The relevance of leadership in teacher education programmes

April 2015


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DR KATE THORNTON , of Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Education, discusses whether or not teacher education programmes should teach concepts of leadership and effective leadership practice.

KateThornton.jpgWhere does learning about leadership fit in terms of teacher education programmes? Should leadership be an integral part of teacher preparation or is this topic irrelevant in this context because the focus in these programmes should be on preparing the teachers for their work in classrooms and centres?

Both these points of view have merit. On one hand, it can be argued that it is important for all New Zealand teachers to be familiar with concepts of leadership and effective leadership practice. There are a number of reasons for this; firstly, the registered teacher criteria require all teachers to show leadership that contributes to effective teaching and learning.

The indicators of this criterion relate to active contribution to the professional learning community and effectively carrying out areas of responsibility. It follows that beginning teachers need to be made aware of the capabilities associated with effective educational leadership, and how they can demonstrate leadership in various ways.

A second reason is that all teachers have the ability to be involved in leadership to some extent. Much of the literature on educational leadership promotes a collaborative approach involving leadership at all levels of a school or centre, rather than a hierarchical model that views leadership as the sole prerogative of the principal or head teacher. The School Leadership and Student Outcomes Best Evidence synthesis highlighted that the level of expertise required to meet leadership challenges is beyond the capabilities of a sole leader.

A third reason is that the principles of leadership are also relevant at a classroom centre level; leadership capabilities such as building relational trust, goal setting, problem solving, and inspiring and influencing others are all part of a teacher’s role. It can be inferred, therefore, that all teachers need to become more involved in leadership practice. So what is a teacher’s role in a more collaborative leadership approach?

Teacher leadership is a common concept in the United States education sector but less recognised amongst New Zealand teachers, where terms such as distributed and/or collaborative leadership are more common. Teacher leadership extends the influence of teachers beyond their own classroom and may include actions such as advocating for students, leading professional learning and becoming active outside the classroom.

Distributed leadership is more closely associated with collaborative leadership practice and involves leadership that is dispersed across group members and characterised by interdependence and cooperation.

Distributed leadership blurs the distinction between leaders and followers and opens up the possibility of all members of an organisation exerting influence and demonstrating leadership behaviour at various times.

The counter argument to student teachers being made aware of leadership concepts and practices is that leadership is not relevant to teacher education programmes because the focus of new teachers should be mastering the art and science of teaching. Also, fully meeting the registered teacher criteria is not expected until the end of a two-year period. 

As many teacher education programmes are only one year in duration, it is challenging to cover all the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to become an effective teacher, let alone an effective leader. It could be seen that even if leadership has some relevance, students are unlikely to engage with this concept in any depth because they are not directly experiencing the impact of effective or ineffective leadership practice.

The shift to postgraduate teacher education programmes where teachers spend more time in schools and centres and are more actively involved in professional learning communities may be a catalyst for the development of interest and awareness of effective leadership practice. Shared and supportive leadership is a characteristic of an effective professional learning community and involves shared responsibility for decision-making.

Therefore new teachers can be encouraged to share their knowledge and expertise and demonstrate leadership in their work with others in order to actively contribute to improving overall learning outcomes.

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