Teachers as leaders

Our research shows clearly that leadership skills are learnable, this has very important ramifications.

The most recent definitions of leadership describe leaders as people who create the conditions for others to succeed. The example par excellence of this ought to be teachers – as parents we want their whole focus to be on creating the conditions in which our children can succeed and to succeed our children need to learn to be leaders.

Like many types of leaders this is not where teachers originated in the modern era, rather teachers were employees of the state charged with creating conforming and well-schooled children who would fit into the industrial (and military) needs of the state. It was the prohibition on corporal punishment (in the 1980’s in Australia, for example) that signalled society’s desire to radically change the purpose of schooling. This change in purpose demanded, and still demands, a different type of leader, a different type of teacher.

Organisations that take leadership seriously know that there are a number of basic rules to developing a strong leadership culture. The first is to recruit people who have developed leadership capacity to a minimum level. This does not necessarily correlate with high academic (i.e. cognitive) ability so should be evaluated separately, the leader needs both. Second is to give these new leaders the right experiences, increasing in challenge, at the right time, to allow the gradual development of capacity – leadership requires practice and experience. Third, young leaders need good role models and mentors so that they know the attitudes and behaviours that distinguish the leader from the follower and receive the assistance they need as they develop.

If we look at education systems around the world then none come to mind that follow the first basic rule, they mostly select on (sometimes minimal!) academic ability. This shows itself when young teachers enter the classroom. Those who have achieved the minimum level of leadership ability find that they can engage the class (i.e. lead!) and teaching and learning readily take place. The teacher continues on this track and, with engaged students, can take risks with their practice and develop strongly, often into outstanding teachers. Those young teachers who have not reached a minimum level of leadership find that they cannot engage their students and turn to using methods of control (which is what most other teachers are doing). Less teaching and learning can take place – some students are simply disengaged – but with persistence the teacher develops into a competent teacher, good classroom control and sound, if unexciting, instructional practices. But this teacher is not a leader yet today is in the vast majority.

Without breaking this cycle, giving people the right experiences at the right time has little effect, once teachers are developing as managers rather than leaders this is hard to shift. Similarly, if most of the teachers are not developing as leaders it is hard to have appropriate role models for the less experienced teachers so the cycle continues.

This cycle can be broken by senior leaders providing role models for other staff. It is well established that an outstanding principal can transform a school and this is how, by modelling the behaviours and attitudes of a leader.

If we want to transform our education systems then we need to (1) develop the senior leaders who are in place to be leaders (our work has shown this can be done) and (2) recruit new teachers who have reached the necessary minimum levels of leadership. Both of these changes are achievable – if we want to have education systems that help all our children succeed.

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