26 SES 10 A, A Closer Look at Middle Leaders and Middle Leadership
This paper provides a reflection on research exploring middle leaders in schools.
It begins with definitional issues and arrives at a statement of what middle leaders are and are not; for this paper, middle leaders are descrbied as teachers who have an additional formal organizational responsibility.
On the basis of this definition, the paper explores reviews and research since 2006 that are helpful to understand the work of middle leaders. The review process is described in the next section.
The paper concludes with five trustworthy statements about middle leaders and consideration of future research and notes that: middle leaders impact positively on teacher work and student outcomes; they work to establish the conditions that lead to collective endeavor by teachers to improve teaching and learning; high expectations, leadership focus, role clarity, principal and senior leadership support and professional development enhance their work.
It is not a systematic review of the literature and I do not claim completeness. Rather, it is a somewhat personal narrative, but one which considers important papers that help to understand the phenomenon, highlight conceptual and methodological issues, and make suggestions for future research and practice directions. The review exxplicitly covers research from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, the UK, the USA as well as referrign to research in many other countries.
As part of a special issue of School Leadership and Management focused on middle leaders, Harris, Jones, Ismail & Nguyen (2019) provided a review of middle leader research from across the world. Whilst most papers were from the UK, there was increasing country diversity was evident (especially from Asian and Middle East countries post-2007). This was largely a quantitative exercise identifying broad trends in regard to knowledge production on middle leadership in schools. It built upon early and more nuanced reviews by Bennett and colleagues (Bennett, 2005, 2006; Bennett, Newton, Wise, Woods & Economou, 2003; Bennett, Woods, Wise & Newton, 2007). The reviews of Bennett and colleagues drew substantially from research across Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa and the USA. This paper utilises these reviews as the starting point, describing their substantive findings, and then adding several other streams of recent research. These streams include the general review and model development of De Nobile (2017), the practice architecture research across Australia and Sweden by Grootenboer, Edwards-Groves and Rönnerman (2019), and a series of doctoral research from Australia (Gurr, 2019; Gurr & Drysdale, 2013), impact studies in Australian by Dinham (2005, 2007) and New Zealand by Highfield (2012), and Leithwood’s (2016) general review of secondary school heads of departments.
Without overstating the knowledge base, in 2021 there are several trustworthy statements that can be made about middle leaders: 1. Middle leaders can impact positively on teacher work and student outcomes. Indeed, they are an important source of leadership impact on student outcomes in many school contexts, and especially so when principals and middle leaders act together. 2. The way middle leaders improve student outcomes is through establishing the conditions (e.g. area direction, resource acquisition and distribution, staff development, supportive culture) that lead to collective endeavor by a group of teachers to improve teaching and learning. Developing staff collegiality can also have many benefits, but to have a positive influence on student outcomes this needs to have a focus on improving teaching and learning. 3. High expectations and role clarity are important for these people to have a leadership focus rather than a managerial or administrative focus. High expectations come from both the middle leaders themselves in terms of their sense of agency, and from principals and senior leaders about what they want from the roles. Principals working in concert with middle leaders enhances the success and impact of middle leaders. Role clarity serves to give balance to leadership and management functions. 4. Recruitment and professional development are important both in terms of the quantity and quality of middle leaders. To ensure there are sufficient teachers who have the skills and characteristics to be successful middle leaders there is a need to encourage teacher aspirations, have appropriate selection and induction processes, and ensure there is on-going review and development. 5. There are factors that diminish the effectiveness of middle leaders with these tending to be the negative of many of the factors noted above.
Bennett, N. (2005). The Role of subject leaders in secondary schools facing challenging circumstances: A report for the National College for School Leadership. Nottingham, UK: National College for School Leadership. Bennett, N. (2006). Making a difference: A study of effective middle leadership in schools facing challenging circumstances. Nottingham, UK: National College for School Leadership. Bennett, N., Newton, W., Wise, C., Woods, P. A. and Economou, A. (2003). The Role and purpose of middle leaders in schools. Nottingham, UK: National College for School Leadership. Bennett, N., Woods, P., Wise, C. and Newton, W. (2007). Understandings of middle leadership in secondary schools: A review of empirical research. School Leadership and Management 27(5), 453–470. De Nobile, J. (2017). Towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools. School Leadership and Management 38(4), 395-416 De Nobile, J. (2019). The roles of middle leaders in schools: Developing a conceptual framework for research, Leading and Managing 25(1), 1-14. Dinham, S. (2007). The secondary head of department and the achievement of exceptional student outcomes. Journal of Educational Administration 45(1), 62–79. Grootenboer, P.C. (2018). The practices of school middle leadership. Leading professional learning. Singapore: Springer Nature. Grootenboer, P., Rönnerman, K. and Edwards-Groves, C. (2017). Leading from the middle. A praxis-oriented approach. In Grootenboer, P., Edwards-Groves, C. & Choy, S. (eds.) Practice theory perspectives on pedagogy and education: Praxis, diversity and contestation, pp 243-264. Singapore: Springer Singapore. Grootenboer, P., Edwards-Groves C. and Rönnerman, K. (2019). Understanding middle leadership: Practices and policies, School Leadership and Management 39(3-4), 251-254. Gurr, D. (2019). School middle leaders in Australia, Chile and Singapore, School Leadership and Management 39(3-4), 278-296. Gurr, D., and Drysdale, L. (2013). Middle-level school leaders: Potential, constraints and implications for leadership preparation. Journal of Educational Administration 51(1), 55–71. Harris, A., Jones, M., Ismail, N. and Nguyen, D. (2019). Middle leaders and middle leadership in schools: Exploring the knowledge base (2003–2017). School Leadership and Management 39(3-4), 255-277. Highfield, C. (2012). The impact of middle leadership practices on student academic outcomes in New Zealand secondary schools. Doctoral thesis, the University of Auckland. Leithwood, K. (2016). Department-head leadership for school improvement. Leadership and Policy In Schools 15(2), 117–140. Turner, C. and Bolam, R. (1998). Analysing the role of the subject head of department in secondary schools in England and Wales: Towards a theoretical framework, School Leadership and Management, 18(3), 373-388.
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