26 SES 10 A, A Closer Look at Middle Leaders and Middle Leadership
In this research, we examine how structural designs and connectivity within schools can be galvanised to develop middle leaders’ (MLs) leadership capacity in situ. We do so by examining the importance and potential of in situ leadership development, relating theoretical insights on infrastructure and its connectors, and explaining findings derived from case studies of 10 schools.
Effective school leadership is enacted through shared or distributed practices, by which principals engage others in leadership activities in order to meet school or policy aims (Leithwood et al., 2019; Spillane & Diamond, 2007). This places higher expectations and greater responsibility on both informal and formal school leaders, i.e., teacher leaders (TLs) and MLs. TLs are essential for achieving schools’ missions because they influence others through peer recognition of their expertise (Fairman & MacKenzie, 2015). MLs occupy formal mid-level leadership roles in schools, such as subject heads. Recent international research details MLs' influence. In contexts of reform and innovation, they take increased responsibility for instructional leadership (Lillejord and Bronte, 2019). Effective MLs, when supported by principals, can build capacity across the school and connect with external policy and professional contexts (Bryant, 2019; DeNobile, 2019; Gurr & Drysdale,2013). Consequently, MLs are indispensable to school improvement processes (Leithwood, 2016).
Despite their potential, MLs' capacity development is often self-managed, rooted in experience, and challenged by a paucity of formal training or support from senior leaders (Gurr, 2019; Irvine & Brundrett, 2017). Nonetheless, research reveals the potential of formally designed school-level structures, such as networks of dedicated teams and defined leadership roles, to enhance MLs' and TLs' capacity (Bryant & Rao, 2019; Qian & Walker, 2020), particularly when such structures are values and mission-driven (Bryant, 2019; Bryant, Ko & Walker, 2018). In this vein, specifically designed team structures and defined middle leadership roles have the potential to facilitate and enrich the patterns of interaction among MLs and teachers. Improved professional interaction supports leadership capacity development and opens advice channels around improved instruction (Bryant, Wong & Adames, 2020). This indicates the potential of structure to influence in situ capacity development and echoes findings on the potential of galvanizing school infrastructure to support on site professional development (Shirrell, Hopkins & Spillane, 2019).
Infrastructure comprises elements that include formally defined roles such as instructional coaches, routines that provide the opportunity to interact and develop understanding and tools such as rubrics or templates that focus engagement (Spillane & Coldren, 2011). Typically, such research considers system-driven change. The research presented in this paper focuses on school-based processes. While it is generally understood that cultural and human resources link elements of infrastructure, we aim better to understand the different designs, or models, that schools may put into place to achieve different goals and the specific connectors that link these elements of infrastructure together.
Walker (2012) argues that school principals construct coherence by aligning and connecting across the different components at play in schools. Potential connectors address (a) shared values, beliefs, norms and assumptions; (b) physical structures and processes; and, (c) personal and professional relations. Respectively these are cultural, structural and relational connectors. Our prior research showed how principals draw on these connectors to enact vision, raise expectations, develop participative leadership, and facilitate collaboration (Bryant et al., 2018). However, we suggest that these connectors potentially form pathways that bind the elements of infrastructure together within schools, which together create structural designs. Our interest in this study is in structural designs that support MLs' capacity development.
The study addresses two key research questions:
(a) What structural designs support MLs' capacity development in school?
(b) What connectors tie together infrastructure components in order to build MLs' capacity?
To understand the variation in structural designs that support leader development, we adopted a multi-site qualitative case study approach (Yin, 2014), apt for questions of social process (Swanborn, 2010). The aim was not to generalise, but to explore plausible models of middle leadership and structural designs that support MLs' development. We collected data from 12 cases, 4 were typical publicly funded schools in Hong Kong, known as aided schools; 4 were Direct Subsidy School, similar to academies in the UK; 3 International Schools, and 1 Private Independent School. 5 of the schools offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma and 5 the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education. The schools were selected using two criteria: (a) Schools that involved MLs in innovative practices such as integrated curriculum, inclusive pedagogy, and implementing the IB; (b) schools that revised formal structures to account for unique missions and policy priorities. Participants from each school were non-probabilistically selected to support the collection of interview data focused on leadership interactions among MLs, senior leaders and teachers. In total, we interviewed 37 senior leaders (principals and vice principals), 112 MLs (e.g., subject heads, curriculum leaders, special needs coordinators), and 36 teachers. A preliminary documentary analysis of formal leadership structures, school purpose and context permitted the tailoring of interview questions. In each school, semi-structured interviews were conducted to identify: (a) participants’ beliefs about MLs’ roles; (b) strategies for enactment of leadership practice; (c) patterns of interaction among the various leaders and teachers and teams (e.g., departments, year level, school-wide) with which they engage; (d) elements of infrastructure (e.g. strategies, tools, routines, roles) that support or inhibit middle leaders work and development. The data were coded for leadership practices, tools and routines, challenges and supports. New codes developed iteratively through interaction with data . We generated data outputs and matrices focused on specific codes or participant type and mapped the data on displays for each case and then compared across cases (Miles, Huberman & Saldana, 2014; Yin, 2014). We used these to build multidimensional leadership case reports (Fitz & Halpin, 1994). Case reports were shared with schools and formed the basis for further analysis from which we compared elements of infrastructure and connectors across cases and derived displays of structural designs annotated with data. Our findings analyze these elements across cases but illustrate them using data from three schools.
We distilled three structural designs that support ML development that were present in different school types. In the cascading development design, several tiers of leadership and teaching teams connect through collaborative networks and routines that included co-planning, co-leading, training, mentoring, and coaching relationships. These commonly aim to improve specified instruction and assessment practices. Key is developing the leadership skills necessary to adequately support teaching staff. The parallel structure design addresses mission-critical objectives through a leadership structure running parallel to a conventional leadership structure. Such objectives include special educational needs, experiential learning and pastoral care. Director/coordinators and specialists mirror vice-principal and subject head positions. The former provide support to the latter, work directly with students, or both. The parallel structure has unique accountability and supervision pathways, procedures and policies, and formal PD opportunities. In the emerging specialist design, teachers, supported by principals, identify, investigate, propose and trial interventions in areas of need. Teachers emerged with new expertise, e.g., formative assessment or service learning, causing individuals or teaching teams to seek their advice. When principals recognize the need for a formal ML role that could be fitted by an emerging specialist, the organizational structure shifts accordingly. In this sense, the role and structure are emergent and designed post hoc. All schools had infrastructure components (i.e., specific roles, tools, and routines). But some were more advanced in connecting them into a defined design or model. This requires principals to establish school structural connectors, by which teachers and MLs are provided adequate support to enhance their effectiveness, cultural connectors, including motivating school missions that enable MLs to respond to policy developments and permit MLs to enact organizational designs at the team level, and relational connectors that facilitate the collaborative work needed to build capacity across the school.
Bryant, D. A. (2019). Conditions that support middle leaders’ work in organizational and system leadership: Hong Kong case studies. School Leadership and Management, 39(5), 415–433. Bryant, D. A., Ko, J., & Walker, A. (2018). How do school principals in Hong Kong shape policy? Leadership and Policy in Schools, 17(3), 345–359. Bryant, D.A., Wong, Y.L. & Adames, A. (2020). How middle leaders support in-service teachers’ on-site professional learning. International Journal of Educational Research, DOI:10.1016/j.ijer.2019.101530. De Nobile, J. (2018). Towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools. School Leadership and Management, 38(4), 395–416. Fairman, J.C. and Mackenzie, S.V. (2015). How teacher leaders influence others and understand their leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 18(1), 61-87. Gurr, D. (2019). School middle leaders in Australia, Chile and Singapore. School Leadership and Management, 39(3–4), 278–296. Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2013). Middle-level secondary school leaders: Potential, constraints and implications for leadership preparation and development. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(1), 55–71. Irvine, P. A., & Brundrett, M. (2017). Negotiating the next step: The part that experience plays with middle leaders’ development as they move into their new role. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 47(1), 74-94. Leithwood, K. (2016). Department-head leadership for school improvement. Leadership and Policy in Schools 15(2), 117–140. Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2020). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited. School Leadership and Management, 40(1), 5-22. Lillejord, S. & Børte, K. (2019). Middle leaders and the teaching profession: Building intelligent accountability from within. Journal of Educational Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10833-019-09362-2 Miles, M.B., Huberman, A.M. & Saldana, J. (2014). Qualitative Data Analysis (3rd ed.). London: Sage Qian, H. & Walker, A. (2020). Creating conditions for professional learning communities (PLCs) in schools in China: the role of school principals. Professional Development in Education, 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2020.1770839. Shirrell, M., Hopkins, M., & Spillane, J. (2019). Educational infrastructure, professional learning, and changes in teachers’ instructional practices and beliefs. Professional Development in Education, 45(4), 599–613. Spillane, J. P., & Coldren, A. F. (2011). Diagnosis and design for school improvement: Using a distributed perspective to lead and manage change. New York: Teachers College Press. Spillane, J. P., & Diamond, J. B. (Eds.). (2007). Distributed leadership in practice. New York: Teachers College Press.Swanborn, P. (2010). Case study research: What, why and how? London: Sage. Walker, A. (2012). Leaders seeking resonance: Managing the connectors that bind schools. IJLE, 15(2), 237–253.
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