What to do when everyone's being promoted – except you

If you're a teacher seeking promotion who doesn't want to change schools, you could try the 'active waiting' approach

Lizzy Price

Teacher CPD: What do you do if everyone is being promoted but you? Try the 'active waiting' approach

What do you do when everyone you know is getting promoted, but you’re not?

It’s a common problem: you’ve finally found a school where the climate and culture are right for you. These rare, unicorn-like schools are few and far between, so moving on for progression’s sake feels like a terrible idea – but so does staying put and feeling unfulfilled. 

It’s hard being stuck under the glass ceiling, watching everyone else progress and feeling unfulfilled. So, what do you do when everyone around you seems to be going places, but you are not? 

A poverty of leadership-development options within the school can lead us to think there is nothing to be done. But that doesn’t have to be true. 

I’d like to introduce an idea I stumbled upon when I was in that exact position. A useful idea. An unusual one. One I am going to shine a light on. It is a radical way to progress your leadership skills. It’s called active waiting. 

Leadership and progression: A system of active waiting

But first we need to get something straight: promotion and progression are two different things. This might sound simple, but we often confuse these two terms. Just because you are not promoted (yet), it does not mean you cannot progress. Equally, you can be promoted and not be progressing at all. 

Active waiting, in the sense that I am describing, is based on having a plan and redirecting your frustrations into developing your core leadership. The concept of active waiting suggests that you work on progressing your leadership skills within your current role, so that you are ready for the right role when it materialises. 

This idea of progressing your leadership skills within your current role, as opposed to taking on another role, might at first seem like a strange one. But it is central to the idea of active waiting. 

That’s right: I am not encouraging you to take on another unpaid in-school-project or curriculum area. Counterintuitively, a new area might not develop the leadership skills you will actually need and use when a promotion comes along. Yes, there will be an improvement in knowledge and, yes, a curriculum project definitely develops skills that are useful on your CV. And, of course, it is useful to the school. 

But does it develop your core leadership skills? Often the answer is no; it simply takes up more time and energy in a sideways step, and it doesn’t soothe your frustrations at not being promoted. You know the project is there as a distraction or a placatory measure. We all contribute within our schools – it’s just that contributing like this isn’t necessarily going to develop your leadership. 

Instead, I am talking about how to actively develop your leadership knowledge and skills – all of the ones you need to showcase in your next leadership role – while completing your everyday teaching. 

Running your classroom like a tiny school

So, what does this look like? The answer is likely to vary depending on what you need to work on. Pick something at the core of leadership development – for example, authenticity, developing a vision or creating a climate. 

There are swathes of excellent books and research articles to help you decide on an area of development, but it might also be worth a trawl through the job description for the roles you want in future, to narrow your choices. Or maybe you have already had feedback from interviews about how you can develop

Then apply this to your own classroom. Yes, run your classroom like a tiny school, by embedding your own leadership practices. Research, adjust, reflect and repeat. This might sound bizarre (maybe it is), but children are, in fact, just smaller, younger humans. The same skills required to manage adults also apply to the children in our care. Getting into good habits with your pupils will get you into good habits with your future staff team.  

The downsides to this approach? Well, your colleagues might think it’s a tad unusual. It’s certainly not the traditional route to developing your leadership. You might also butt up against traditionalists at interview, who struggle to grasp the concept; however, that could simply be a warning that you’re in the wrong interview. 

It also takes huge willpower and self-control to start reflecting on and adjusting your classroom practice, and to be seen to be staying put instead of pushing forward. 

Equally terrifyingly, you might find things that you don’t like about your own leadership when you start looking for them. This uncomfortable experience, however, will also stand you in good stead when proving that you are a reflective practitioner at future interviews. 

In short, if other people’s reactions are the only real downside to this approach, then what have you got to lose? 

If you commit to systematically running yourself and your classroom as a leadership-development project, with research, applications and reflections, you will have a portfolio demonstrating your leadership skills that cannot be argued with. Applying leadership practice to your class is likely to bring about positive change for you and your pupils, while soothing your frustrations at the lack of current opportunity. No extra projects required, and you create your own opportunities to develop leadership in the face of a lack of traditional options. 

So there it is. A concept for developing yourself by progressing and leading at classroom level. Don’t wait for the job to become a better leader, and you don’t necessarily need to accept the unpaid side-step. When the time is right, and the right position comes your way, you’ll be ready. 

Or maybe – just maybe – you’ll start to see that progress doesn’t always mean promotion. 

Lizzy Price is a primary teacher in the East Midlands. She tweets as @thinker_teacher

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