26 SES 04 C, Distributing and Configuring Leadership
As in many other European countries, primary schools traditionally have a relatively flat and simple organizational structure in Flanders (Belgium). There is a team of teachers, who are responsible for the education in the different grades (sometimes complemented with a special needs teacher/coordinator, who supports and works with the classroom teachers on children’s special educational needs). There is –mostly only part-time- a secretary performing administrative and logistical tasks. And there is the principal, who operates as the formal leader of the school, carrying the responsibility towards the school board as well as the local community. Bringing together the findings from several studies we did in the beginning of the century, we argued in 2011 that the structural position of the primary school principal in Flanders was in essence to be characterized as that of a “lonely gatekeeper” (Kelchtermans, Piot & Ballet, 2011). In their formal position as the hierarchical leader and head of the school, principals don’t have colleagues in the strict sense of the word: in their school they are the only person who is a principal. In that analysis we unpacked the interplay between the formal, structural position of the principal, the processes of gatekeeping and negotiating between different groups and individuals inside and outside the school and how that affected the principal’s work life (in particular their self-understanding, motivation and the –emotional- experience of their job) (see also Berkovich & Eyal, 2015). Apart from aiming at contributing to the research-based theorizing and understanding of leadership, this research was also motivated by a deep concern over the difficulties for many schools to fill up vacant positions for principals. Being a principal in a primary school –although the only formal ‘promotion’ position in the system- doesn’t seem to be attractive as a job and we wanted to understand why.
This paper follows up on that research interest, starting from the rather straightforward assumption that if principals’ work lives are deeply affected by their structurally ‘lonely’ position, the solution might be to create more collaborative or collective working conditions. The latter happened with the introduction of the so-called “school clusters”: primary schools and their school boards were invited and stimulated (financial incentives) by the government to engage in processes of formalized collaboration and structural integration in so-called school clusters. Those clusters aim at enhancing the scale of primary schools, building the organizational conditions to make the (often small schools) more cost effective, less vulnerable to fluctuations in enrolment numbers (which immediately affected the staff capacity as the funding for staff is directly related to those numbers), etc. School clusters don’t involve, however, full merger of schools. In the collaborative structure of the school clusters, the different individual schools continue to exist as such and so do the principals of those different schools (Feys & Devos, 2014).
Building on the international literature on distributed leadership and school development, as well as our own work on principals’ work lives (Kelchtermans et al., 2011; Kelchtermans & Piot, 2013) and the micropolitics in (leading) schools (Kelchtermans, 2007; Piot & Kelchtermans, 2016), we developed a theoretical framework, around the central research question: Does the structural reform of school clustering affect principals’ work lives, their self-understanding and their job satisfaction? Or, in other words, we wondered whether and under what conditions this shift in principal’s structural position made them move ‘beyond the loneliness’?
In line with the exploratory nature of the study, as well as our interest in the sense-making and experience of the principals in school clusters, the choice for qualitative methodology was obvious. More in particular we used a multiple case-study design (a.o. Merriam, 1998), using school clusters as the final unit of analysis. Four school clusters were selected, situated in two provinces. In each clusters we interviewed at least half of the group of principals involved, which resulted in a total of 18 respondents in our study. Data were collected through extensive, semi-structured interviews with the 18 respondents selected. The semi-structured character allowed us to construct an interview guideline that was encompassing and systematically addressed the different elements in our research interest –in order to permit comparison across the cases-, while at the same time open and flexible enough to take into account the particularities of the different schools as well as the individual stories of the principals (Kvale & Brinkman, 2009). The interview guideline started with identification questions, then systematically reconstructed the development of the school cluster and finally explored the principal’s self-understanding, their experiences when operating in the school cluster (and comparing that to their former lives as ‘single’ principal), their evaluation of the workings of the cluster as well as their job satisfaction. All interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded. Systematic interpretative analysis resulted first in a report for each respondent (same text structure –paragraphs, headings, order- for each report). This within case-analysis was followed by a first cross-case analysis, including all the respondents belonging to the same school cluster and resulting in a report for each school cluster (also all reports applying a similar content structure). Finally, a second cross-case analysis was performed, comparing the cluster reports and looking for systematic similarities and differences. The methodological quality was assured through triangulation (several respondents, several school clusters), extensive description of the procedure for data collection and analysis, complementary collaboration between researchers (operating as critical friends for each other’s reports at individual or school cluster level) and member checks.
The first cross-case analysis on the overall evaluation of the work in school clusters by the principals in terms of the “cost-benefit”-balance they made, resulted in three evaluative categories: positive, negative and mixed evaluations. Factors contributing to the positive evaluation were found to be relational and emotional (collegiality and friendship; personal and emotional support) as well as operational or functional (sharing expertise, more efficiency and reduction of work load). The negative balance was based on the experience of an actual increase in workload (for example additional meetings and coordination time to spend), reduced individual impact in decision-making processes. Finally, the group of principals expressing juxtaposed mixed evaluations, stating that the benefits and the costs were both real, different and clear, without –however- allowing a sense of outbalancing. Here as well, the criteria used by the respondents include elements in the relational and personal, as well as operational and functional criteria. Secondly, we will look into the interesting differences in evaluation and experience found among principals belonging to the same school clusters. These differences can be analysed in terms of the interplay between the actual organizational working conditions in a school or school cluster on the one hand and the individual principal’s self-understanding and subjective leadership theory on the other. This analysis adds further evidence to our claim that theorizing leadership and principals’ work lives requires acknowledging and including the complexities of both agency and structure, in the theoretical frameworks used as well as in the interpretative analysis performed. As an answer to the question in the title, we conclude that school clusters do allow principals to leave behind their structural loneliness, without, however, that collaborative setting being a panacea for all leadership challenges.
Berkovich, I. & Eyal, O. (2015). Educational leaders and emotions: An international review of empirical evidence 1992-2012. Review of Educational Research, 85, 129–167. DOI: 10.3102/0034654314550046. Feys, E. & Devos, G. (2015). What comes out of incentivized collaboration: A qualitative analysis of eight Flemish school networks. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 43, 738–754 DOI: 10.1177/1741143214535738. Kelchtermans, G. (2007). Macropolitics caught up in micropolitics. The case of the policy on quality control in Flanders. Journal of Education Policy, 22, 471-491. Kelchtermans, G. & Piot, L. (2013). Living the Janus Head: Conceptualizing leaders and leadership in schools in the 21st century. In: M.A. Flores, A.A. Carvalho, F. I. Ferreira & T., Vilaça (Eds.) Back to the Future: Legacies, Continuities and Changes in Educational Policy, Practice and Research (pp.93-114). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Kelchtermans, G., Piot, L. & Ballet, K. (2011). The lucid loneliness of the gatekeeper: exploring the emotional dimension in principals’ work lives. Oxford Review of Education, 37, 93-108. Kvale, S. & Brinkmann, S. (2009). Interviews. Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Merriam, S.B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Piot, L. & Kelchtermans, G. (2016). The micropolitics of distributed leadership: four case studies of school federations. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44, 632-649. DOI: 10.1177/1741143214559224.
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