In praise of teachers who stick around

31st May 2013 at 01:00
In our short-termist culture, long-serving staff are overlooked for promotion - to the detriment of schools, Tom Finn-Kelcey argues

As much as I love following sport, it is fairly rare for it to stimulate the intellectual part of my brain. However, the recent tributes to the longevity and huge success of Sir Alex Ferguson, who has retired as manager of Manchester United Football Club after 26 glorious years, did get me thinking. Given that such service is now seen as a notable exception, have we, as a society, perhaps lost sight of the value of spending a career in one institution? In education, I believe the answer to be a definitive yes.

In the past, staying at one school was commonplace. But today, the culture in teaching privileges the short-stay option for the career-minded. Many principals will tell you that a five-year stint in one place is about right; it allows you to make your mark, develop a bit and leave before you go stale. In a recent poll of teachers, UK newspaper The Guardian found that 43 per cent were planning to look for a new position within 12 months. In many ways, this reflects globalised 21st-century attitudes to work, and it is also indicative of the impact of the business-style management that is now so prevalent in schools.

To be fair to school leaders, I understand why they would be largely pleased with this change. Many of them - certainly many in England and the US - worked their way up through the profession during the 1980s and 1990s when there was little or no movement in schools, when staying put and going stale often went hand in hand, and when, all too often, innovation and attempts to raise standards were blocked by the tired and cynical old grumblers in the staffroom.

That said, I would like to suggest that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It is very difficult for a teacher who has been at one school for, say, 20 years to get a new job elsewhere - and that is not just about their salary compared with a newly qualified teacher's salary. I think that many principals would be quite cautious about appointing such a person, and would be even more so if the move would involve promotion to a leadership position.

Community ties

Staying in one school for a long time can be interpreted in positive ways as well as negative ones. Some of the teachers who have most inspired me in my career have spent decades in the same school. One of the most important things that such members of staff bring is a sense of long-term service to a particular community.

One recently retired teacher springs to mind. She taught history inspiringly well to several generations, and without question made a huge impact on our local community. In our globalised world, the idea of having strong bonds with your local area seems out of date to many, yet it is the fabric that holds communities together, and the very thing that gives us our sense of connection and sense of place. In a society so often derided for its atomistic nature, such localism needs to be revived urgently.

Long-term leadership, especially, can bring much-needed stability and a sense of continuity that is essential for success. The problem with the current "five-year plan" approach is that leaders come into a school, try to put their stamp on the place by focusing on a few initiatives that mirror the contemporary advice coming from government, and then leave without ever seriously following through on those strategies.

Of course, the rest of the staff simply pay lip service to whatever initiative their leader introduces, knowing full well that it will be gone in no time at all, along with the person in question. This kind of short- termism is largely responsible for the cynicism of experienced teachers towards change, and is a big problem in contemporary education.

Contrast this with the leader who is in it for the long haul and thinks carefully about every little change they make, as they will have to be responsible for the long-term consequences. In schools with leaders such as this, traditions and practices can change organically and pragmatically, rather than being altered simply to allow some up-and-comer to look as though they have made their mark.

The truth is that neither longevity nor short-termism should be inherently valued over the alternative - it all depends on the individual in question and what works best for them. But, going back to my sporting reference, I would like to point out that successful clubs usually place high value on long-serving team members, promote internally and back their leaders over the long term. Through these measures, they foster a continuing culture of high standards and success.

Perhaps schools should take a bit more notice of this and rekindle their seemingly lost love for long-serving staff members.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

Photo credit: Reuters

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