This essay is presented as an evaluation of leading teacher learning in secondary schools. The paper considers three key areas: (1) The role of school leaders in relation to the professional development of teachers; (2) The contribution of mentoring in relation to teacher development; and (3) The concept and value of teacher leadership in relation to coaching and learner outcomes. The essay seeks to review the current thinking on the topic of leading teacher learning and contribute to the ongoing discussion by exploring both positional and distributed leadership models, reflection and experiential learning, and different learning communities teachers may participate in as part of their own professional learning.
The author proposes that school leaders play a critical role in the professional development of teachers and that the distributed approach to leadership provides the most satisfying model for teacher learning. Mentoring is valuable in facilitating teacher learning but may be enhanced through the training of mentors, whereas coaching may provide a more suitable alternative method of learning for more experienced teachers. School leaders can play an important role in facilitating the development of teacher learning communities, but they must also acknowledge the potential of having a negative influence on learner communities.
The professional development of classroom teachers into more knowledgeable and effective practitioners greatly influences the quality of student learning. This essay explores current theories related to leading teacher-learning and seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion of teacher learning and how best to facilitate it. This exploration and discussion are of particular relevance to both classroom teachers and school leaders who may wish to understand different approaches to teacher learning with the end goal of improving student learning within a secondary school context.
An Evaluation of Leading Teacher Learning in Secondary Schools
Research has shown that classroom teaching is the most significant influence on student learning (Leithwood et al., 2008), the raison d’être of any successful school. Developing teachers into more knowledgeable and effective practitioners over the course of their careers is essential for any school that wishes to achieve its primary purpose of facilitating student learning. Leadership in school is a complex subject, however; succinctly put, it involves providing vision, direction and support, as well as being a key factor in school improvement (Harris and Muijs, 2004). A core task for a successful school leader is to understand and develop people and to support enhancing staff performance (Leithwood et al., 2008). This essay is presented as a narrative evaluation of the current state of leading teacher learning in secondary schools.
To be successful in facilitating teacher learning it is important to define clearly what constitutes this learning and how this learning may be led within a school environment. Teacher learning is a broad term used in this essay to refer to any development opportunity, formal or informal, enabling classroom teachers to become more knowledgeable and skillful as teachers and thus more effective practitioners. In effect, teacher learning is any form of learning with the ultimate goal of leading to improved student learning.
In order to provide focus and clarity, this essay examines various perspectives on leading teacher-learning in secondary schools by considering three key areas:
- The role of school leaders in relation to the professional development of teachers.
- The contribution of mentoring in relation to teacher development.
- The concept and value of teacher leadership in relation to coaching and learner outcomes.
These three areas have been selected as they represent an overview of the main forms of teacher learning that may occur within a secondary school setting.
Review of Literature
Positional leadership versus distributed leadership. Investment in teacher professional development is seen as a means to improve pupil outcomes (King, 2014) and leadership has been identified as a catalyst to unlock potential capacities already in existence within an organisation (Leithwood et al., 2008). Academic leadership studies have sought to identify, evaluate and categorise different leadership approaches, of which two main approaches are explored here. Firstly, the positional leadership approach, where a person has specific leadership responsibilities (Jones, 2014), could be what is traditionally understood by the term leadership.
Alternatives to the traditional top-down leadership approach in schools have also been explored. A non-positional approach to leadership can be observed in Formative Leadership Theory (Ash and Persall, 2000) whereby a school principal acts as the leader of leaders, creating a collaborative environment and the time for the professional development of teachers, but where there are many leaders and opportunities for leadership within a school. This concept is further developed by Harris and Muijs (2004) in their exploration of distributed leadership, whereby school leaders are identified as not always being at the top of the hierarchy of a school but rather that leadership is distributed within a school among teachers that have the ability to instigate change. Distributed leadership in a primary school context was identified to have had an indirect positive effect on professional learning (Bektaş et al., 2020) but there is scope for further exploration of forms and processes of distributed leadership in a secondary school context.
Leadership has been found to have the most significant impact on teachers and students when it is distributed (Leithwood et al., 2008). However, potential unsuitability of people thrust into leadership due to a distributed leadership model has been recognised (Gurr and Drysdale, 2013) and thus a negative impact on teacher learning is implied. However, this area requires further exploration. Despite this criticism, the majority of the literature explored for this article suggests that distributed leadership may have a greater positive influence on teacher learning than positional leadership.
Impact of middle leaders. Middle leaders in schools provide leadership within teams of teachers. With regards to the impact of middle leaders on teacher learning, it has been observed that middle leaders can design and deliver professional development within schools, working within the focus set by senior leaders (Bryant and Walker, 2022), and act as advice givers to other teachers (Bryant et al., 2020) whilst also requiring support (Gurr and Drysdale, 2013). Middle leaders play a critical role in creating knowledge about teaching within schools (Hargreaves, 1999; MacGilchrist et al., 2004) and their work is strengthened by encouragement for sharing knowledge (Fitzgerald and Gunter, 2006). Improvements across departments within schools can be facilitated by the expertise of middle leaders (Harris and Muijs, 2004). The dichotomy of monitoring classroom practice as both a collaborative learning experience for middle leaders and teachers, as well as a form of hierarchical quality assurance is recognised (Bennett et al., 2007). Finally, the high value placed on professional learning by high-performing middle leaders has also been recognised (Dinham, 2007). It is clear from the research explored that middle leaders can play a crucial role in facilitating teacher learning within school contexts.
Effects of mentoring on teacher development. The contribution of mentoring in relation to teacher development has established reflection (Dewey, 1993 cited in Smith, M.K. 1996, 1999; Schon, 1987 cited in Smith, M.K. 1996, 1999) and experiential learning (Kolb and Fry, 1975, as cited in Smith 2001, 2010) as concepts which can be applied to the mentoring process. Mentors have been defined as a senior person providing information, advice and emotional support over an extended period to a junior person (Barrera et al., 2010). Mentoring as both a relationship and a process, as well as the mentor’s role in providing feedback was recognised (Kwan and Lopez‐Real, 2005). Mentoring of novice teachers was also recognised (Putnam and Borko, 2000; Street, 2004).
The lack of formal training for mentors (Betlem et al., 2019) and the value that specific training (Young and Cates, 2010) and participatory action research with academic partners could add for mentors (Betlem et al., 2019) have been observed. Although it has been discussed that external, paid mentors may be more effective than their internal counterparts in supporting novice teachers (Ewing, 2021), this area requires further study. That is, mentoring may play an important role in facilitating teacher learning but may be better suited to developing novice teachers due to the more experienced versus less experienced dynamic inherent to the mentoring process.
Effects of coaching on teacher development. Coaching exists in many forms and is most effective when the coachee (person who is being coached) can discuss his or her practice in a safe place (Lofthouse, 2019). However, the performativity culture of many secondary schools, based on the need to meet examination targets, means that the introduction of coaching can be met with resistance from staff. Further, the trust-based nature of coaching may be at odds with the managerial culture of the school (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013). Peer coaching can be both supported and impeded by senior leaders (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013) and trust is a crucial element of the coaching process (Cox, 2012). The research explored implies the importance of an understanding of the coaching process and possible pitfalls that school leaders would need to understand to implement successful coaching practice within a secondary school.
Discourse communities (Putnam and Borko, 2000), communities of practice (Wenger, circa 2007 cited in Smith M.K. 2003, 2009; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2020) and professional learning communities (Vanblaere and Devos, 2016) can make valuable contributions to teacher learning through the situated nature of learning. Situated learning involves the process of legitimate peripheral participation, the process by which newcomers move towards full participation in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Further, Putnam and Borko (2000) in their thorough exploration of teacher learning contend that the context in which learning and knowledge are situated is dependent on the overall goal of the learning. The implication from the research explored is that school leaders may influence the success of learning communities by facilitating a culture which allows the learning community to thrive, for example, by not creating barriers to a diversity of ideas from participating teachers within a learning community and to recognise that training for members of a professional learning community may facilitate successful teacher learning (Carpenter, 2015).
Discussion: Consideration of Various Forms of Leading Teacher Learning
This paper set out to address leading teacher learning in secondary schools. I explored a range of areas to consider in relation to different forms of teacher learning which could be applied to secondary school contexts.
Positional versus distributed leadership model. To consider the role of school leaders in relation to the professional development of teachers, the positional and distributed leadership models provide two different approaches which must be explored. Firstly, in the positional leadership model it is the senior leadership, primarily the principal or headteacher, who would ultimately dictate the educational position that a school would like to focus on for its teachers. This may be in the organisation of whole-school continuous professional development sessions, which may be delivered by in-house teachers or outside speakers. Although this position may be influenced through consultation with staff, the primary driver for the movement of teacher learning is the senior leadership, as it is these leaders that would foster the collaborative culture in which teacher learning can take place. The importance for the development needs of all staff to be identified and then planned for (MacGilchrist et al., 2004) suggests a positional approach to leadership as a senior teacher would likely be responsible for this approach. Even in a distributed approach to leadership, the senior leader’s role in creating a collaborative environment for teacher learners is recognised (Ash and Persall, 2000). Therefore, the primary influence on the extent of teacher learning within a school is the senior leader.
However, the distributed leadership model likely provides an overall more satisfying approach for teacher learning within a secondary school context in that it involves a greater number of actors in the process, notwithstanding the unavoidable influence of a senior leader. Indeed, distributed leadership, which has been found to have the greatest impact on students and schools (Leithwood et al., 2008), can be a valuable approach for leading teacher learning. The cascading leadership model (Bryant et al., 2020) is a compelling example of distributed leadership, with middle leaders having a clear role in delivering school-based training. The impact of high performing Heads of Department on teacher learning through the high value that these middle leaders place on professional learning (Dinham, 2007) is a further persuasive argument in favour of the distributed leadership model and its positive influence on teacher learning. Indeed, the view that there are many possible leaders within a school (Ash and Persall, 2000) and that they can be any teacher that can instigate change (Harris and Muijs, 2004) expands the potential of teacher leaders far beyond the scope of the middle leader. Within departments in a secondary school context, individual teachers may take the lead in developing an area of practice, engaging with research and supporting other colleagues in adopting a new approach, whether the individual teachers hold a formal leadership role or not. This is distributed leadership in action. The potential involvement of a greater number of teachers leading teacher learning within a secondary school may be desirable in that this may lead to a number of learning communities within a school with teachers reflecting on practice and engaging in meaningful discussions and engaging in practitioner research on teaching and learning.
It is necessary at this point to address the criticism levelled at the distributed approach by Gurr and Drysdale (2013). Overextending distributed leadership to incorporate unwilling or under-skilled staff is likely to have a negative impact on the areas such staff are responsible for, such as leading teacher learning. However, whether this is a symptom of distributed leadership or a more general problem related to staff motivation and training remains debatable. Further research into this area would be a welcome contribution to the conversation.
Mentoring and coaching. It is clear that the contribution of mentoring on teacher development is significant. The mentoring process inherently involves reflection on practice and in so doing is a form of teacher learning. The involvement of a mentor who is more senior and a less experienced mentee (Barrera et al., 2010; Kwan and Lopez-Real, 2005), means the process of mentoring is particularly suited to facilitating learning in novice teachers, perhaps indicated by the wealth of literature on the subject of mentoring new teachers. However, mentoring of more experienced teachers may be more problematic due to the perceived ‘more experienced – less experienced’ dynamic which could equally be perceived as a ‘more effective teacher – less effective teacher’ dynamic. Although this was beyond the scope of my literature review it would be a valuable area for consideration in the future. Nevertheless, if schools are to gain the benefits of mentoring novice teachers, the lack of formal training mentors have for the role (Betlem et al., 2019) may inhibit the effectiveness and consistency of the mentoring process across a school. Furthermore, mentors engaging in participatory action research with academic partners to develop mentoring capacity (Betlem et al., 2019) is worth further exploration. However, this approach would require careful consideration from school leaders as the role of a mentor is often an additional responsibility for often already time-poor teachers. Thus, the effectiveness of action research for mentors may require school leaders to allow time to facilitate the process, perhaps a step too far for often busy schools, but nevertheless an area for further exploration. A possible solution to this problem is the use of external mentors as indicated by Ewing (2021), but this is another underdeveloped research area. In summary, for the most effective mentoring to occur in schools, senior school leaders should take the view that ‘mentor-learning’ is as important as the ‘mentee-learning’ for the mentoring process.
The concept and value of teacher leadership in relation to coaching and learner outcomes is important. Teacher leadership can influence the success of coaching and therefore learner outcomes, with teacher leaders playing a crucial role in recognising, and then facilitating, the development needs of staff. Coaching, and more specifically peer coaching, offers an alternative form of teacher learning which involves a more egalitarian approach (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013) and therefore offers a different dynamic to mentoring. We could consider both the coach and the coachee as leaders, in that they both instigate change, within a distributed leadership framework. Thus, coaching may be more suited as a method for facilitating more experienced teacher learning due to both the coach and coachee not being positioned as more experienced and less experienced, as in mentoring. The value of peer coaching is therefore in its reciprocal nature as coaching conversations often implicitly involve learning for both parties involved. However, the problem of coaching being at odds with the performativity culture in secondary schools as established by Lofthouse and Leat (2013) remains unresolved. Senior school leaders would still have to play a role to establish the culture of trust, identified by Cox (2012) as a key element to peer coaching, and provide the spaces and resources, identified by Lofthouse and Leat (2013), to facilitate the coaching process.
Building professional learning communities. The communities teachers find themselves in, as well as the social and situated nature of learning are crucial to consider when evaluating teacher learning within schools. School leaders should avoid creating barriers to the expression and discussion of different ideas and may consider training for members of professional learning communities (Carpenter, 2015). The different approaches to leadership, instructional and transformational, facilitate to different degrees the core characteristics of collective responsibility, deprivatized practise and reflective dialogue within professional learning communities (Vanblaere and Devos, 2016). The discourse communities as described by Putnam and Borko (2000) where teachers are able to discuss teaching and learning with colleagues are a crucial part of the learning process for teachers, and one which leaders in schools should seek to foster. By enabling teachers to engage in rich discussions on teaching and learning, reflecting on practice and then implementing new knowledge, school leaders can facilitate a relatively simple yet effective vehicle for driving teacher learning within a school.
Furthermore, the idea of involving university-based researchers in a discourse community working together with teachers in the field is a potentially helpful step in making research-informed practice more accessible for teachers, who may otherwise feel they do not have the opportunity to engage with research at such a level. The importance of a community of practice being an ongoing learning partnership rather than a mode of mutual engagement (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2020) should also be recognised by school leaders when enabling a culture that fosters learning conversations among teachers. Thus, school leaders must ensure that there are opportunities for teachers to engage with learning within a community of practice. It seems clear that the different forms of learning communities can make valuable contributions to teacher learning, and also may sit well in a secondary school context, in which there is often a large number of teachers amongst the staff body which could lead to the sharing of rich knowledge and experience, ultimately leading towards improved teaching and learning.
This essay set out to consider the role of school leaders in relation to the professional development of teachers. Reviews of literature indicated that school leaders play a critical role in relation to the professional development of teachers. Whether a school adopts a positional or distributed leadership model, it is clear that the driving force for effective teacher learning is effective leadership. By creating the climate – opportunities and time for learning to occur – school leaders are able to facilitate teacher learning. Whilst the distributed approach to leadership provides the most satisfying model for teacher learning to occur as learning opportunities are created at multiple points within an organisation, the influence of a senior leader in a school context cannot be avoided. Middle leaders are also an important factor in effective teacher learning, particularly considering the value that high-performing middle leaders have placed on professional learning (Dinham, 2007).
Although mentoring shows value in facilitating teacher learning, the “more experienced – less experienced” dynamic inherent in mentoring led me to suggest that it is of most value as part of the training for novice teachers. The too-frequent lack of training for mentors suggests that the effectiveness of mentoring could be impeded; however, further research into this area is warranted. External mentors may provide a valuable alternative and even some advantages over internally based mentors, which would have important implications for future practice. However, further research on the effects of external mentors is needed.
Teacher leadership has a large influence on coaching and learner outcomes. Coaching is less invested in power (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013) and thus could be a more suitable vehicle for teacher learning facilitated by experienced teachers than mentoring; as such, further exploration is warranted.
School leaders must play an important role in facilitating the development of learner communities within schools, whilst at the same time acknowledging the potential negative influence school leaders may have on learner communities. In general, I view that leading teacher learning requires more empirical investigations tied closely to educator practices in schools as to the effects of the various types of professional learning methods, including the fit between optimal leadership for professional learning and modifications of barriers to establishing trustworthy learning communities.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Pallister, A. (2022, September 8). An Evaluation of Leading Teacher Learning in Secondary Schools. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/teacher-learning-secondary-schools-evaluation-professional-development-mentoring-coaching/