Is teaching too luxurious for a head?

17th September 2004 at 01:00

As a newly-appointed headteacher in a large secondary school, for the first time in my professional life I have the opportunity to decide whether or not to teach. Can I afford the luxury of teaching when there are so many other demands on my time?

There is a real temptation when first appointed to a headship to assume that there is neither time nor justification for teaching. Other things must take priority such as getting to know the staff (particularly their strengths and weaknesses), sharing a clear and distinct vision for the school, outlining and insisting upon non-negotiable high expectations, building effective teams based on positive relationships. And then the core purpose - focusing on learning and teaching. Where is all the time going to come from to set about these? Notice not a mention of work-life balance!

Some headteachers insist on teaching. This is important for them both personally and for their image in the school. The classroom can sometimes be a sanctuary from the relentless demands that people make upon the headteacher. To close the classroom door and lock out the myriad preoccupations of the day can be a joy. Sometimes, too, the classroom can be an oasis that refreshes the spirit and reminds us of how it used to be before responsibilities for other things came along. Also some headteachers believe that it is important for staff to know that the head can teach and that they can teach effectively. After all isn't that what we were all trained for originally? However this dilemma causes a tension and troubles our conscience, no matter how we resolve the matter, pangs of guilt ensue.

You clearly want to teach as you refer to it as a luxury. Many heads who teach would tell you that it is not merely a luxury but an absolute necessity. Teaching children keeps them grounded in the core activity of their school. Tackling the barriers to pupils' learning enables heads who teach to move other members of their staff on in their thinking. The credibility of the head is enhanced by the fact that they are speaking as an active and successful practitioner; someone who delivers as well as talks.

If you are contemplating teaching a public examination class then you place yourself in the same position as all the other members of your staff when it comes to analysing pupil performance by teaching group. The staff can see not just how the pupils got on but how well, or otherwise, the head did too! This is not an issue of course for a talented and effective teacher but it is a risky business. So in answer to your dilemma; you must decide whether to be yourself or not. If you still have a passion for teaching then teach because all of the other activities that trouble you will still be there after your lessons end but you will have gained the pleasures associated with helping others to learn. If you can really do without these pleasures then concentrate on the other priorities and be the headteacher and lead learner of your community in other ways.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls' school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email


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