Aspiring to leadership: Where will your teaching career take you?

Written by: Dame Alison Peacock | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Leadership is about stepping into the unknown. Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, says it is never too early to consider your career pathways and leadership ambitions. She advises how...

Just as some teachers know that their focus is in the classroom, there are many who aspire to lead.

Becoming a school leader gives you a different opportunity to make a difference while capitalising on the valuable skills you will have learnt right from your trainee days all the way through to today.

With so many pathways to choose from to grow in your career, I want to share some practical tips picked up over my decades in the education sector. I want to inspire teachers who are thinking about taking on leadership roles.

Changing landscape of leadership roles

As was discussed in two recent episodes of Headteacher Update's sister magazine's SecEd Podcast – focused on career progression options and also leadership pathways and aspiration (SecEd, 2023) – the wide range of roles and opportunities available mean that there are many career and leadership pathways, where you can influence decisions on a subject-basis, across the curriculum, or around pastoral care, choosing the leadership route which interests you.

New roles are continually unfolding to meet the changing landscape of learning and the critical needs of pupils. For example, there is an increasing need for experienced professionals to become mentors, a vital role helping colleagues – especially new teachers – to develop their practice, which in turn can help your school’s students.

Mentoring is a rewarding role where you need to be able to articulate your practice, which seems intuitive to you but is based on many years of experience and expertise.

The Chartered College recently launched a Chartered Pathway for Mentors that supports middle leaders to become more confident about evidence-informed practice in leadership.

Another excellent pathway is a lead practitioner role, ideal for those who want to lead colleagues but still want to work within a subject, in pastoral care, or with the community.

I spoke more about these pathways in the SecEd Podcast episode on leadership pathways and aspiration, which focused on advice for those aspiring to school leadership. It was a great discussion alongside the fantastic Vivienne Porritt, who works with #WomenEd and is also vice-president of the Chartered College of Teachers, and Patrick Cozier, the inspiring headteacher of Highgate Wood School in London and author of SecEd’s current series on being a calm leader.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

Often responsibility is thrust upon you early in your teaching career. You are leaders as soon as you step into a classroom and are pivotal role models and examples to others.

It is important then to learn from and build on the values of ethical leadership. The Ethical Leadership Commission launched by the Association of School and College Leaders in 2017 and chaired by Carolyn Roberts led to the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education (see NGA, 2019), and of course there are also the Nolan Principles of Public Life (1995).

These principles and values aren’t “one and done”, they are not a tick-list, but should underpin a teacher’s whole career, developing and deepening over time. Consider the following six areas when developing your leadership skills, experience, and ambitions:

  • Lead with courage and integrity: Trust your colleagues and be trusted. Develop wisdom, kindness, and justice. All these qualities are important whether you are leading a class, a subject, or pastoral care, taking extra responsibility, or moving into a senior role.
  • Be prepared as much as you can be: If you are given more responsibility, do not rely on what other people think you can do. Pursue professional development, read, engage in conversations with colleagues – be proactive in your own development. Taking roles without any practice, development or learning will prove too difficult.
  • Develop criticality skills as a teacher and as a leader: Don’t just apply rules but apply them according to your context, your children, and your circumstance.
  • Draw strengths and ideas from inside and outside the school: Use lifelong career networks such as the Chartered College and your subject networks, and networks which support diversity in education.
  • Be courageous: Take on opportunities to manage a project wider than your role. If you can do everything on the job list then it is not the right job for you as you should be developing and learning in the new role. Sometimes, leadership is about stepping into the unknown.
  • Be yourself: Identify the leaders you want to learn from. Many times we learn from leaders around us but that is not necessarily the best way. You do not have to mimic other people. Bring yourself to the work by embracing your diversity.

The pursuit of learning

I believe that professionalism involves the restless pursuit of improvement through building pedagogical skill, knowledge, and compassion. Knowledge is continually changing – what we know about how children and young people learn is changing all the time and the skills of teaching change in response to individual pupils and contexts.

It is important that teachers keep up with changes in subject knowledge – that they are not distracted by “edu-myths” and fads but can look critically at the evidence and make informed decisions about their classroom practice.

Looking inwards

There may be more opportunities at middle management and a need to support those staff with progression. It is worth proactively asking what progression opportunities may be on the horizon in your current school.

As was discussed in both of the podcast episodes, the range of opportunities at middle leadership level is much wider than in the past.

Set achievable goals by thinking about head of year, subject or phase positions as a stepping-stone to the top roles. It can be worth approaching your headteacher directly to show interest in a role you are aware is opening up. Even if they do not think you are ready for the role yet, they will be aware of your ambitions and can support and help accelerate your progress.

When deciding to apply for a role at another school, let your headteacher know as a courtesy. It is better to make them aware rather than letting them find out through a reference request. You never know when your paths might cross again, directly or indirectly. If you have that conversation with your headteacher, it is also more than likely they will have useful advice to help prepare you for your interview.

Keep your finger on the pulse

It is important that you take the time to see the range of opportunities available, even if you are not actively looking, as this can fuel your aspirations, help you discover new pathways, or it might highlight skills gaps that can be easily addressed.

Teaching roles are evolving all the time 7so it is important that you stay up-to-date on new opportunities. This way you can benchmark your own career progression and judge if you are developing your skills for the best roles in the market.

  • Dame Alison Peacock is CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, an honorary fellow of Queen's College, Cambridge, and a trustee of Big Change. A former primary school headteacher, Dame Alison is also a public speaker, writer, and best-known originator of the Learning Without Limits approach to education.

SecEd Podcast: Career Progression Episodes

The two recent episodes of the SecEd Podcast were produced in association with the Teaching Vacancies online service. Teaching Vacancies is the free-to-use job listing service from the Department for Education. You can sign up for new and relevant job alerts. Visit

The podcast episodes aired in March 2023 and focused on career progression options for teachers and aspiring to school leadership, featuring Dame Alison Peacock.

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