Teachers behaving badly

6th February 2004 at 00:00
What to do when an external candidate gets 'your' promotion

An unsuccessful job application is always disappointing. But if you've been turned down for promotion at your own school, it can be more difficult to deal with. You might want to crawl home and lick your wounds, but you have to face your colleagues.

And if you're really unlucky, the successful applicant might even become your manager. In this situation, it could easily be a case of sour grapes, but if you handle it badly, you could damage your professional reputation.

English teacher Penny Milford would know. After five years as second in department, she was ready for a challenge. When her boss decided to take early retirement, she was keen to take her place. "I'd taken responsibility for key stage 3, writing schemes of work and implementing the national literacy strategy, but I was keen to develop my leadership skills," she says. "I also wanted to interact with more students across the school."

Ms Milford was confident her knowledge of the school and her experience as second in department would make her the ideal candidate. "Looking back, I was quite arrogant," she says. "I never considered the idea of not being given the job. Even when the CVs started to arrive and the head of department hinted that some of the applicants were strong, I still didn't worry."

So when an external candidate was appointed, it came as a shock. "At first I was angry - I knew I was right for the job. Afterwards, I felt humiliated, as if my colleagues were laughing behind my back. I'd even joked to other English teachers about the changes I was planning to implement. I'm ashamed to admit this, but I gave the new person a really hard time at first. I was so reluctant to share information and rubbished her work to colleagues."

According to Geoff Wybar, headteacher at Gravesend grammar school for boys in Kent, this kind of reaction is not uncommon. "Inevitably, when an appointment is made, there will be bruised egos," he says. "Teachers are usually professional about this kind of thing, but in the past I have had to deal with petty behaviour resulting from appointments I've made."

The situation can be particularly awkward if a successful and unsuccessful job applicant have to work together, but it is vital to stay professional.

"Although it is good to talk with colleagues, be aware of being perceived as a trouble-maker," says Steve Thorp, director of operations and services at the Teacher Support Network, which runs the national telephone helpline for teachers. "Be positive, clear and consistent in dealing with people - whatever your feelings."

Mr Wybar advises teachers to think carefully about applying for internal promotions and whether they can handle the consequences of not getting the post. They should also think about why they want it. Money, status or wanting to compete with colleagues are not always the best motivation and that may come out in the interview process.

"When someone is disgruntled about not getting a job, you often find they didn't want that particular role in the first place," he says. "They knew they needed to move their career along, but they weren't sure how."

Teachers should remember that they are entitled to feedback from their head, says Mr Thorp. "Be professional and assertive, but if you are likely to get upset or angry, it's worth waiting for a couple of days or sending a written request."

For PE teacher Michael O'Donovan, being turned down for an internal promotion helped him reassess his goals. "I'd been working at the same school since I'd finished my training," he says. "I'd taken on additional pastoral responsibilities for no additional pay to show the head how keen I was to be promoted, but he didn't seem impressed."

When a post as assistant head of year came up at his school, Mr O'Donovan applied, but was unsuccessful. "I was so angry," he says. "I'd given up so much of my free time to take students on sporting trips and activities and had formed excellent relationships with some of the school's most difficult children, but none of that seemed to matter.

"I demanded to know why he had offered the job to someone with less experience. He said he didn't think I had the maturity to handle the job. I realised I should be looking for a job at a school where my efforts would be appreciated. It paid off - after a few years at a new school I became a year head and I'm about to join the leadership team."

Ms Milford initially turned down the offer of an interview debrief from her head, but after several months, felt ready to air her grievances. Her head explained why she was unsuccessful and mentioned that she might be better suited to pastoral leadership. "After we'd talked, it seemed to make sense," she says.

"I'd never considered the pastoral route, but it got me thinking about my strengths. I realised I'd got off to a bad start with my new head of department and I made a real effort to support her. The following year, I was asked to lead a year group. I haven't looked back."


* Ask your head for an interview debrief. If you were unsuccessful due to lack of experience in particular areas, ask how the school can help you gain that experience.

* Respect and support your colleague in their new role.

* Don't criticise your colleague. This could lose you respect in the staffroom.

* If you feel comfortable, you could discuss your disappointment with your colleague, which could help clear the air.

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