Dr Kate Thornton

Every teacher should have the opportunity to develop their own leadership capabilities

The importance of all teachers having opportunities to engage in leadership professional learning and development (PLD) has been highlighted in the Education Council’s 2018 publication The Leadership Strategy for the teaching profession of Aotearoa New Zealand. Its vision is for “every teacher, regardless of their role or setting, to have the opportunity to develop their own leadership capability”.

The Educational Leadership Capability Framework, also published in 2018 by the Education Council, sets out core capabilities which are intended to provide high-level guidance for PLD and that apply to different spheres of leadership. Despite this high-level guidance, leadership PLD offerings in the Aotearoa New Zealand context are diverse, and their effectiveness and reach are not well understood. There are also barriers to participation including time, cost and lack of relevance to specific sectors.

Leadership PLD can be formal or informal, so what should you be looking for in a formal effective leadership PLD programme? The following indicators are derived from a review of literature on the characteristics of effective leadership PLD and suggest that:

  • It is evidence based and ongoing rather than a one-off learning opportunity.
  • There are opportunities to develop a greater understanding of personal identity and leadership capacity including personal values and authentic leadership practices.
  • There is a focus on how to lead others and how to develop leadership in others. This includes support for the distribution of leadership and for the development of strong learning communities.
  • Opportunities are provided to reflect on your leadership practice both individually and collectively.
  • There is an emphasis on educational/pedagogical leadership leading to improved outcomes for children and families/whānau. This may include opportunities to conduct an inquiry in one’s own school/centre.
  • An understanding of indigenous leadership practices and a focus on Te Tiriti-based and culturally responsive and equitable leadership practice is prioritised.
  • There is a focus on systems and organisational leadership including leading change, strategic leadership, goal setting and problem-solving.
  • Opportunities to work in networked communities, alongside peers, sharing experiences, ideas and challenges are provided.
  • Access to mentoring and/or coaching and opportunities to learn how to coach and mentor others are also offered.

As mentioned above, there are constraints to access and there appear to be more opportunities for those in formal leadership roles than for teachers to access PLD opportunities. However, if leadership is a practice in which everyone can be involved then how can leadership capacity be developed without formal opportunities?

The Educational Leadership Capability Framework mentioned above provides useful guidance and offers reflective questions that can be applied to each capability. Development of leadership capabilities can be strengthened informally through processes including reflection (both individual and shared), working in a professional learning community, and having access to mentoring and coaching.

One of the first steps to developing leadership capacity is to reflect on your personal understandings of leadership, as how you view leadership will influence your participation in it. Another important step is considering what is important to you and what your values are. Professors James Kouzes and Barry Posner describe an inner journey to developing leadership capacity suggesting that: “… becoming a leader begins when you come to understand who you are, what you care about, and why you do what you do. Developing yourself as a leader begins with knowing your own key convictions; it begins with your value system.”

This process requires individual reflection and will also be informed by feedback from and dialogue with others. The value of being a reflective practitioner, being willing to observe, critique and improve one’s practice, individually and within a team, is well established. Reflection is particularly important in times of change as effective professionals and educational leaders need to be continuously open to new learning. Opportunities can be provided through professional discussions to reflect on leadership concepts and practices and link these to current research.

The importance of openness to learning and critique is central to the notion of professional learning communities. These have been defined by Professor Louise Stoll as “an inclusive and mutually supportive group of people with a collaborative, reflective and growth-oriented approach towards investigating and learning more about their practice in order to improve pupils’ learning”. Shared and supportive leadership and collective learning and application are two of the characteristics of professional learning communities, which are characterised by a high level of trust between members of the teaching team.

The importance of mentoring and coaching in supporting leadership learning is also well supported by research; and mentoring and coaching others can be an effective leadership practice as well as a way of developing leaders and leadership. Effective mentoring and coaching relationships should be supportive and non-judgmental and underpinned by honesty, trust and mutual respect. Teachers and leaders at all stages of their leadership journeys can benefit from mentoring and coaching support. In conclusion, leadership PLD is something for all teachers to consider, and can be formal or informal. This article aims to provide some suggestions for those considering how to strengthen their leadership capabilities and practices.

Dr Kate Thornton is an associate professor in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research is focussed on educational leadership and leadership development, mentoring and coaching, and professional learning communities.

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