This case study explored the role of teacher leadership in a post-16 college in England.[i] The study investigated (a) teachers’ conceptualisations of teacher leadership, (b) the roles, responsibilities and tasks of teacher leaders, and (c) the facilitators and inhibitors of teacher leadership. A survey approach was adopted using a web-based questionnaire. Of the 74 teachers invited, 39 teachers from 30 different subject areas participated.
The findings indicated that teacher leadership was generally conceptualised as teachers who hold formal positions and lead pastoral[ii] or curriculum development as well as the development of other teachers in their area. Various roles were identified for teacher leaders at the participating institution, specifically leading curriculum, pastoral or extracurricular activities; serving as union representatives; mentoring other teachers; and participating in committees. Support and developmental tasks were highlighted, including the ordering and development of resources for all staff in the department, as well as coaching other staff. Teachers at this institution seem to carry out tasks in each of the teacher leader domains of the Teacher Leader Model Standards to a greater or lesser extent.
In terms of the facilitators of teacher leadership at the institution, there was general agreement by participants that the culture at the college is collaborative, with staff meetings being used to share best practice. Leadership was distributed with senior leaders acting as role models, sharing their vision, trusting and valuing teachers, supporting teachers to try new initiatives and ensuring that communication is regular and constructive. Teacher leadership seems to remain predominantly focused at the curriculum level.
This research was conducted in a post-16 college in England. Thirty-nine different subject areas are offered at both A level (advanced level) and BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council). There is a high accountability culture for teachers in England. For example, data analysis tools are used to assess student progress against national benchmarks. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) inspects colleges to make sure that students receive a high standard of education. In September 2016 and January 2020, the participating college was rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted. I have worked at this institution for six years. I do not hold a formal teacher leader post but I am empowered at this institution to carry out teacher leader roles at the departmental level, such as piloting new curriculum courses. This is because the institution encourages all teachers to actively support developments within their curriculum areas. In addition, given that I held formal teacher leadership roles at previous institutions, I have the confidence to assume an informal teacher leadership role at this institution.
The previous two academic years had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which impacted how teachers carried out their roles. This may have affected the responses given in this case study. The findings could therefore be atypical.
Project Goals Methods and Outcome
Research Goal and Rationale
During my teaching career I’ve held formal teacher leader posts as subject leader, and currently carry out teacher leader roles even though I do not hold a formally assigned post to do this. The Covid-19 pandemic led to an increase in teacher autonomy. Teacher agency and innovation proved important in supporting students and colleagues during this period (Netolicky, 2020). Teacher leaders have agency, a growth mindset and show initiative in supporting colleagues (Allen, 2018). To respond to the crisis, leadership needed to be distributed with teachers more involved in decision-making (Harris and Jones, 2020). Distributed leadership strengthens the capacity of teacher leaders (Sheppard et al., 2010). Therefore the pandemic provided an opportunity for various forms of teacher leadership to flourish, with teachers collaborating across schools, systems and countries.
Teacher leadership is closely aligned to participative and instructional leadership. Participative leadership emphasises the importance of decisions being taken by groups, and instructional leadership focuses on managing teaching, and thereby learning, activities (Leithwood and Duke, 1999, cited in York-Barr and Duke, 2004, p.261). In support of this, a study by Muijs and Harris (2006) identified five dimensions to teacher leadership – teachers shared the school’s decision making; collaborated to improve teaching and learning; actively participated in developmental tasks; worked with colleagues for professional learning; and worked as activists to bring about change and development. Harrison and Killion (2007) identified ten roles for teacher leaders that contribute to the success of their school: (1) teacher leaders or “teachers” help their colleagues by providing teaching resources; (2) they collaborate to improve teaching practice; (3) as curriculum specialists, they support fellow teachers; (4) within the classroom they work with their peers to demonstrate lessons, co-teach or observe and provide feedback; (5) they facilitate the development of a professional learning community; (6) they mentor newly qualified teachers; (7) they serve on committees to inform development at the school or district level; (8) they coach their peers on effective use of student data; (9) in their drive for continual improvement, they serve as “catalysts for change” (p.77); and (10) they are lifelong learners, using what they learn to help improve student outcomes.
Teacher leadership is facilitated in schools and colleges that have supportive cultures and structures; strong, supportive head teacher leadership; a genuine commitment to action research; innovative approaches to professional development, including sending teachers to training events that would normally have been attended by senior leaders; a coordinated approach to development work by working with senior leaders which contributed to a shared vision; and a collaborative approach to professional learning (Muijs and Harris, 2006).
The primary research questions addressed in this study were:
- What are the teachers’ conceptualisations of teacher leadership?
- What are the roles, responsibilities and tasks of teacher leaders?
- What are the facilitators and inhibitors of teacher leadership?
A case study approach was taken to provide ‘rich data’ of the teachers’ lived experiences at this specific institution (Hamilton, 2011). Non-random, purposive sampling was employed with the majority of curriculum teachers at the institution invited to participate in the survey.
Of all teachers at the institution, 74 teachers were invited to participate. Nine teachers were not invited because of medical or workload considerations or being on maternity leave. Of the invited teachers, 39 (53%; 19 males and 20 females) participated in this study. Relative to the subject-area teacher population invited to participate, females were underrepresented as respondents. The majority of respondents were aged 41 or above with 33 respondents having 11 or more years of teaching experience. Half of the respondents had taught at the college for between zero to ten years with the other half having taught at the college for 11 plus years. Of the 39 subject areas offered by the college, there were no participants from eight subjects so the sample did not cover all subject areas.
Respondents had a range of teaching experience years (from 1 year to over 16 years) and the majority of subject areas were represented (e.g., biology, business studies, chemistry, digital music production, English language, math, music, physics, psychology, sociology, sport). The majority of participants were teacher leaders at the institution. However, a small number of participants fit the role of informal teacher leaders. Teachers carried out tasks in each of the teacher leader domains of the Teacher Leader Model Standards (TLMS) to a greater or lesser extent. TLMS (Berg et al., 2014) include seven domains of leadership activity. Within each domain there are various functions which outline actions associated with the domain. Although I do not know all of the subject teachers at the institution, I personalised the initial email invitation to increase response rates, and explained the aim and importance of the research. In addition, I included a message of support for the research from the principal.
Data Collection and Analysis
Questionnaire development background. To create my initial questionnaire, I used my “What is the Role of Teacher Leadership in Schools?” assignment for a Master’s degree course (Rhodes, 2021b) which was based on extensive literature reviews. This review was to consider what teacher leadership was, what the roles of teacher leaders were, what facilitates teacher leadership and what inhibits teacher leadership. This informed both the closed and open questions in my initial questionnaire. I reviewed this in light of three published studies on teacher leadership in schools that had employed a survey method to investigate the perceptions and roles of teacher leaders. The authors of each of these studies provided me with a copy of the questionnaire used in their studies. Blank (2021) and Grant et al. (2010) created a questionnaire that was specific to their objectives and research questions. However, Xie and Shen (2013) used results from the US Department of Commerce Teacher Questionnaire Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 2003-2004, a public school teacher questionnaire, rather than a survey generated specifically for their study. Evaluation of the three surveys informed the further development of my questionnaire: all aspects of the Teacher Leader Model Standards domains were covered as well as questions to assess how teachers lead learning with their own classes; consideration was given to the Likert scale and the use of frequency responses rather than simply establishing if teachers were involved in specific tasks.
Questionnaires and Procedure. The questionnaire was sent out in the final three weeks of the academic year because this time period was being used predominantly for developmental in-service training. An email reminder was sent after the first and second week following receipt of the initial invitation. The follow-up emails re-emphasised the importance of the study, how respondents’ input would be valued and anonymised, along with the average response time for completing the survey. Ethical approval was obtained for the questionnaire to protect participants’ interests; to ensure participation would be voluntary and based on informed consent; to ensure the nature of the study was made clear; and to comply with data protection laws (Denscombe, 2017). All invited participants were provided with an information sheet on details of the study. They were also advised that they could withdraw from the study at any time. The four data collection methods described below were used.
To ensure authenticity, reliability and validity, the questionnaire was piloted. Internal validity was achieved in part by mapping the questionnaire questions to the research questions. Although internal validity would be compromised if the questionnaire is not completed accurately and this is not followed up by interviewing respondents, this limitation was mitigated by asking different participants the same questions (respondent triangulation). Also, respondents were asked to identify supporting documents (methodological triangulation), and the data was interpreted against the literature (literature triangulation) to validate and corroborate findings (Bush, 2012). In addition, the use of open questions in this study allowed for ample descriptions to be generated, which improves the trustworthiness, validity and transferability (Amin et al., 2020). The data collected was qualitative and quantifiable, using ordinal rating scales including open-ended questions. The questionnaire also included biographical questions (gender, age, and teaching experience).
(A) Closed questions: Teacher Leadership. There were 24 items in the questionnaire. A five-point Likert scale was used as follows: Never; Rarely (less than once a term); Sometimes (half termly or termly, but not routinely); Regularly (monthly or weekly, or frequently occurring); Often (every week or a routine part of everyday practice). The questionnaire items were:
- Updating my knowledge on teaching and learning developments in my subject area
- Reflecting critically on my classroom practice
- Taking the initiative to develop resources for my classes without this being formally assigned to me
- Working with families to build stronger links between college and home
- Ordering supplies or seeking resources to support students
- Carrying out action research to support developments beyond my classroom
- Developing positive, trusting, professional relationships with my peers
- Developing curriculum resources for use by my colleagues
- Providing curriculum development knowledge to my colleagues
- Collaborating with colleagues about the analysis and interpretation of student data to improve student learning
- Modelling new developments or lessons through being observed by my peers
- Providing in-service training to my colleagues, for example about successful classroom strategies
- Leading the professional development of colleagues for assessment development or the use of assessment data
- Mentoring or coaching other teachers
- Observing and providing feedback to other teachers
- Collaborating with other teachers to co-teach a course, subject or unit
- Being involved in whole college decision-making
- Helping design whole college staff development programmes
- Presenting to different groups, for example, college leaders, to gain support (financial or time) for teaching developments
- Serving on committees for this college
- Being involved with creating partnerships with the wider community, e.g. businesses, higher education institutions
- Providing curriculum development knowledge to teachers in other schools or colleges
- Collaborating with a higher education faculty or staff member
- Coordinating subject meetings with other schools or colleges
Replies to these questions provide an overview of the teachers’ perceptions of the frequency that they carried out teacher leader roles. The closed questions about the role of teacher leaders were categorised and analysed thematically, based on each domain of the Teacher Leader Model Standards (see PowerPoint Slide 3; Table 1).
(B) Institution documents on teacher leadership. Teachers were also asked to identify institution documents that supported teacher leadership. Any documents identified were also read by me as a part of this study.
(C) Closed questions: Factors that facilitate or inhibit teacher leadership. A Likert scale was used to assess teachers’ experience of factors that could facilitate or inhibit teacher leadership with a five-point scale ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ through to ‘strongly agree’ with a neutral mid-point. This scale gave a basic indication of the extent that each factor was perceived to inhibit or facilitate teacher leadership. The items include:
- There is time to work with other teachers, for example to work together on teaching and learning issues or planning the curriculum or working on college initiatives
- Staff meetings can be used by teachers to share best practice
- There are opportunities for me to develop professionally
- Senior leaders trust my ability to lead
- Senior leaders value my opinion
- Senior leaders involve me in college level decision making
- Senior leaders support and encourage me to try new initiatives, even if it does not always prove successful
- Leadership skills are nurtured by the senior leaders, for example through coaching.
- Communication with senior leaders is regular and constructive.
- Senior leaders act as role models
- Senior leaders share their vision
- Senior leaders adopt a collaborative, rather than an authoritative, leadership style
- Leadership is distributed at this college, so teachers have more autonomy
(D) Open-ended questions: Teacher Leadership. Teachers in this study were asked what their understanding of teacher leadership was and to identify roles of teacher leaders as well as facilitators and inhibitors of teacher leadership at the institution. The six open-ended questions were:
- What is your understanding of teacher leadership?
- Does your work extend beyond your own classroom? If so, please give examples.
- Does the college have any documents that could evidence it promotes teacher leadership? If so what are they?
- What are the roles of teacher leaders in this college?
- What factors help teacher leaders carry out their role at this college?
- What do you consider to be the inhibitors of teacher leadership at this college?
Responses were required to all of the closed and open questions. The narrative data were also analyzed to count response frequencies and to reveal patterns and differences in teachers’ views.
Teachers’ responses to questionnaires are presented according to the research questions.
Teachers’ Conceptualisations of Teacher Leadership
The data indicated that teacher leadership is generally conceptualised as teachers who hold formal positions and lead pastoral or curriculum development as well as the development of other teachers in their area. Teacher leaders who do not have formal roles were only recognised by two of the respondents. The findings are in line with literature findings (Muijs and Harris, 2006) because these individuals would not describe themselves as leaders.
In contrast to the literature, a quarter of respondents perceived classroom teachers to be teacher leaders. However, the literature indicates that the role of a teacher leader needs to extend beyond their classroom walls (Wenner and Campbell, 2017). Given that the senior leaders also viewed classroom teachers as teacher leaders, because they are leaders of learning with their own students (Rhodes, 2021a), this disparity with the literature could either simply indicate a lack of familiarity with the more formal conceptualisation of teacher leadership or an institution-based practice whose meaning is shared by many teachers. Either way, this aspect of teacher leadership needs to be further articulated and discussed more explicitly and frequently.
Roles, Responsibilities and Tasks of Teacher Leaders
Various roles were identified for teacher leaders at the institution, specifically leading curriculum, pastoral or extracurricular activities, serving as union representatives, mentoring other teachers, and participating in committees. Support and developmental tasks were highlighted, including the ordering and development of resources for all staff in the department, as well as coaching other staff. This corresponds with the findings of Gigante and Firestone (2008) where such tasks could be performed if the teacher leaders were given the time, support from senior leaders, and had developed good relationships with their colleagues.
There was a significant difference between the perception of the teachers who participated in this study and the perception of the senior leaders with regard to documents that promote teacher leadership in this institution. The institution’s subject showcase, self-assessment review and quality improvement plan which, from the senior leaders’ perspective, empowers teachers to evaluate, review and then lead developments in their area was not recognised by most participants (37/39, 95%) as supporting teacher leadership.”
Survey participants at the institution carried out tasks in each of the teacher leader domains of the Teacher Leader Model Standards to a greater or lesser extent (Slides 6 to 12). Based on the frequencies with which tasks were carried out, teacher leadership would be classified as restricted in Grant’s model (2017): teacher leaders operate outside their classroom in curricular and extra-curricular activities with only a few participants regularly or often being involved in whole college development activities or working beyond the college into the community. In addition, there are some tasks that could be carried out at the departmental level (restricted teacher leadership level) but are rarely or never undertaken by most of the respondents. Specifically, action research to support developments beyond the classroom, providing in-service training to colleagues, mentoring or coaching other teachers, modelling lessons through being observed by peers, observing and providing feedback to other teachers and leading the professional development of colleagues in the context of assessment.
Various factors could explain the present situation, including a lack of time, a lack of confidence to lead in some tasks, and a formal management structure when it comes to lesson observations and providing feedback, with heads of faculty or senior leaders designated to carry out this task. However, there is no expectation that teacher leaders should perform in all of the domains (Berg et al., 2014). Indeed, a study by Leithwood (2016), based on findings from 42 published studies, acknowledged that the greatest influence on student performance is their teacher, followed by strong leadership at the departmental level. Therefore, the results seem to indicate that when teacher leaders operate under time constraints, it would be better for student outcomes that these leaders focus their practices at the curriculum level, rather than beyond this zone.
For respected teacher leaders to extend their influence to improving outcomes at the institutional level and beyond, specific constraints that work against them doing this need to be identified and redressed. Consideration would also need to be given as to whether the practices of these successful teacher leaders are context-specific or transferable across the institution and beyond.
Facilitators and Inhibitors of Teacher Leadership
There was general agreement by participants that the culture at the college is collaborative, with staff meetings being used to share best practice. Furthermore, leadership was viewed as distributed, with senior leaders acting as role models, sharing their vision, trusting and valuing teachers, supporting teachers to try new initiatives and ensuring that communication is regular and constructive. Yet, teacher leadership remains predominantly focused at the curriculum level. This could be explained by a lack of time or that senior leaders are not nurturing leadership skills enough, which were barriers identified in the survey. It is also important that teacher leaders build “trusting and collaborative relationships” (York-Barr and Duke, 2004, p.272) with their colleagues, yet this was only mentioned as a facilitator by one of the teacher respondents and none of the senior leaders raised it in a previous study (Rhodes, 2021a). Perhaps it indicates that such relationships are in place and that only when there is a breakdown in trust would the importance of it become more apparent to respondents. Or, there might be a possibility that the notion of “trusting and collaborative relationships” is a sensitive issue and that respondents were hesitant to take it on.
Principals enable teacher leadership but the nurturing needs to be handled “sensitively and wisely” (Chew and Andrews, 2010, p.71). In stepping back, principals empower teachers to influence others and have a positive impact on classroom practice. To move teacher leadership forward, consideration could be given to the following:
- Improving teacher agency, for example, through teachers carrying out more action research to support developments in teaching and learning.
- Improving the ability of teachers to lead their own professional development
- Providing opportunities for teachers to support the professional development of their colleagues, for example, by allowing peers to observe them teach, mentor other teachers, or planning professional development programmes.
The institution needs to evaluate whether teacher leaders can effectively influence the practice of their colleagues by working across the whole college and beyond, or whether it is better for student outcomes that these leaders focus their skills at the curriculum level. Further research on the impact of hierarchical staffing versus flattened staffing on student outcomes would enlighten the relationship of staffing structure to student outcomes.
The sample size was relatively small with 39 respondents (53% response rate), and it was not representative of the teacher gender ratio at the college, with female teachers being underrepresented as respondents. However, this small-scale survey aimed to produce an exploratory sample rather than a representative one (Denscombe, 2017). Readers should be cautioned that the data interpretation is subject to my bias, as I also am a teacher at this institution. Further, I did not have an opportunity to conduct data triangulation with my peers in this institution, which could have improved the validity of this research. Although findings from this study cannot be generalized to teachers in general, they could be transferable to other contexts if the work situation is similar (Tracy, 2010).
[i] A post-16 college refers to a feature of the education system in England. In this system (and in the systems of Northern Ireland, Wales, Jamaica and some other Commonwealth countries) sixth form represents the final two years of secondary education, in which students start the first academic year of the sixth form (September 1st) aged 16 and finish aged 17 at the end of that academic year. Education post-16 is more varied than the school system for children up to the age of 16. At the end of year 11, young people can choose whether to attend a school, a general further education college, a sixth form college, a training provider or start an apprenticeship. A sixth form college, or post-16 college, provides academic education, whereas Further Education (FE) colleges provide a mix of academic and vocational education. A-Levels (Advanced Level qualifications) are a UK subject-based qualification for students aged 16 and above. They are usually studied over two years, leading to qualifications recognized for entrance to higher education institutions in the UK and many others worldwide.
[ii] Pastoral development initiatives in schools in England refer to that part of a school’s offerings that address a broad range of issues ranging from ethical development to mental wellbeing. Pastoral initiatives in schools have been noted for their importance within the process of healthy development for children or young people. They can also be expressed through the concept of ‘nurturing’, allowing for healthy emotional development which will inhibit barriers to learning. Pastoral care intends to compliment any safeguarding practices that are in place within a school, where they not only try to prevent harm but also promote healthy lifestyles. By putting pastoral initiatives in place, schools can create a better environment for bridging gaps between students and teachers, increasing communication and ensuring better development. https://blog.govnet.co.uk/education/pastoral-initiatives-in-schools-what-should-they-include
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Rhodes, B. (2022, April 11). Teachers’ Perceptions of the Role of Teacher Leadership . Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/teachers-perceptions-of-the-role-of-teacher-leadership/