For many years, there has been a national issue in the UK of a shortage of school leaders. The debate about why this shortage is occurring is ongoing and no definitive reason has been found. While the problem has been critical for schools in the UK state sector, many schools around the world have similar problems. Stories abound of governing bodies repeatedly advertising for school leadership posts, only to receive a small handful of applications, or even none at all.   

Is it that Deputies are unwilling to step-up?

We all have our own views as to why this might be, but I have heard countless opinions on the subject. One argument I find hard to agree with is that while teachers or middle leaders are resistant to becoming school leaders due to the stress and challenges of the role, they should nevertheless be persuaded to take that step up. While I certainly agree that the education sector should be striving hard to train potential school leaders, there seems to be an implication regarding those teachers who don’t want the top job, that somehow they lack ambition and drive. Let us not forget that teaching is a highly skilled and respectable profession at any level, and one which should not come with the presumption of a career hike to leadership. If a teacher is good, and enjoys the job, where is the lack of ambition in wanting to be an even better teacher, not necessarily a school leader?

"We never presume that a surgeon or a pilot should aim to lead a hospital or an airline, so why a teacher?"

Having said that, there are plenty of teachers who do want to progress to Headship, and they need support, training and guidance along their career path to get there. Schools need outstanding leaders who absolutely want to be in that job and are well prepared for it.

Taking Control of your Career Path

We all follow individual career paths, and it is important that we feel motivated and energised by the path we take.

The focus of this article was prompted by an article I recently read, about people who fall into a ‘mid-career slump’ and find themselves on a career plateau. This I found particularly interesting, as I speak with education professionals throughout the year, some of whom are trying hard to progress into their next leadership role, but are finding it very hard to get there.

We all go through different stages in our careers. Quite often the beginning stage, once we’re qualified to take up a profession, can be exciting and motivating. We look at the possibilities ahead and we are ambitious to develop our skills and achieve the goals we have set ourselves.

In the latter years of a career, when we might have reached the professional level that we have aspired to, there is often the feeling of satisfaction and reward for how far we’ve come, and our experience will be recognised and called upon by others. If, by that stage we’ve reached the pinnacle of our career, we’ll probably either be enjoying the professional status that brings, or will be looking forward to retirement and the next stage of our life.

Then there are those in the middle of their careers, who are well-established in their professions, but a long way from retirement. Many will be successfully climbing the ladder and achieving everything they desire, but some people at this stage experience a drop in motivation levels and enthusiasm, which can lead to a slump or plateau in their career progression. There can be many reasons for this, but some fairly typical ones might include:

  • Having mastered our profession and become completely familiar with our role, we are left feeling very little excitement or challenge on a daily basis (how often have you heard someone say “I could do this job with my eyes closed!”);
  • We are actively seeking promotion but facing a lot of competition for jobs, and often we find that our peers/colleagues are going for the same jobs and therefore they become less supportive towards us than they were previously.
  • The regular change of jobs at this stage of the career can be very stressful, and as we have other things to contend with in our lives, such as a growing family or elderly parents needing support, we may feel we can do without the added pressure of a job change, so we avoid the stress and stay where we are.

This kind of slump or plateau can lead to many feelings, often not very pleasant or productive ones. People find themselves reconsidering their careers and wondering about a complete change in profession. Sometimes they feel unhappy, unmotivated, unfulfilled, stressed or burned out.

If we can bring ourselves to recognise a mid-career slump, there are ways of avoiding it or pulling ourselves out of it. Here are seven strategies which you may find helpful.

1.      Find meaning in your current role

Take some time to think about those parts of your job you find most meaningful and rewarding. Which ones fill you with excitement, give you purpose, a sense of achievement and contribute to your school or organisation’s mission. Once you’ve identified them, make a plan to incorporate more of those tasks or responsibilities into your routine.  If you try to spend more time doing the tasks you enjoy at work, you’re more likely to find meaning in your role. It can transform your job and lead to much higher satisfaction.

2.      Set meaningful goals

Take a step back and examine where you are and where you’d like to go. Be strategic in thinking about your career. Consider what you’d like to achieve in the next year, 5 years or 10 years and then you can start thinking about a strategy for how to get there. Try to make sure that your goals are SMART and ensure that you make time on a regular basis to work towards them.

3.      Add challenge

Although by this stage in your career you will have developed a lot of experience and expertise in your profession, and are no doubt making a valuable contribution to your school or organisation, you may be feeling bored and dissatisfied. Try to add some challenge into your job, such as by taking on additional responsibilities, tasks or projects that are new to you and outside your comfort zone or that require you to develop new skills.    

4.      Find a mentor or coach

Is there a particular leader in your organisation who you respect and who might agree to become your mentor? Are you able to find a career coach, either within your organisation or externally? A mentor or coach should be able to help you gain valuable insight into your experience and will be a good sounding board for your ideas. They will help you develop skills and break bad habits, and will be there to encourage you in finding value in your job and moving forward with your career.

5.      Change role within your organisation

You may come to realise that you have reached the end of the line with your current job and simply want a change. If you enjoy working for and are committed to your current school or organisation, consider seeking a completely new role with them. This could provide you with a new challenge and a different perspective on your career ahead.

6.      Define your happiness

Take some time to think about what makes you truly happy. People derive happiness and well-being from different things, and if you can identify what makes you feel good and enjoy your life, you can then try to incorporate more time to do those things. You might find that also involves thinking about who you enjoy spending time with, and then you can try to ensure you spend more time with those people.

7.      Develop good relationships

While it is important to enjoy your job role, there is no doubt that it is also important and beneficial to have a good working relationship with your line manager and your colleagues. Make an effort to build these relationships, as you will find them conducive to a productive and satisfying climate at work. Additionally, looking towards your career development, if you are keen on a leadership role, interpersonal skills and relationship building are critical to success.

LSC Education supports schools and education organisations globally to attract and recruit outstanding leaders. We recognise the importance of great leadership and we encourage people moving into a leadership role to do so with motivation, passion and energy, with confidence that it is the right job for them.