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MEP learning pack

Masters in Education Practice: Leadership


Teacher leadership


Barriers to teacher leadership

Previous sections in this topic on teacher leadership have indicated its growth and potential. However, alongside this has been a concern that this has been hampered by a number of barriers. Some commentators and researchers consider that the approach has often been overcautious and has avoided seeing teacher leadership as a radical challenge to how leadership operates in schools and to the nature of educational change being addressed by leaders.

Top-down models of leadership

Despite the increase in distributed leadership practice in schools, there is a good deal of evidence that controlling, top-down behaviours are still exercising considerable influence. This is not surprising given that this kind of approach has been a strong feature in schools in the past and changing embedded cultures takes time. Many see this prevailing feature as a significant barrier to teacher leadership:

One of the main barriers to teacher leadership identified in the literature is structural and concerns the ‘topdown’ leadership model that still dominates in many schools . . .  For teacher leadership to develop, heads must also be willing to allow leadership from those who are not part of their ‘inner circle’, and might not necessarily agree with them.

Harris and Muijs, 2003, pages 16–17)

Structure and culture

We are learning a good deal about the conditions that damage and support the development of teacher leadership. In particular two key areas, organisational structure and organisational and professional culture, can hinder the development of teacher leadership. They are so influential because they set the cultural and values context that can negatively affect the fostering of teacher leadership.

It is because the organisational contexts and the actual organisational structure reflect important values and beliefs, that they exercise considerable pull on the shared leadership in a school.  

(Murphy, 2007; page 682)

Similarly others have found that organisational and structural barriers have regularly plagued efforts to develop teacher leadership. In short it is the highly bureaucratic configuration of schools that has tended to stifle possibilities for teacher leaders to be effective change agents.

So, avoiding hierarchical school organisation is seen as pivotal in enabling teacher leadership to flourish. A key approach to tackling this barrier is to ensure there is a clear connection between the day-to-day educational management in a school and the principles and aims of what the school is actually about. In other words, to avoid stifling distributed teacher leadership involves constantly checking that the way we organise and manage in schools is related to delivering the core purposes of the school, such as ensuring high-quality learning and teaching:

. . . unless the link between purpose and management is clear and close, there is a danger of ‘managerialism’, a stress on procedures at the expense of educational purpose and values.

(Bush, 2003; page 2)

Professional barriers

As well as the barriers posed by hierarchical organisation and culture, other main barriers to teacher leadership are professional, where teachers feel taking up leadership will separate them from colleagues and teachers who are resistant to change. This is ‘the feeling of being isolated from colleagues’ and of feeling ‘less connected to peers when engaging in teacher leadership activities’ (Harris and Muijs, 2003). There needed to be sufficient clarity that the benefits of engaging in teacher leadership are worth the professional risk:

In other words, the stakes involved in the take-up of the ‘extra work’ around teacher leadership were not sufficiently strong enough to warrant the effort. So one needs to ask what the benefits of teacher leadership are. What is the ‘pay-off’ in embarking on this journey?

(Grant, 2006; page 528)

Activity 5.3.1

For many, these hierarchical and professional barriers to teacher leadership can only be overcome if tackled head on with a view to transforming the school’s whole approach and ethos. Reflect on these barriers to teacher leadership in the light of the two reflections given below. What do you think can be done to change these traditional mind-sets about school leadership and to create ‘a context that evokes leadership from all teachers’?

Why is engendering teacher leadership considered difficult by many principals (and others)?  Several reasons come to mind: a philosophy of leadership that situates leadership work within formal authority roles, a hierarchical view of authority and power, and an insistence that if we just find the right ‘carrot’, the right incentive package, we can coax teachers to take on leadership roles. Such attitudes produce short term, shallow and unsustainable results. Old assumptions bind and confine . . .  the major challenge before us is not to identify who is and who is not a teacher leader but to create a context that evokes leadership from all teachers

(Lambert, 2003; pages 421–422)

The possibility of teacher leadership in any school will be dependent upon whether the head and the senior management team within the school relinquishes power to teachers and the extent to which teachers accept the influence of colleagues who have been designated as leaders in a particular area. In order for teacher leadership to become embedded, heads will therefore need to become ‘leaders of leaders’ striving to develop a relationship of trust with staff, and encouraging leadership and autonomy throughout the school.

(Harris and Muijs, 2003; page 15)

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