26 SES 11 A, Exploring Aspects of Teacher and Middle Leadership
This paper reports empirical research which investigated the individual and collective influence and impact of a school-based professional learning program known as ‘Leading from the Middle,’ on the well-being and leadership effectiveness of middle leaders and their schools. This program, which involved groups of middle leaders in each of seven participant schools, was delivered over a one-year period by the Association of Independent Schools Leadership Centre, Australia. The program was based on six key research and experience-based understandings of successful change for improvement:
i) Whilst principals have a primary responsibility for creating and working with whole school culture, it is middle leaders who are the drivers of teacher level change in all but the smallest schools;
ii) School improvement is achieved most effectively and efficiently by the creation and sustaining of learning communities by building the knowledge, skills and social capital of groups and individual leaders;
iii) Within these, departmental improvement is achieved most effectively and efficiently by the creation and sustaining of communities of practice;
iv) Commitment to participate is an essential pre-condition for effective professional development;
v) Professional learning is likely to be more effective when it is perceived by teachers to be close to practice, focused on the workplace, supported by the principal, and over time;
vi) External facilitation plays an important catalytic, critical friendship and support and challenge role.
The research focused on three broad questions:
- In what ways did the AIS Leadership Centre program contribute to the development of Middle Leaders? (Program impact)
- In what ways, and to what extent, did each teacher’s biography, their school’s senior leadership, structures and cultures mediate? (Contextual influences)
- What were the longer-term influences and impacts of the program on middle leaders and their schools? (Sustainability of change)
The literature on the role of middle leaders in schools suggests that it is shifting from administration and management to pedagogical leadership, in part as a consequence of government reform (Cranston, 2008; Grice, 2018; Lingard, Hayes, Mills & Christie, 2003) and that middle leading is now concerned with leading in the middle through building communities of practice in existing spheres of responsibility (Wenger & Wenger, 2015) and leading beyond the middle, a school-wide enterprise that extends beyond existing practices towards whole school contribution and through contributing towards the growth of professional learning communities (Hord, 1997). Research also suggests that effective professional learning and development is tailored to both individual and organisational needs (Bassett, 2016; Cardno & Bassett, 2015; Day, 2017; Gurr & Drysdale, 2012; Grootenboer, 2018); The quality of leadership programs is determined by the extent to which they are philosophically, culturally and practically attuned to system and individual needs, informed by research evidence, time-rich, practice-centred, purpose-designed for career stage, peer supported, context sensitive, partnership powered, transferable to practice, and outcomes oriented (Fluckiger, Lovett, Dempster and Brown, 2015).
Middle leadership in this research is understood as a series of actions associated with the values, dispositions, qualities and skills required to lead effectively, carried out in and mediated by particular individual, social, organisational and policy contexts.
The relative success of their learning and capacity to change was associated with i) the building of social capital through school-based change projects; ii) the middle leaders’ sense of agency and identity; iii) the infusion of the school-based project into the life of the school; iv) the longer-term opportunities for leadership in and beyond the middle; v) the investment that principals made in their middle leaders’ professional learning; vi) the creation of sustained learning spaces and critical support by the external intervention team throughout the program.
This paper is based upon qualitative research that used a multi-site case approach (Yin, 2014) in order to understand more about middle leaders’ professional learning practices within seven distinct school cultures by capturing ‘thick descriptions’ of perceptions of middle leadership change in context. (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011). A purposive sample of principals, middle leaders and teachers in seven independent schools in Australia were selected, based on their recency in completing the Association of Independent Schools (AIS) Leadership Centre Leading from The Middle program, and upon their consent. Four schools were in rural NSW. Three schools were in Sydney. Middle leaders ranged in experience from those who had taught for two years through to middle leaders who had been in the role for over ten years. A total of one hundred and seven (n=107) participants were involved in the research. Seventy-two people participated in individual and focus group interviews. Data were collected by means of semi-structured interviews with AIS Leadership Centre team members, the principal and program participants at each school. All interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed with the participants’ written consent. Interviews were analysed shortly after they were conducted to ensure that emerging themes were fed into the research knowledge building process and coded, categorised and transferred into analytical matrices (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Grounded theory coding techniques were used to define, revise and specify influences, capture variations and emerging variables in the process of investigation and thus enabled the research to “remain attuned to our subject’s views of their realities” (Charmaz, 2000, p. 515), rather than those of the researchers. These techniques facilitated comparisons between schools as well as comparison of individual school change at different points in time. Collections of participant descriptions built an ever-shifting picture of middle leadership within and across a diverse range of school cultures (Charmaz, 2014). These multiple perspectives provided a 360 degree multiple perspective view of middle leaders learning and change.
Much is known about the effects of school-based professional learning and development programs (Darling Hammond et al., 2017). There is relatively little empirical research which explores the nexus of influence between individuals’ dispositions and professional histories, school leadership and culture enhancing and constraining influences that enhance or constrain, and the design, delivery and quality of external programs. The research found that the extent to which middle leaders changed their thinking and practices both in leading in and beyond the middle was influenced by their own professional histories, the existing structures and cultures of the schools in which they worked, and the nature of the external intervention (the program). The research found that not all school structures and cultures had a positive effect on agency or sense of professional identity. The findings articulate the tensions and dilemmas of school-based professional development, and present a framework for schools to diagnose their state of readiness for promoting sustained teachers’ professional learning and development, which benefits both individuals and the collective, in the context of multiple influences.
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