Chapter Six: Teachers, Administrators, and the School System

6.7 Leadership

Recently, there has been a huge revival of interest in the idea of leadership in schools. Research over the last 10 years or so has emphasized the important role of the principal in creating and sustaining quality schools. This research has led to calls for school principals to become much more oriented toward providing active leadership. Graduate programs and in-service training for school administrators are giving increasing emphasis to what is called “educational leadership” as opposed to the relatively routine and administrative style described earlier in the chapter.

Many studies, in education and other fields, have examined the nature of leadership and the characteristics that make people effective school leaders (Day & Sammons, 2014; Robinson & Gray, 2019; Seashore Louis et al., (2010); Wallin et al., 2019). This research shows that the idea of leadership is far from simple. On the one hand, it does appear that some individuals in leadership positions can make a considerable difference to their school or school district. There is much anecdotal evidence and a growing body of research about school administrators who were able to strengthen school programs, improve morale, create conditions under which students learned more, and inspire teachers to be better at their work. Effective principals have a strong interest in instructional issues. They tend to be highly visible in the school. They both initiate and support improvement efforts by teachers and students. They work hard at creating a positive school climate, a sense of purpose and efficacy, strong working relationships among teachers, and shared power and responsibility.

On the other hand, leadership is not always and necessarily a positive thing. No recipe exists for being an effective leader. What works in one school with a certain staff, student body, and community will not necessarily work in another school, an idea that is sometimes called the contingency or situational theory of leadership. Some of the education literature on effective leadership portrays good leaders as knights in armour (notice the masculine quality here) who rescue failing schools almost single-handedly, triumphing over all kinds of obstacles. A number of Hollywood movies have reinforced this image of the good principal. But the reality is much more complex. The requirements of leadership may vary depending on the staff, the students, the program, the location, and other aspects of the school. In certain cases, a strong interventionist style of leadership may be most effective; in others, a quieter form of facilitated support may achieve the best results.

There are also important barriers to effective leadership in both schools and other organizations. Promoting change may bring increased conflict and a sense of uneasiness as people try to work out new practices. It may not be sufficiently recognized that changing our old and familiar patterns of behaviour is very difficult to do, even when there is a willingness to do so. A principal who presses for change may encounter resistance from staff, students, or the community. Even when people recognize that improvement is needed, they may naturally not be anxious to engage in the hard work required to bring about improvement, especially when, as is true for many teachers, their jobs are already demanding, and the rewards of change are quite uncertain.

Any individual school leader’s capacity to be effective is also partly dependent on external circumstances beyond their control, such as the level of resources, support from higher levels of authority, or crises that may occur. The need to cope with a sudden budget decline can distract everyone from a long-term educational agenda. A new curriculum requirement from the provincial government may mean that professional development time has to be reallocated. Just as a cautious principal can block teachers’ ideas, so a superintendent or school board can stifle a principal’s initiative if they wish to do so. A large number of circumstances could make it difficult for even the most talented leader to accomplish school goals.

While we have a strong tendency to think of school leadership in terms of “the leader” and the school principal, many authors challenge us to take a much broader view of leadership.  Supovitz et al. (2019) discuss the need to advance school improvement through a distributed leadership approach that moves beyond the school principal in order to enhance educational experiences for students and increase teacher commitment to school goals. Harris and Deflaminis (2016) articulate that distributed leadership emphasizes, “leadership as practice rather than leadership as role or responsibility…on interactions rather than actions; it presupposes that leadership is not simply restricted to those with formal leadership roles but that influence and agency are widely shared” (p. 141). Raelin (2016) challenges us to take a broader view of leadership, leadership as practice, that is a much more shared and collaborative process. Leadership, Raelin contends, is a shared endeavour that all members of a school community enact together through the processes in which they engage to advance a common vision for the school. He discusses a number of activities in which people engage that may be tacitly understood, and hard to describe, yet all lead to the advancement of leadership practice in a school: designing approaches to implement; scanning for resources; mobilizing actors; weaving interactions and networks to build common meaning, stabilizing activity through provision of feedback for change and learning; inviting others to share ideas; unleashing opportunities for input without fear of reprisal, and; reflecting on the work of self and others to address shared needs.

The dialogue that began this chapter illustrated how different schools can be in their operation, and the importance leadership can have in creating these differences. The next section discusses typical and exemplary practices in relation to many of the aspects of life in schools for teachers.