Kicking over the Ladder

‘If you undertake a role beyond your means, you will embarrass yourself in that, you miss the chance of a role you might have filled successfully.’ Epictetus

I’ve come to a decision to kick over the ladder. From my very first day in teaching a ladder was placed before me. The first rung of that ladder is the classroom teacher. Above that, the Middle Leadership rung, with its fork to either pastoral or academic responsibilities. One step further up is the Senior Leadership roles of Assistant and Deputy Head who have a whole school responsibility. Finally at the top of the ladder is the Head Teacher. I was told to say things, do things and get involved in things that would help me climb the ladder. My peers on the first rung of the ladder spoke about what they needed in order to make the climb. Colleagues who were already climbing gave their insight and experience on the best routes to ascent. I blindly accepted this was the way, the only way. In my first few years of teaching, I spoke more about these routes than what I was doing in my own classroom. I took on more and more responsibility, that took me more and more away from my teaching. My attention was not on the interactions between the children and myself, but elsewhere. Looking for the footholds and crevices of shiny new initiatives, funding streams and prestige that would give me greater leverage to climb up and out of the classroom.

I wanted to climb high and quickly but found the subject I love a barrier to my climb. I took an MA in Educational Leadership, not to better myself and the community I serve, but to provide me with a bump in the climb up the ladder. However whilst studying leadership I came to a number of conclusions; I knew very little about the craft of teaching, I could have a greater direct impact on children by developing my craft and I did not want to fall foul of the Peter Principle. I have managed to accrue just under twenty years of teaching experience and on reflection, I haven’t much to show for it. My focus has been on the climb. On things external to myself. Everybody it seems wants to make the climb, the system makes it so. How many spend time preparing themselves so they are worthy of the climb? I have just over twenty years left in my career. I may never become the PE Teacher and person I want to be, but an ideal does not become any less inspiring just because it is impossible to achieve. It can become my polestar leading to a better version of my current self. By developing my craft for the benefit of the community.

So I’ve bailed from the climb. I informed those further up the ladder of this decision last year within my performance management review meeting. I was asked, “where do you see yourself in five years time?” I responded, “still in the classroom, only better than I am now, having more impact than I have now.” My expectation of a dialogue about what I needed to do to achieve this and what support the school could give me in this endeavour never materialised. Instead, I was informed that my answer suggested that I “lacked motivation and ambition.” I’m still dumbfounded by that response. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. It will no doubt stay with me until the end of my career and perhaps beyond. How have we ended up with a system where a teacher who is committed to improving their own education and practice in order to improve the education children get is seen as someone who lacks ambition and motivation? Why is staying in the classroom less valued and appreciated than moving on up? Surely we need a system that values all rungs of the ladder? Surely we need a system that supports development at all rungs of the ladder? Surely we need a system that assists those that want to climb as well as those who want to improve their craft? I want to teach, not to lead, yet I work in a system that seemingly does not have a place for me as I get older.

The last year has been difficult. Trying to work and better myself, in a system that expects you to climb, when you don’t want to climb. It’s made me remember the times in different schools when those on the climb warned me about those who didn’t. The cynical malcontents and troublemakers. I heeded their advice and avoided them. I even accepted the narrative that they needed to be renewed or moved on. I see things slightly differently now. Many just wanted to teach and have been let down by a system that puts a ladder in their way. Their value (or lack of it) attributed to their willingness (or lack of it) to make the climb. How much wisdom did they have about the craft of teaching? How much could the community have benefitted from them if they were as valued as much as those on the climb? I’m beginning to see it elsewhere now. Just last week I spoke to a development officer from an NGB about furthering my craft. To progress to the next qualification I need to coach adults. I asked him how this will help me become a better youth coach? I’m still waiting for that answer.

I believe we stay motivated by self-renewal. By seeking out and taking on new challenges, so I’ve reset my challenge by kicking over the ladder. I’m no longer climbing the ladder of leadership, but navigating the maze of craftsmanship. To value deeds more than words. To serve the community rather than my ego. To develop my craft of teaching PE rather than a copy and paste of the latest hack.  To do this all by staying in the classroom. Currently, I’m not happy because of the system of which I work in, but I have no control over this. However, happiness I know to be a temporary state of mind. What I need to keep in mind is my satisfaction within the entire trajectory of my career (and life). To take that entirety as the reference frame. To look back and see a life spent in the betterment of myself for the betterment of others.







16 thoughts on “Kicking over the Ladder

  1. Sounds like a messed up system. I haven’t felt that exact same experience in my situation, but I do feel that normally folks that get bumped up into leadership roles are usually the ones less passionate about teaching. Other’s that are like you (more self aware of what brings them satisfaction) and really want to become better educators stick around for ages. I think it comes down to self awareness for yourself – but I honestly can’t believe the response you got at your review, I hope that’s not the norm everywhere. If it is, the education system has more serious problems that I thought.


    1. Hi Tom. I just rotated my original picture. I wasn’t really thinking of its significance, but now you mention it I can see a number of problems with it. Might go back and have a redesign.


  2. I think your approach is exactly right. We have moved in to a world (well most of us) where the focus of senior leaders should be to support pedagogical development. Being a classroom teacher is still the best of the job. Out of all of my work last year I am most proud of the results of my maths class. I consider my role to be headTEACHER and not the other way round. As a senior leader I want to have staff using their experience and expertise to support and lead others but that should not mean having to leave being a teacher. PE teachers are suffering from an over supply still but the skills of an excellent PE practitioner can be used to develop others – use of questioning, being able to critique performance etc.

    I think your stance is right it just may not be the right place!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In being the best teacher you can be, learning from failure, learning through iteration, and continually refining your practice, you lead by example. Many people look up to you because of this. You’re ability to critically self-reflect is your greatest asset. You can kick the ladder over, but it doesn’t lessen the genuine impact you have on our profession. I’ve no doubt you will continue to find purpose and meaning in what you do and lead by example. No need to climb ladders to impact and change others through your work.

    Hope your holidays are great my friend. Talk soon.


  4. There are some interesting papers that refer to these teachers as ‘troopers’ or ‘lifers’. Neither are viewed particularly positively. You are also contending with a performative system that judges you by your last set of quantitative results – not something easy to demonstrate in line with your own particular beliefs about physical education. What is interesting is HOW people learn to climb the ladder in the ways that they do, particularly as there are different ladders to climb. How often do PE teachers move up the curricular ladder compared to the pastoral ladder? Does the marginalisation or nature of PE mean there are less opportunities available to climb the curricular ladder compared with the pastoral ladder? For PE teachers, are some ladders higher than others? Do some ladders end prematurely and there is no place for the PE teacher to go? Choice of ladder and decions around this become difficult – how do PE teachers learn how to do this (and who is teaching them)? The idea that teachers learn the micro politics of their schools and become micropolitically literate may mean that some teachers are better equipped than others, depending upon how the ladder is climbed. Indeed younger teachers coming into schools now have only ever known (from their own schooling) a neoliberal approach to education that rewards quantitative results. They’ve been socialised into this, and think nothing of stepping over others on their routes up one of the ladders. They (are encouraged) to develop their micropolitical literacy by managers that want greater levels of productivity (measured quantitatively} for greater efficiency. While they are being rewarded by promotion up a ladder, Heads get more for less, and the ‘troopers’ and ‘lifers’ are not valued – a lack of ambition etc, regardless of how good they are aiming to develop their pedagogy (which may be something that is seen be seen to be socially constructed) and difficult to quantify.

    As always – thought-provoking stuff.


  5. A great piece and not just relevant to the classroom. I have climbed the corporate ladder starting 30 years ago as a front line supervisor. I still believe that frontline role to be the most critical in the business yet we take the best ones and promote them to a manager’s role which they may not want or aspire to but the lure of better pay and conditions will drive many there.

    In my role as a sports leader, I see it with all coaches aspiring to the higher, better paid world of adult sports yet it is at the grassroots level where we could make such a difference with better quality coaches.

    I don’t have the answer’s as both systems are set up to keep the ladder in place but I like your stance and would certainly not say it ‘lacks motivation and ambition’ I would argue the opposite of saying who is trying to create a better system than the current one. This is very ambitious and extremely motivational to others,


  6. Thank you for this most insightful article. I found myself in a similar position when I first began teaching in West Virginia many years ago. After a year or so the Supt. of Schools asked me about my interest in climbing that ladder to become a principal. I explained that I really had no interest in becoming a principal, however, one day I may choose to become a supervisor of health & physical education. After being drafted into the job for one year I decided to return to my position as an elementary physical educator. A few years later I left to become supervisor once more in a different school district. Three years later they eliminated my position. For some reason they always seem to think that this position should be lumped into the athletic director’s lap OR add the nursing faculty to their job description, as they have in many districts in New Jersey. There are only a handful of supervisors of health & physical education presently in our state and many of them are also director’s of athletics or assistant principals.
    I discovered that it’s a treacherous climb up that ladder and after finding a new position as a teacher at a middle school for four years where the inmates were running the asylum I really missed my younger students. Yes, I was drowning in a different respect. I didn’t choose to be a warden I only wanted to teach but I was surrounded by many others who had different viewpoints and didn’t choose to change or grow with the profession. Eventually, I was able to return to where I felt the most comfortable and began to really appreciate the position that I held. Then I continued to climb that other mountain of attempting to become an expert teacher once again. I have been retired for six years due to the strain put upon our profession by our own Governor and I chose to leave and focus on becoming an educational consultant and enjoy my other avocation as a musician/DJ.
    When you are a supervisor/principal/leader it is rare that anyone thanks you for doing something that benefits them. It’s always, what have you done for me today?
    I was stabbed in the back by a few teachers under my supervision, which may have been one reason that I lost my supervisory role…
    BUT…I was fortunate to be back in my classroom/gym where all that I had to do was to show up and the children were happy to see me because they knew that I always tried my best to make fitness fun. God Bless the teachers who care to be the best that they can be for their students,every day, every month and every year.
    Climb your own mountains/ladders my friends and don’t be pressured into climbing someone else’s idea of the correct path in education.


  7. I have been more than half way up and then decided to go the bottom again and have never felt more fulfilled in doing what I trained to do and what I think I am good at: teaching, so obviously I am a failure.


  8. We spent loads time planning and reporting AARs…….the actual event/programme/activity is inconsequential……I spent more time on spreadsheets, deployment, fighting fire, convincing teachers on things i myself not totally convinced of, etc than teaching or thinking of it at times! All these are probably necessary in our teaching bureaucracy and it is good that there are people like you who are clear on your contributions and not join the rush for the ladder! Sometimes I wish I saw this when I am much younger….but better late than never!


  9. Great article and good luck to you, as a former governor I can understand your frustration, we were put in the position of ‘rewarding’ good teachers to do less pupil contact time only to then see them turn into (often) pretty poor managers while the pupils were left with less experienced colleagues. Unfortunately most stakeholders within education (sadly including individual teachers and their unions) subscribe to this madness of taking good people away from pupil contact because there seems to be an unwillingness to pay for that but ‘the system’ is happy to pay over the odds for ‘management’ which would often be better left to professional managers.


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