During the research course I am currently taking as part of my post-graduate studies, we had to look at doctoral dissertations and identify the theoretical model used in the dissertation. A very recently published dissertation by Tye Andrew Norbraten (2020) looked at the transition from teacher to vice principal in international schools in China and was based on a model designed by Denise Armstrong (2009). I was quite surprised that I had never heard of this model and read up on it using Armstrong’s book and articles, as well as Norbraten’s dissertation. This blog is predominantly based on Norbraten’s adjusted model (he added the initial stage) and how it applies to ELT teachers transitioning into management roles. I do suggest that readers interested in the model read Armstrong’s book (referenced at the end of the blog) and see how it applies to their specific contexts.
Why use a model?
When you are asked to teach a certain course as a teacher, there is a very set number of tasks to complete, and achieving mastery in these tasks in fairly similar across different contexts. Granted there are differences between different contexts, but tasks such as planning, materials design, lesson delivery, assessment, and teacher related administration is fairly consistent.
As a manager, tasks can vary significantly between different organisations and even between different management roles and there may be unclear expectations of what the role entails or can achieve. The sheer number of tasks at hand as a manager sometimes makes the transition very difficult. There can be issues with socialisation, considering that the manager is now no longer part of the ‘teaching crowd’ and having someone to talk to about work pressures, the change in relationships, and struggles to find work–life balance are also important issues when moving from teacher to manager. All of these issues can lead to a lack or loss of confidence and struggles with imposter syndrome.
While using a model to understand the transition better, it won’t avoid the stressors of the transition, but understanding that there are stages the manager is likely to go through when they transition, or being aware of the stages or epicycles of your own transition might make reflection and learning on the job easier to structure and get you our of the comfort zone and into the growth zone.
While Armstrong and Norbraten use epicycles to describe how each stage is part of the next stage, I am going to describe them as stages. Keep in mind that this means you could move back and forth between stages as new challenges appear or as you progress up the management ladder. The questions are posed without answers as they will differ from person to person and context to context, but I trust that they will offer some guidance and help you grow as a leader and manager in the ELT industry.
Stage 1: Making the decision
This stage could be a lengthy period of time when the teacher prepares themselves for management role, or it could be very short, such as when a Coordinator or Senior Teacher resigns, and the teacher is asked to take over on short notice.
Key questions to ask in this decision stage could be:
- What leadership roles have I had before that I can apply here?
- How can I use my teaching skills in my new role?
- What is there that I could learn and how can I show mastery or learning?
Stage 2: Entry–exit
This is the stage between accepting the offer of a managerial role and actually starting the role. Again, this period could differ significantly depending on how the transition is made.
Key questions to ask in the entry–exit stage could be:
- What can I learn from the role profile in terms of skills I have and skills I currently lack?
- Where can I find support when I start?
- How can I develop the skills I lack prior to starting and once I am in the position?
Stage 3: Immersion–emersion
This is the stage where the demands of the new position become a reality. In aforementioned studies, participants experienced a significant and sudden increase in their workload. There were a number of new challenges and an abrupt escalation of responsibilities. It is important to remember that just like teaching, you will be making mistakes and you will continue to make mistakes. It is important to realise when you have made a mistake and learn from it rather than get paralysed by the fear of making mistakes.
Key questions in the immersion–emersion stage could be:
- Where can I find support?
- Am I keeping my work life balance in check?
- How can I keep the excitement going without getting overwhelmed or carried away by the new responsibilities?
- How am I learning from the mistakes I am making?
- Am I dealing with potential lack of confidence, stress, or mental health issues in a way that is working for me?
Stage 4: Disintegration–reintegration
Armstrong (2009) described this as the second year of management in which a full annual cycle of management had been completed. For many managers, the first year is scaffolded with support and on-the-job learning, but this support is abruptly removed at the start of the second year as you now have a year’s experience. This disintegration–reintegration stage might take a few months, or it could take several months. The key area here is that the manager has to learn to deal with the ambiguity of being a manager, balance different responsibilities and areas of life, and adapt to changes that extend beyond just being a teacher that has become a manager. Challenges could include feelings of having to deal with issues that could previously just be passed up while not feeling that you have changed at all as a person. In order to redesign yourself as a manager, it is important to continue developing skills that would allow you to cope with the challenges of being a manager.
Key questions in this stage could be:
- Am I learning from the mistakes I am making?
- Do I have a model for on-the-job reflection?
- How am I developing my communication, stress management, problem-solving and time-management skills?
- How am I developing my job specific skills?
- Am I gaining a big picture view that shows me how I fit into the management team and the organisation?
Stage 5: Transformation–restabilisation
This is the stage where you are accustomed to the new role, confident in your own abilities and potentially ready to move on to a new bigger challenge. It is also the stage where you would feel efficient and effective as a manager and able to guide and mentor new managers in their role.
Key questions in the transformation–restabilisation stage could be:
- How can I become more effective and efficient, and how can I acquire the skills?
- How can I mentor and help others transition into management?
- How well am I coping with the workload and responsibilities, and can I better streamline my work?
- Is my work–life balance acceptable?
Getting help when you need it
In all the stages, there is the need to find support and help. There are a number of ways of getting this, which include:
- Find a mentor inside or outside of your organisation.
- Develop empathy and understanding – The person whose role you took over may have moved onto a bigger role and be experiencing the same challenges as you are.
- Help and teach others – There is lots to learn through teaching and mentoring others.
- Reflect on previous leadership roles and your current role – Always be reflective.
- Draw on your teaching knowledge and your understanding of the organisation.
- Keep looking at the bigger picture and how you fit into it.
The transition from teacher to manager can be a very exciting and fulfilling journey, but it is important to realise that it comes with challenges. The same challenges apply when you move from one management role to another, or when you move from one organisation to another. A forward-looking view where you keep learning about the organisation, management skills, and leadership skills will make the transition smoother, but it will always be filled with challenges. Being prepared for challenges and confident in your ability takes time, but ultimately helps you transform from one person to another, without actually changing who you are as a person.
Please share how the transition has been for you, or perhaps what tips you could share with others, in the comments below.
Armstrong, D. E. (2009). Administrative passages: Navigating the transition from teacher to assistant principal. New York, NY: Springer.
Norbraten, T. A. (2020). The transition from teacher to vice-principal in international schools in China. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Nova Southeastern University.