Science teacher Clive Hill shares his experience to help you choose the perfect job

A person making a choice between three colourful doors

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Picking the right school is important for your career and well-being

I changed schools in September. With the option of an assistant headteacher role in one school or a head of biology and careers lead role in another, choosing the right school had far-reaching implications. For me, the right school with the right team is far better than a job title when it comes to making career decisions. The big question is ‘how do you know a school is right for you?’.

Know your own values and educational vision

Know your values and vision

Working for a leader in a school whose vision doesn’t align with your own is incredibly frustrating. Schools are public-image savvy because a manicured website with professionally taken pictures of the students sells a school to parents looking to send their children there, and teachers seeking a good career. This means they are perfect for finding out whether a school’s ethos and values match your own. And I’m a firm believer that this has to extend past the three-word straplines.

Before undertaking the arduous application process I always do my homework on a school and its leadership. This sounds mercenary, but firstly it means I can tailor the language used in my application to that used by the school – this is guaranteed to make my application stand out past the HR-sort. Secondly, it ensures I am making the right career choice. Headteachers like to see stability on a CV; making sure you are only applying to a school where there is a mutual fit helps provide this. I wanted a stable structure in which to develop as a school leader so making the right choice was important.

Don’t jump to conclusions

You won’t necessarily be happier or better supported in a school with a string of outstanding inspection reports. Don’t assume special measures is to be avoided. Schools in challenging circumstances often have the most committed and hard-working teachers who will inspire and encourage you. Likewise, be open about the area of education your next role might be in. There are amazing opportunities to be explored in alternative provision or special education.

With an offer on the table for a senior leadership role in alternative provision, I needed to be sure this was the right next step for me both personally and career-wise. What I didn’t expect was to be offered an additional leadership responsibility as the school’s careers lead – this means I currently have the right role for where I am in my career. I’m fortunate to be able to use my master’s degree research to inform a whole-school careers strategy, as well as leading on and teaching my subject to A-level. Had I not been open-minded, I would have limited my options and missed what feels like the perfect school for me.

Network to your advantage

Do you know anyone already teaching at the school, or have you connected with others in the area that might know the school well? Reaching out to them can reveal the reality of life working there – certainly beyond the guided tour and glossy website. Networking is something I have taken seriously since changing career, and it pays dividends.

Establishing a community of practice here in the East Midlands has been advantageous for all of us involved. It has enabled me to know those involved in education at all levels across the region. I only need to message a few people to make an informed decision about any potential application. Websites are polished, but reputations are real.

Arrange a chat with the headteacher

This is not an unusual request in my experience and presents the perfect opportunity to see whether it is worth your time completing the application process. The best heads will be keen to chat and give you a feel for their vision for the school, staff well-being and, importantly, staff development. After all, you will potentially be entrusting your career to the organisation they lead – this is a two-way process, and the best headteachers understand this.

Ask plenty of questions. Understanding the community you will be serving and the challenges the school faces must not be overlooked. This is a great opportunity to get a feel for the students, the staff, the building and the local area.

Consider what really matters – community and culture

Consider community and culture

While first impressions matter, consider the big picture too. Old buildings with an awkward layout or some classrooms in Portakabins are less important than the atmosphere.

How are you welcomed? With warmth, regard and time to answer questions or with anxious haste and superficial civilities? Do students rowdily dart about pushing and shoving or is there a reasonable degree of orderliness despite their energy? Are students reasonably eager to get to class or are they wandering around site after the bell has rung? Are there good positive relationships? Is respect and courtesy the norm? You can only really gauge these things on-site during school hours, but they speak volumes when making a decision.

What underpins all this?

The logistics and strategic thinking behind the running of the school will impact your workload. Understanding the approach to behaviour management, marking policies and attitudes to continuous professional development alongside performance management and progression should inform your questions during your initial visit and (when offered) the interview day. The best schools will discuss work–life balance and staff well-being openly – this was a deciding factor for me, as I am blessed with a 15-month old daughter that I don’t want to miss growing up while I educate other children.

Community, culture and these underpinning factors are what make a difference on a day-to-day basis. A successful teaching career has to be sustainable if you are to make it past the five-year retention drop-off. Stepping back and assessing the bigger picture around a school and the job on offer ensures that the next step in your teaching career is the right job in the right school. My decision was surprisingly easy to make.

In fact, looking back on the recruitment process, I know the point when I made the choice between the two roles: I was sat drinking a cup of tea and talking to my new headteacher about what I wanted in my next role, and where the future lay for me. Ninety days into my new role, and I have no regrets.

Clive Hill