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Can A Bad Teacher Make A Good Head?

Jill Berry's not convinced – and here are her three reasons

Jill Berry
Jill Berry
  • Can A Bad Teacher Make A Good Head?

Although there is periodic discussion about whether school leaders need to have a background in teaching, or whether someone with leadership skills honed in a different context could lead a school successfully, the vast majority of UK heads learnt their craft in the classroom.

Over time, they are likely to have moved from being a classroom teacher to middle leadership, leading a departmental or pastoral group in a senior school, or acting perhaps as a subject or year group coordinator in a primary school. In due course they have progressed to senior leadership and taken on whole-school responsibility before taking the step to headship.

However, there are some schools and colleges led by individuals who have never taught. If it is possible to lead a school effectively with no experience of teaching at all, does this mean that someone who has been a teacher, but not a good one, could make a successful transition to headship?

If the skills of the teacher are not essential preparation for school leadership, might it be possible for a bad teacher to become a good head? I think there are three main reasons why this is highly unlikely:

1. Heads need to be credible. They have to earn the trust and respect of those they lead, and without a reputation as a capable practitioner in the classroom, they are unlikely to do this. The best heads, in my view, never lose sight of the perspective of the classroom teacher, and their ability to understand and empathise is likely to be grounded in their own experience.

2. I believe all teachers are leaders of learning in their own classrooms, and develop their leadership from the beginning of their careers. In addition to middle and senior leaders, teachers work to get the best from children and colleagues. They need to lift, inspire and motivate, winning the confidence of others. They have to find the right balance of support to enable those they lead to be their best. If a teacher is unable to do this in their own classroom, and has not developed their leadership skills as a teacher, they have not built the strong foundation successful headship requires.

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3. Many teachers appear to be motivated by a desire to communicate their enthusiasm for learning to the young people for whom they are responsible. They want to make a difference to these pupils’ lives which, they hope, will last beyond their school years. In time, they may see that moving to a middle leadership role will allow them to make a greater difference to a wider number of pupils by working with and through other teachers. At the same time, taking on a formal leadership role gives them the opportunity to begin to make a difference to the lives of these adults, too. It seems to me that the desire to assume formal leadership roles springs from the same motivation that brought them into the classroom in the first place. A leader whose motivation is simply to escape a classroom where they are not achieving success and satisfaction is unlikely to find that fulfilment by leading adults who need support to do exactly what that leader has failed to do.

When I took up the role of head of English in my eighth year of teaching, I realised that I might not be the strongest teacher in the department I led, but in fact, I didn’t need to be. My role as head of department was to support and challenge the individual teachers in the team to be their best.

However, it struck me that it was important that I wasn’t the weakest teacher in the department, either. I needed to be able to demonstrate my skills as a practitioner, to be credible, respected and trusted for my secure grasp of pedagogy as well as for my leadership capacity. Honing my skills as a middle leader paved the way for successful senior leadership and, in time, effective headship.

Although teaching and leadership are not exactly the same, they are closely related, and in order to achieve success in the latter, in my opinion, success in the former is a prerequisite. What do you think?

Jill Berry’s new book Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head is available now from Crown House Publishing. Follow her on Twitter at @jillberry102.