How to make the jump from classroom teacher to head of department

How to make the jump from classroom teacher to head of department

All senior teachers started off as classroom teachers. But where some teachers love classroom teaching, and can’t imagine giving up their time with the students, others become intrigued by the challenge of managing a department or even a school, which requires a whole other skillset....


All senior teachers started off as classroom teachers. But where some teachers love classroom teaching, and can’t imagine giving up their time with the students, others become intrigued by the challenge of managing a department or even a school, which requires a whole other skillset.

There are education leadership courses available for teachers based in the UK and the US. But for many teachers working in international schools, if they want to progress in their careers and get promoted to the senior leadership team, they have to build the necessary skills and experience on the job. So, what exactly does a career path look like when it comes to international education?

Career progression in international education

In a typical school, the first step upwards from classroom teacher is to head of year. After that, head of department is the next step, then assistant head. From there, people are often promoted to deputy headteacher, which is the final position before becoming a headteacher. However, it can be tricky climbing the career ladder. When teaching within the school system in their home countries, teachers often find that the easiest way to get a promotion is to move schools, as new positions don’t come up very often.

However, career progression can happen at a quicker rate in international schools, as they have a higher staff turnover than national state or private schools. Often, people come for a few years, get some experience, and decide to move back to their home country. This means that more internal vacancies arise, providing opportunities to move into roles which challenge you, without moving to a different school.

So, how can you build your skillset in order to progress in your career and get some management experience? Let’s take a look:

What you’ll need for success in a senior teaching role

Before putting yourself forward for a leadership role, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate a variety of different skills and experience. Here are the steps which will help you build that experience, and show that you’re ready to be considered for a senior teaching role.

1. Perfect your teaching practice

First and foremost, you need to be sure that you are teaching at the top of your game. Senior teachers have to balance teaching and lesson planning alongside their other professional commitments. So you’ll need to have perfected the art of quick but effective lesson planning, as well as strong classroom skills to demonstrate to other teachers.

Senior leaders need a deep theoretical and practical knowledge of teaching, as well as an in-depth understanding of the curriculum and the assessments that students will take. These will all enable you to design courses – an important part of a senior teaching role.

2. Build your technological abilities

Technology and teaching are only going to become more and more intertwined over the next few years. New forms of technology will become part of the classroom, but also part of the way that schools are run. So, in order to perform well in a senior role, you will need to build your technological abilities.

You will need to be proficient in using technology both inside and outside the classroom – and you’ll also have to train colleagues who are less tech-savvy. So, you’ll need a robust understanding of the technology you’re using, as well as keeping your general computer skills up-to-date to equip you to adapt to new tech that is introduced in your school.

3. Keep a record of impactful choices

As a classroom teacher, are you able to demonstrate that you have made decisions which have had a big impact on your students? It’s important to keep a portfolio of your work, to show where your teaching choices have made a difference.

It’s helpful to use an evidence-based approach to different methods and learning approaches, so you can look back and pinpoint what worked, and what didn’t. These are the skills you’ll need to effect change on a departmental or whole-school level.

And when something does go well, celebrate your achievements! Share your success and your insights with members of your department and other colleagues. That way, your managers will see that you’re interested in making an impact.

4. Boost your communication skills

In order to succeed as a senior teacher, you’ll need the ability to work well with others, to accept criticism and to work well under pressure. Most of all, you’ll need to be flexible, and open to change. Communication is a key skill to master in all these areas.

You’ll need to build your listening skills, to be able to cut through the noise, connect with your colleagues and identify the issues that really matter. You’ll also have to perfect your own way of communicating, whether that’s crafting emails, directing meetings or dealing with staff members on a one-to-one basis. Luckily, most classroom teachers are already fantastic communicators, so you’ve got a strong foundation to build on.

5. Develop your leadership and business management abilities

Much like communication, when it comes to leadership skills, most teachers have already got the basics. After all, you spend your day motivating individual students, building a community of learners, and pushing those learners towards a shared objective through carefully designed activities. When it comes to leading a department, those are very transferable skills.

However, it’s hard to build business management skills during the day-to-day of classroom teaching. This is one area where it might be a good idea to do some external training during the school holidays. Reach out to your assistant head, and find out if there are any training courses they would recommend. They might even be able to suggest some in-school projects you could take on to build these skills and develop the type of solution-focused mindset you’ll need.

6. Take on extra responsibilities

The most powerful way to show the management team that you are ready to take the next step in your career? Offering to take on extra responsibilities. This is a way of accessing learning opportunities, and demonstrates that you are on top of your workload and able to make time for added projects.

Each responsibility that you take on will teach you something useful, from project management to organising your time. It will give you a taste of what it might be like having more than your classroom work to focus on. Depending on how well you balance everything, when the next promotion opportunity comes up, you’ll know if it’s the right moment to go for it.

Learn more

Learn from other people’s experience by joining a network for educational leaders. WomenEd is a fantastic organisation which connects existing and aspiring female leaders in education. International Schools Network is another platform for international teachers to connect, participate in roundtable discussions and publish articles sharing their insights.

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