Five tips for fast-track leaders

27th April 2018 at 00:00
At a time when experienced school leaders are in increasingly short supply, young teachers are being fast-tracked to the SLT. But they must have the stomach for a turbulent journey, finds Zofia Niemtus

The path to headship used to be a long one, with people typically taking decades to move from the classroom to a seat at the senior leadership table. But, with headteacher retention rates falling since 2012, fast-track schemes are being used to speed up the process; it is now increasingly common for young teachers to be heading up a year group or department within a few years of joining the profession.

Are there risks associated with teachers progressing too quickly? And if you are heading down the fast track yourself, how should you prepare for the journey?

For Helena Marsh, the executive principal of Linton Village College in Cambridge, being fast-tracked to leadership presented difficulties. As a result of a now-defunct government scheme, she received specialised instruction, alongside her standard teacher training, on how to become an effective leader. This meant that, from the very start of working in her first school, she was invited to attend SLT meetings – and it wasn’t always well received by others around the table.

“No one was necessarily rude or obstructive,” says Marsh, “but some people were clearly put out that someone who had just rocked up as a newly qualified teacher had access to those parts of the school and had the opportunity to do things beyond what a normal NQT would.”

Alice Edgington, head of St Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury, also experienced a quick rise through the ranks, and found the process to be a solitary one. “Being in leadership can be lonely and it’s really important not to isolate yourself,” she says.

However, Jill Berry, a former headteacher and author of Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head, believes that becoming a leader early in your career could be a positive in the long run, providing you are able to embrace the difficulties a rapid rise entails.

“There’s that idea that rough seas make the best sailors,” she says. “You are learning a huge amount when you go through a tough time, and if you survive it, then when the next tough challenge comes along, you can go into it knowing that you can get through it.”

How, then, do you make the most of being promoted quickly? What lessons can new leaders learn from those who have been there and done it already?

1. Be ‘humble and respectful’

For Marsh, an important part of the process is to remember that having leadership potential is not the same as being a good leader. She says she was careful to be “humble and respectful” around those with more experience, and to make the most of their wisdom by asking lots of questions.

2. Seek advice

Having allies in the leadership team is a huge benefit to fast-trackers, according to Mike Coldwell, head of the Centre for Research and Knowledge Exchange at Sheffield Hallam University, and one of the authors of a 2015 National College for Teaching and Leadership report entitled New pathways into headship?, which looked at the experiences of fast-trackers.

“Many talked about the importance of having a key senior colleague in school looking out for them, championing them and supporting them,” says Coldwell. “They need to be able to develop their own leadership approaches more rapidly than is common, so being able to access high-quality leadership and see what it looks like in practice is important.”

Edgington agrees that building connections is crucial, particularly in overcoming those feelings of isolation. “I talked to colleagues and friends already in leadership positions, and made my own support networks,” she says.

3. Seek out external support networks

Seeking advice from experienced leaders doesn’t have to mean talking to people face to face. Edgington says she has been helped hugely by support found through education blogs and Twitter (she tweets @aliceedgington).

4. Don’t forget the teaching

Those stepping up into leadership must be ready to pick up new skills quickly – such as managing budgets and understanding contracts – says Edgington, but must also be secure in their classroom practice before moving up the ladder.

Coldwell says that his research turned up a similar finding: that a sense of teaching expertise was essential for fast-trackers to get their teams onside and believing in them.

“You need to be able to demonstrate experience as an expert practitioner,” he says.

“A lot of the leadership material suggests that if you have been a leader in one profession, you can be a leader in another, but I think in education that’s different. It’s important for leaders to be able to say ‘I am an expert teacher.’”

5. Don’t rush

Classroom expertise is not something that it is easy to fake. For that reason, Berry’s advice is that it might ultimately be best to save a move into leadership until you’ve mastered your current job, so you shouldn’t be afraid to pass on a promotion opportunity until the time is right.

“Sometimes people are impatient,” she explains. “I do hear people asking ‘How long do I have to do this job before I can move on?’ And I don’t think that’s how you should look at it. You need to do every job you do to the best of your ability, until it is time for a fresh challenge.”

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance journalist

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