Why ambition may be the key to career longevity

15th May 2015 at 01:00
Teachers who set goals are more likely to stay in the profession

Schools are not usually viewed as seething vipers' nests of ruthless one-upmanship. Indeed, if the old joke about "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach" is to be believed, ambition is the antithesis of a long, stable teaching career.

However, new research shows that a keen sense of ambition is far more likely to keep teachers in the classroom than to tempt them to look elsewhere for work.

Teachers who set themselves difficult goals are more likely to stay within the profession long-term than their less goaloriented colleagues, according to Brady Jones of Northwestern University in Chicago.

Ms Jones notes that most people tend to assume that the likelihood of teachers staying in the profession is determined by job-satisfaction factors such as pay, conditions and working environment.

"Unsurprisingly," she writes in a paper that was presented at the recent American Educational Research Association conference, held in Chicago, "teachers exhibited preferences for higher salaries, better working conditions and greater intrinsic rewards".

But Ms Jones carried out research to see to what degree other classroom experiences - and teachers' own personalities - influence their chances of staying in the profession.

First, she looked at teachers' commitment to the job, asking them to add the number of years they had previously taught to the years they planned to continue to teach.

Of those surveyed, 15 per cent had a total commitment of three years or fewer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 36 per cent were committed for 20 years, and 8 per cent intended to stay in the classroom for three decades or more.

A quarter of those who took part in the study had already left the teaching profession.

Ms Jones found that teachers who work at schools serving areas with lower levels of deprivation tend to be more likely to express long-term commitment to the job. But she also discovered that teachers with particular types of personality traits are more likely than others to end up working in such areas.

Conscientious teachers, with clear goals and "the tendency to tell redemptive narratives", were correlated with schools with a low percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, she said. "It may be that participants with more adaptive personalities are more likely to find jobs at affluent, suburban schools."

For the love of a challenge

Possibly unsurprisingly, teachers with a longer commitment to the profession place less value on power and achievement than those with a short-term commitment.

However, they report setting more ambitious, difficult goals for themselves than their colleagues. They are also more inclined than their colleagues to seek out novelty at work.

James Westhead, executive director of the Teach First charity - which aims to lure the most ambitious graduates into the classroom - was unsurprised by the findings of the research.

"In order to be ambitious, you don't just have to choose money," he said. "There are plenty of ambitious people in teaching generally - but what are they ambitious for? Lots of teachers are ambitious for their pupils. That's what drives them. I don't think that pay is insignificant. But what motivates people is also personal development - satisfaction, in the sense that you're doing something important, useful, that's making a difference.

"Teaching is an incredibly rewarding job, an incredibly challenging job. It's a job where you learn amazing skills.

"We want people to be jealous of people who get jobs in teaching. People should say, `Oh, you lucky devil', rather than, `Blimey, I wouldn't want to do that'."

Go-getting teachers

Frances Bywater, who teaches English at the Business Academy Bexley in London, said the myth that teachers weren't ambitious was slowly being dispelled.

"I've had really great role models, in terms of excellent leadership, real professionalism at all times, and real dedication to the job. I remember seeing my head of department with Year 11s she'd taught for five years, and thinking, `Wow, I'd love to be able to do that'," she said.

The Northwestern University study also finds that longserving teachers are more likely to be extroverts than their less-committed colleagues.

However, Ms Jones qualified her findings by pointing out that her study was unable to identify which of the teachers were better at their jobs - it merely highlighted how long they planned to stay in the classroom. "Raising retention rates becomes a less-important priority, of course, if only the worst teachers leave the occupation," she said.

`People I work with are very ambitious'

Frances Bywater, head of English at the Business Academy Bexley in East London, thinks teachers have been unfairly stereotyped as lacking ambition.

"There are old-fashioned attitudes about teachers not being very hard-working, having long holidays, knocking off at three o'clock, but the reality is very different," she says.

"There's been such an increase in accountability and performance measures, and the pressures and demands on teachers have increased. Ninety per cent of people I work with are very ambitious. They plan to have successful, long-term careers within teaching.

"The great thing about teaching is that the minute you start, you have so much responsibility. Yes, you have a line manager, but you're stood in front of a class of 30 people.

"I think it's much, much harder to engage a classroom of 30 14-year-old boys than it is to engage a boardroom of professionals."

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