respect of parents and listen to them with understanding and sympathy.

David Kershaw, a long-serving secondary head in Coventry, emphasises the importance of personal skills and picks out five attributes that he repeatedly sees in people marked out for success.

"First, they exude confidence - in their bearing, in the manner in which they greet people. This is pretty fundamental.

"Second, they know when to stop talking and listen.

"Third, they are sensitive to the needs of others, both young people and adults. There are no blueprints - it's about being able to react differently to different individuals and groups.

"Then there is that inner steel - the will to get things done, and not be put off by short-term difficulties. Above all, though," he says, "all the people who have done well from here have had a vision of how schools can make a difference to people's lives.

"If you put all that lot together then you have someone who is really going to do well."

So there you are. As well as having an impressive CV and classroom ability, all you have to do to get on in teaching is become a charismatic but discreet saint and then make sure, without seeming to, that everyone who matters sees what you are up to.

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