On being a long-term mainscale teacher

A couple of weeks back I came across a Twitter thread about wanting to stay mainscale and become a better teacher, and it did make me chuckle to see how the teaching landscape is morphing from one of a relentless striving for promotion that I felt I was in when I started. Ben Newmark suggested he would like to hear my life story my experience, so here it is. 

Let me preface this by saying that I have never sought promotion because I’ve needed more money. I was a homeowner when I started teaching, which took some pressure off. I think this probably marks me out as in the minority. I stayed in the same school, doing basically the same job, for 11 years before taking middle leader post, which probably also marks me as a minority. 

Though I did my PGCE just for something to do, I quickly realised that teaching was for me. I loved the job, though it was exhausting and time consuming. Around my 3rd year, I started to notice that peers of similar experience were applying for more senior roles. All the conversation was about whether you wanted to take the pastoral or academic route up. There was nobody talking about staying in the same job, because this was met with stuttering silence. I got used to saying I hoped for an AST role, even though they were like hens’ teeth, because it was closer to what everyone expected to hear. I still did not feel ready for more responsibility, but I bowed to expectation and took an AGT role in 2007. This was a real pleasure, working with the geekiest students, and involved mainly planning enrichment and focusing on T&L across the school. It allowed me to further hone and improve my own practice, but I got the distinct impression, after not too long, that everybody else considered this role to be a stepping stone: today I guess it would attract a 1 year TLR3. School did not class me as a middle leader. I didn’t even have a line manager for half the time. 
By that point, however, other things were in the works. I started writing, firstly for GCSEPod, and got promoted at the exam board, first to team leader and then to assistant principal. I picked up writing and presenting jobs as a result of my experience. Being still essentially mainscale, but now with 6+ years’ experience, I had the time on my hands to be able to complete these extra jobs without my teaching performance suffering. At one stage I had 6 additional jobs on top of teaching. In school, I was a staff governor. I ran the AGT network for the local secondary cluster. I launched and ran the ski trip. I attended every inset I could find outside of school hours, using money I set aside from my other jobs as a personal inset budget. I was in the staff T&L group. I was busy doing a dozen things I loved. “Where do you find the time?” my colleagues asked. I’ve never been able to answer this. It’s just there, right?
And I learned. When a student can be gently teased out of a strop. When to go in tough. Why it’s important to maintain a healthy distance. How to spot the difference between a toilet request due to genuine need and one due to boredom. The stages pupils go through when they’re struggling with the work, and when best to intervene. How to answer questions before they’re asked (freaks them right out). How not to take things personally. What it’s like when (very rarely) it IS personal and how to deal with it. When best to use a quiet word and a public telling off. The power of one raised eyebrow versus the powerlessness of a screaming, rowdy sanction in the corridor. The importance of pitch and tone. Patience. How to completely change a lesson halfway through, or right at the start. Which activities are worth the preparation effort, and which activities are always going to work. How to turn around a set of books between 2 5-lesson days. How to teach disaffected classes, enthusiastic classes, bottom sets, top sets, wildly mixed ability sets, double GCSE lessons, classes of 32, GCSE classes of 32, double lessons with GCSE classes of 32 during an observation by 2 members of SLT (a personal favourite), A-level, year 9 on a windy Thursday afternoon. How to make the class feel like it is me and them in our own clique that nobody else would get. How powerful this can be. Why following the rules is so important. Trips: I racked up 185 nights away on school trips in 13 years. Consistency. How to take negative feedback and act on it. When I’m beaten. Humility. Where to look for help. Where not to look. When it’s worth putting in extra time. How to apologise. How to speak to parents. That I’m never, ever, going to achieve a complete repertoire of teaching skills, or see it all. I know the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours isn’t quite the whole story of the stat, but as I approached and then passed 10k lessons, I felt like I had enough experience to deal with almost everything thrown at me – or at a colleague, which meant being a supportive HoD became more doable.

I noted, however, that when I met other teachers they were a bit non-plussed by my apparent lack of ambition. The AGT role was clearly meant to upskill those looking to move up, was the feeling, and not really worth mentioning. My tenure at a single school was also a problem. “I couldn’t do longer than 3 years or I would be completely stagnant” was one of my favourite comments: I was at year 10 by then. It got to the point where I kept quiet about my length of service and my school role. My experience was not treated as something to be proud of. Sometimes I would point to the examining but the response was usually along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, I did that once, hated it” or something slightly sneery about the fact I did GCSE and not A-level. The exam board, meanwhile, were putting me forward for senior training and assessment courses, and couldn’t have been more complimentary about my service for them. My lack of responsibility at school meant that it was not difficult to get the time out. 

In my 11th year there was upheaval. A head came in like a wrecking ball, on a short term contract, and made my AGT post redundant. As the only History teacher without a TLR, I was first offered the History responsibility, included on the new structure, to make up my old protected-for-3-years TLR, but was then told that the responsibility was not going to be filled, by anyone, and I could best serve the school by being just a really good teacher. I seethed at the injustice, and the idiocy (why pay me a TLR to do nothing, except out of spite?) but that head moved on – as staff governor I was on the panel that appointed an external candidate for the permanent role – and within a year of the new head arriving, the Head of Hums, a History specialist, was promoted to AHT. The thought of someone else telling me what to do was unbearable. So, in the July of my 11th year, I finally became a HoD.

It was the right time, really. Stepping up did not feel challenging and I enjoyed having a bit more control. I was very lucky to be able to make a sideways move into a HoD job last year and I appreciate the autonomy and opportunity to immerse myself in History pedagogy. When I interviewed, the Head could not have been more complimentary about the breadth of my experience and I didn’t feel I had to justify my decision to stay at one school and in the same role for so long, although I had a carefully crafted line in my personal statement about this. 

I surveyed my peers. Around me were less experienced teachers now miserable in senior roles, teaching next to nothing and complaining about how much they missed the old days when they weren’t shoving paper around and making endless phone calls. “I just want to teach!” they wail. My turn to be non-plussed. Teaching is a bizarre profession where, the better you are at it, the less you are expected to do. Those who can make the biggest noise often leave entirely to be consultants. I don’t get it. I love the opportunity of being in the classroom and taking those students on a journey with me. And no, I don’t give two hoots about how cheesy that sounds. As the pressure now manifests, to keep moving upwards, I have to guard against losing that privilege.

This has been fun to write! 

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4 Responses to On being a long-term mainscale teacher

  1. Dear Sally

    Your story resonated so much with my own. Especially becoming a HoD because you need to have the autonomy to do what you know works (not your words- but what I think you meant). After 32 yrs as a History teacher, forced to retire for medical reasons I am now studying for my Doctor of Education and people ask me why? It’s not about promotion. It’s about loving what you do as a teacher and wanting to know how it can be done better! I enjoy your blog posts keep up the enthusiasm! and keep loving teaching your kids.

  2. mrscourt says:

    This has been my ‘career’ experience too – I’ve been at the same school since 2001, only becoming HOD in 2015. It’s been brilliant being a HOD as a more experienced teacher and I’ve actually really enjoyed it, despite only applying for the post as I didn’t know want to be bossed around by some numpty! I’m glad to read I’m not the only one ploughing this furrow.

    • sallythorne says:

      I totally agree. The thought of someone much less experienced coming in and dictating my lessons and enquiry questions filled me horror. I don’t think I would have been able to be supportive of things I didn’t agree with.

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