Reflections on Trends in Teacher Leadership

Leading Educators Advisory Board Retreat, New Orleans, February 2013

by Andrea Berkeley, Leadership Development Direct at Teaching Leaders UK and Leading Educators Advisory Board Member


Andrea Berkeley

Although the observations that follow are based mainly on UK experience, similar trends appear to be emerging across global education systems: increased public accountability in tandem with greater autonomy for schools; an urgent imperative to close the opportunity gap between affluent and poorer communities; national, public or state authority over schools being replaced by stakeholder communities or not-for-profit mission-driven organisations impatient with endemic failures of the status quo. In addition to global shifts in economic power, the nature of work itself is changing along with advances in technology.

The big question of the day seems to be whether our education systems are fit for purpose. Although successive government reforms in the UK have driven up standards overall in the last 10 years, the gap between the attainment of children from poor and affluent homes has remained roughly the same, in some areas it has widened, and there is a long tail of underachievement.

The legacy of the Charter School movement in the US - KIPP in particular - echoes through the rapid emergence of new kinds of school organisation in the UK – federations clustered around ‘Teaching Schools’ which, partnered with a university, provide professional development from initial teacher training to leadership and management across groups of schools; independent yet state-funded chains of academies and the new ‘Free Schools’.

These systemic changes afford more opportunities for collaboration and the kind of distributed leadership essential for building a self-sustaining system, where schools learn from and support each other. This ideal is easier said than done: for some sceptics the definition of ‘collaboration’ would seem to be ‘the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of government funding’, when faced with the reality of forced collaboration or reluctant leadership.

A McKinsey report on education standards published in the UK two years ago emphasised the importance of school leadership, citing research demonstrating that the quality of leadership is second only to classroom teaching in its impact on student achievement. The same report also published data showing that in-school variation – between subject departments and between individual teachers – is as big a driver of the opportunity gap as school-to-school variation.

Both the UK and the US have invested soundly in the development of school leadership in recent years, both as a strategic management tool and as a means of growing the leadership talent pipeline. But the focus has been mainly on senior leadership and not on those teachers who lead on the frontline of delivering improved standards.

The imperative to address the development needs of ‘first-line leaders’ – those middle ranking teachers who lead teams of teachers – was raised at an Education Summit held by Leading Educators US and Teaching Leaders UK in Washington DC in 2009. Little has been institutionalised in developed countries since then and the concept is almost virtually unknown in developing nations. Even in the UK and the US there is still a prevalence of ‘first among equals’ or ‘advocate’ culture rather than teacher-leaders who are accountable and who hold others to account.

The time for a collaborative, networked approach that includes support for individual teacher-leaders as well as advancing systemic change might just be right, as Generation Y, the ‘Me’ Generation is being replaced by the ‘C’ Generation, a psychographic group emerging on both sides of the Atlantic as highly connected, pluralistic, multi-cultural, media-savvy digital citizens with shared values and lifestyles.