The Tortoise Always Wins

I recently bumped into a former colleague, one whom I hadn’t seen in years. In fact, I had mentored this colleague as a Student Teacher and was delighted to discover that they were now in charge of their own English Department: from student teacher to Principal in six years. Unfortunately, they didn’t share

slowmy excitement and pride in their progress. The reality and pressure of the job was taking its toll and they were already looking for an exit strategy. The next question they asked of me: ‘Why haven’t you gone down the management road?’ didn’t really require an answer. It was standing in front of me.

Reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘The Art of Slow Reading’ got me thinking about the speed of change and how we view learning. He argues that in an age of distraction, to slow down and be ‘present in our own lives’ is unusual.’We are rarely there.’ While the book deals primarily with reading it does discuss the way a constant rush for what’s next means we miss the important things and the value of others. The expectation that if we are not constantly moving forward then we are in some way failing becomes part of the culture. ‘Lazy’, ‘Unambitious’ become labels as much as insults.

I look back at the times when I could have moved on and up. There was definitely external pressure to do so. Many people I admired passed me by ‘in the blink of an eye’ but I stayed in the classroom, happy to learn along the way. There was no discernible choice to do so, I just seemed happier that way. Not for me the ladder, I’d leave that to others. And while I teach many of the same texts, tell many of the same jokes – I recently met a student from about ten years ago who reminded me of this – and work just as hard, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I’m happier now. For years now I’ve reflected on and criticised my own practice. I’ve developed the ability to step away and look in on my classroom and my approaches and act accordingly. I’ve read widely – and slowly – and gleaned ideas from some of the great minds in education. Every year I am a far better teacher than I was. I am a better colleague, a better mentor, a better person. And, while maybe I would have been all of those things if I’d ‘moved up’, I may also be exhausted and burnt out, just like the colleague I met. I knew it wasn’t for me, even as I sat by the side of the road and watched the hare race by.


I suppose there is a point to this post in that my short encounter with a colleague served to make me appreciate the choices I haven’t made. I do hope that colleague gets over the bad times and continues to be an excellent Principal Teacher (he was mentored so well, you know). However, maybe when we’re quick to dismiss those in the staffroom who haven’t made any big career moves – the ones who’ve always sat in the same seat, drinking from the same mug; the ones who are so easily dismissed as behind the times and not worth bothering about – we should embrace them as the staffroom tortoise. They’ve watched, learned and, let’s face it, will win in the end. Just a thought.

4 thoughts on “The Tortoise Always Wins

  1. I am so with you on this one! This is my 33rd year of teaching, my 20th year as a Department Head and my 12th as an AST leading Teaching and Learning both in my own school and through Outreach in the educational community. After my first son was born 25 years ago, I attended my first interview for a Deputy Head’s job. Shortly afterwards, my son died and after evaluating what was important, I made a decision to do what I really wanted to do: stay in the classroom doing what I enjoyed most. I have never regretted it and as a result, I am also an Outstanding Mother!!!!!! (Well, that’s what I keep telling my children!!) And in my school, I’m no tortoise either. Thank you for valuing something that is never recognised.

  2. Lovely article. A school I know well has had 3 Head of Faculties for Science in 10 years. One former PT Chemistry forced to do it eventually said, ‘If I’m getting this snash and workload I’m going for DHT..” Now a DHT and not enjoying it. Successor lasted 2 years before resigning, going back to the classroom, reenergising and is now a PT Chemistry (what they wanted) in another authority. 3rd one is now, sadly creating carnage with retirements, resignations and grievances galore. Feel sorry for them because both the latter appointments were teachers with less than 6 years experience.

  3. Kenny: Thanks for the post. It made me think (as the best blogs/tweets do…)

    I’m probably a bit of a hare and I DID climb the ladder, but I enjoyed the different jobs I had, and I carried on teaching even when I was a head. I don’t have a problem with anyone making choices that work for them – we all have different priorities and need to get a balance in our lives that is right for us.

    I did, though, work with some teachers who were capable of more than they thought they were, and whose ‘I don’t want to move on from what I’m doing now’ was, I could see, more about lack of confidence and faith in themselves. I did do the ‘hand in the small of the back’ thing with some, to encourage them to venture out of their comfort zone and face new challenges, which, when they got there, they usually found stimulating and rewarding.

    Am not suggesting this is true of all those who enjoy teaching and want to stick with it rather than venturing into other roles – as I say, everyone should be free to make their own choices, decide what works for them, and be respected for it.

    (On the burn-out issue, after 30 years in teaching/school leadership at different levels including 10 years as head, I decided to stop and do other things – education-related. No regrets at all – and I’m a walking example of what life after headship can look like….)

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