The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Murray

Why I took the zig zag path to career development

How part-time working in schools enabled an unconventional approach to Liz Murray's career development.

There are many reasons why a teacher might request part-time hours. For me, it was after the birth of my daughter. I had been teaching for a decade and was head of English at a new academy. I had poured my energies and passion into developing an exciting new curriculum and had a dynamic team of teachers. I was totally committed to the role and very ambitious. The job was very much ‘my baby’ until my actual baby came along! 

Once I had my daughter I knew that I couldn’t sustain the workload, or the commitment required, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to have more time and headspace to spend with my daughter. I wanted to be a good mum, but I also didn’t want to cut off my career.

Unless you were prepared to work full-time hours, promotion wasn't an option

Friends and colleagues warned me against giving up the career I had worked hard to build, and not making a hasty decision that I might later regret. So, I began to research the options, looking for role models and reading for inspiration. 

My search for a roadmap

I discovered that there wasn’t a tried and tested ‘roadmap’ to follow. I knew a few part-time teachers, all of whom were women, and all had taken a demotion to facilitate part time hours. They were happy with the time this allowed for family, but many felt demotivated and unchallenged. They all iterated that unless you were prepared to work full-time hours, promotion wasn't an option.

The period after children were grown was also a concern. Two older teachers I spoke to, also female, had worked part-time when their children were young and then resumed their full-time hours later. Both were well respected and excellent but hadn’t progressed beyond middle leadership, even though they were willing to take on a more senior role.

Having reached a dead-end for inspiration in the education world, I searched for experiences of working women across professions. A book that resonated strongly was Half a Wife by Gaby Hinsliff. Hinsliff suggests thinking about your career path, not in a straight line but as a zigzag. 

What many parents want is to be able to alternate periods of shooting up the ladder with sideways moves when the clash between work and life becomes too much – but without sacrificing the potential of another rise in future. A working life that followed this pattern would look less like a straight line and more like an interlinked chain of Zs. (Hinsliff, 2012)

A strategically planned side step

Strategically planning a side-step sparked an idea. I could take a step down but also side step and specialise. I knew the area that I wanted to focus on: supporting children with SEND. Teacher training had been remarkably lacking in this area and I often felt ill-equipped to cater for the needs of all children in my classroom; I could take the time to address this now.

I came up with a proposal and took it to the headteacher. I would step down as head of English and work three days a week, still teaching English 40% of the time, but I would spend 60% of the time working with small groups of children with SEND and developing approaches to enable progress. As the school was now in its third year, this proposal fit in well with staffing need and my teaching expertise would be valued in this area, plus I could learn on the job. 

I was continuing to learn, use my skills and felt fulfilled professionally while also coping with the demands of a toddler!

After a year of this arrangement I was enjoying my job and was learning. I had also started to informally mentor some colleagues and wanted this to be acknowledged in my role. I approached the headteacher again and suggested that I qualify as an advanced skills teacher in English and SEND.

Once qualified and appointed to this role, I would formally have responsibility for facilitating staff CPD, and coaching and mentoring other teachers. This would place me back on the middle leadership career track too, in case I wanted to step up again in future. The financial reward was minimal, but I was continuing to learn, use my skills and felt fulfilled professionally while also coping with the demands of a toddler!

Achieving an ambition

What happened next was a combination of good timing and my strategic side step paying off. My daughter was about to start school when the existing SENCO (also an assistant head) decided to move on. I was ideally placed as a candidate and applied for the role, stipulating that I would like to do it on four days a week.

I got the job, thus shooting up the ‘Z’ and achieving an ambition to become a senior leader that many thought I had abandoned when I chose to step down from my head of English role.

My next move was to side-step into another part-time assistant headteacher and SENCO role in a different school. I was confident in my abilities and open about wanting the role part-time prior to application. This opportunity developed a breadth of experience and then, after a relocation, I stepped down with one foot into a part-time SENCO role, while stepping up with the other foot into the world of writing, presenting and consulting through my own education business.

How to facilitate flexible working

My guide to part-time and flexible working cites many reasons why school leaders need to find ways to facilitate this more effectively and provides some models for doing so.

Given the workload and teacher supply crisis, we must allow more flexibility for teachers who need time, whether that’s for family, caring, or because they’re approaching retirement and want a different working pattern. These experienced colleagues are crucial to maintaining a high-quality teaching workforce.

So if you want a flexible working arrangement (whether that's a job share, part-time, compressed hours - see types of flexible working for ideas), how can you help make it happen?

Tips for a successful flexible working proposal

Before going to your line manager with your request, consider the following. 

  • Your school’s goals: what’s the current focus for senior leaders? If you have a great idea to raise the attainment of pupil premium learners, or improve pupil wellbeing, could this dovetail with a focused position that would add genuine value – and fit with your desired working arrangement?
  • Your colleagues: is there potential for a job share? Can you demonstrate how sharing a role would add value rather than reducing capacity?
  • A strategic rather than vertical next step: if you are stepping down from a position of responsibility but might want to step back up later, could you retain an aspect of the role or side step instead?
  • How flexible can you be? What would work for both your lifestyle and your school? Can you work a shorter day four or five days a week, or do you need a full day off? How will this work with the timetable? Don’t just leave it to the senior leader in charge of the timetable: present solutions.

A note of caution

Finally, be wary of these common pitfalls!

  • Don’t just accept part-time hours for an existing position without thinking through how you will fulfil the role. If you try to do a full-time job on fewer hours, you will either work on your day off or find that you quickly become overwhelmed.
  • Be paid what you are worth. If you are adjusting a role with responsibility to part-time hours and you will be expected to attend extra meetings that don’t fit into reduced hours, how will these be remunerated?

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