The 16 steps to success


CPD expert Phil Parker outlines 16 skills that young teachers should focus on to achieve professional success.

If you have climbed the Castle of the Feathered Serpent – the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza – you will know it has 365 steps. There are four stairways, each one with 91 steps, and the single step to the temple of Kukulkan. Some believe this total value has dictated our calendar.

At this end of the school year, I am sure the prospect of climbing 365 steps would fill any exhausted teacher with horror. I want to suggest using four stairways, but with just four steps each. I use this model very successfully with learners but teachers are learners too. Its principles apply just the same. So, to reach enlightenment, let’s ascend my four stairways and the 16 skills they represent.

The Team Stairway 

The first stairway recognises that every teacher is part of a variety of teams; subject, year, house, school. And not to be overlooked is your class – they are your team and you manage them in the same way that you are managed by others. What skills do you need to do this?

  • Leadership: learners look to you for leadership – if they don’t see it they can react badly or become dispirited. Leadership is about providing direction and purpose. This is done by establishing routines, so everyone knows what to do and why they are doing it. This can be achieved by using…

  • Responsibility: give learners roles that drive the learning and empower them to be accountable for what happens. I like to use roles like editor, resource manager, chairperson, analyst and investigator. No more than five in a team, so everyone has a definite role for which they are responsible.

  • Communication: the core standards talk about the importance of making sure it is a two-way process. Listen but persuade too, inspire and motivate. Be clear in what you say, say only what you mean. Remember we communicate using non-verbal signals too, look confident even if you’re not!

  • Respect: learners need to know where boundaries are, so make them clear and having established them, don’t ever retreat from them. Expect respect but make sure you deserve it first. Make sure you are seen as part of the team – after all members of the best teams do not disrespect each other.

The Reflective Stairway 

This stairway is emphasised by Ofsted frequently. It is about having time to stop and think about what is being learned. It is important to get off the treadmill and think about what is happening.

  • Self-awareness: know your strengths and let them define you. Do not let self-doubt erode them, but look for areas to develop and work at challenging yourself.

  • Thoughtfulness: review your work by applying your own prior learning to new experiences to build layers of knowledge, like an onion. Work out why a new approach worked, find its winning formula but understand that it will not work consistently, which requires you to be…

  • Adaptable: hours of planning can limit your adaptability if you are not careful. Sir Michael Wilshaw (the chief inspector) is on record as saying that it is okay to depart from plans. Reflect on how things are working and stay flexible. Bend with the wind.

  • Development: take steps to reach your goals and break down barriers gradually. Share these steps with difficult learners, explain how tough goals can be reached by working on the stages together. 

The Independent Stairway 

This stairway is about finding the best way for you. Teaching is a reflection of personality and students relate to you best when they understand who you are.

  • Determination: let your learners know you do not intend giving up on them, but that you will not give up on your standards, boundaries or routines either. This might take time and will test your commitment and nerve – hence why self-awareness is important.

  • Focus: concentrate on the areas that develop you. Do not get dragged in to activities which distract, exhaust or disillusion you. Have a plan and stick to it.

  • Organisation: the importance of routine and the team mentality of getting learners to do the organisation for you. Planning does this, but remember not to stick to it obsessively.

  • Individual: who was your favourite teacher? Bet it was someone you related to and that you understood what drove them. Be passionate about your subject, about your students’ achievements and let them know part of who you are so they realise you are a person first, a teacher second. Relationships are complemented this way.

The Creative Stairway 

The final stairway is about finding different methods to help your learners to learn.

  • Problem-solve: look for improvements, try them out, and select the one that works best. It takes time and not all solutions are sustainable. Find ways for learners to learn this way too.

  • Curiosity: the Socratic method is ideal; help learners to learn by structuring lines of enquiry to gain knowledge. Curiosity helps make games that bring fun into learning.

  • Imagination: involves making links between ideas. Bring the outside world into everything you do and make learning relevant to beyond the classroom. This helps engage and motivate learners massively.

  • Challenge-seek: you will make mistakes, get disappointed, feel foolish and like giving up. At such times seek a challenge, commit to it, take a risk. Encourage your learners to adopt the same attitude. This will build resilience – in you and them. 

  • Phil Parker’s regular CPD columns for SecEd can be found at He is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Further details of his work can be found


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