Distributed leadership has been the subject of considerable educational discussion in recent years. This research report explores how it is understood in one Irish post primary school, with reference to its impact on teaching and learning.
A preliminary questionnaire was given to all teachers in the school. As the issues emerged, a focus group discussion was held to discuss these issues in more detail. The focus group comprised of the principal, deputy principal, teachers holding posts of responsibility and teachers not holding posts of responsibility, in order to involve a sufficiently representative group.
In general, the principal, deputy principal and teachers shared a common understanding of distributed leadership. Teachers also perceive distributed leadership to be necessary and positive and the principals and deputy principal acknowledged their role in leading learning and in developing leadership capacity among teachers. They highlighted two key areas: a more intentional focus on teaching and learning within the post of responsibility and subject department structures;and the development of individual leadership skills and talents among teachers.
Distributed leadership has been the subject of much research in the sphere of education in recent years. This research report explores how it is understood in the context of the Irish post primary school that I am currently employed in, with some reference to its impact on teaching and learning in the school.
Our school is a Dublin south inner city Presentation all-girls Secondary School (now under the Patronage of the recently formed trust body CEIST) with disadvantaged status. There are 28 members of the teaching staff: principal, deputy principal, 7 Assistant Principals (including a Programme Coordinator post), 8 Special Duties Teachers and 11 teachers with no formal leadership position.
The Board of Management manages the school on behalf of the Patron and must consult with and keep the Patron informed of any decisions, proposals and policy changes. Staff volunteers have always been invited to participate on various task groups and subcommittees in our school. These groups were seen as being very important in the development or revision of policies or curricular issues and their recommendations were generally taken on board by both staff and the principal/deputy principal. These groups have had no shortage of voluntary members from both postholders and non-postholders, which would suggest a 'fundamental core of values that all members of the organization hold' (E849 Study Guide, pg. 21) and also highlighted the fact that distributed leadership exists within the school.
The aim of this assignment is to explore the concept of distributed leadership and the influence leadership practices have on teaching and learning in my school. The overall aim of this research is to support the teaching staff to become more aware of their own leadership perceptions and practices, with reference to the possibilities offered by distributed leadership to positively impact on teaching and learning within the school.
Given the fact that this was a small scale study that had to be conducted in a short time frame
only one research question was addressed in the research:
How do the teachers, principal and deputy principal understand the concept of distributed leadership and how does this link to teaching and learning within the school?
The approach taken throughout this research begins with the assumption that a teacher's leadership role begins in the classroom with the influence they have on their pupils but also extends beyond the walls of the classroom to working collaboratively with colleagues (teaching or ancillary). A teacher's leadership role may extend to their contribution to the school culture. Teachers may hold a post of responsibility (Assistant Principal or Special Duties) or an agreed position outside the formal post structure, e.g. subject coordinator.
The Post of Responsibility system is a structure whereby a number of teachers are given
additional remuneration to carry out specified tasks, duties and responsibilities in the
school. It is also called the "in-school management" system.
There are two grades of post; Assistant Principal and Special Duties. The Assistant
Principal post carries an additional salary allowance of almost â‚¬9,000 per annum and the
Special Duties allowance is approximately â‚¬5,000 per annum. Teachers in receipt of either
of these allowances are required to fulfil duties and take responsibilities in addition to their
full teaching hours. The duties attached to the post are defined by the Board of
Management following a consultation process involving all the staff. The consultation
process includes an analysis of the school needs, agreement on the priorities and the
drawing up of a "Schedule of posts" to match the agreed priorities.
Each school is allocated a specific number of Special Duties and Assistant Principal posts
on the basis of school size, according to a formula based on the number of whole-time
teachers in the school. Appointment to a post of responsibility is by competitive interview among the teachers already employed in the school, whether full time or part time, permanent or temporary. Selection criteria have been agreed at national level and include credit for the number of years experience in that school and "the most senior suitable" (DES Circular Letter 05/98 www.education.ie) candidate. Therefore, in most cases, teachers holding posts of responsibility are more likely to be the teachers who have been in the school for the longest number of years.
However, other teachers may also hold no formal position but may be influential with colleagues. Leadership at this level may have a significant and direct influence on
teaching and on the general learning environment. Distributed leadership has been interpreted in many different ways, but incorporates many of the concepts outlined above such as teachers as learners, influence over colleagues and contribution to school climate and culture whether or not in formal positions of leadership.
Research has shown that leadership is one of the most important factors in making a school successful (OECD 2008, Leithwood and Riehl 2003). Where leadership is effective staff and pupils are better motivated, people know what is going on because communications are clear and frequent, and everyone feels they are pulling together and working towards shared goals (Day, Sammons et al 2007). Distributed leadership is one form of leadership that is prominent in the current educational discourse.
The idea of distributed leadership has been in existence for almost three decades. Murgatroyd and Reynolds (1984) stressed that "leadership can occur at a variety of levels in response to a variety of situations and is not necessarily tied to possession of a formal organisational role" (cited in Law and Glover 2003 p.37). This concept incorporates ideas such as teachers working together in teams and teachers taking a variety of responsibilities within the school. On the positive side, it was considered beneficial to teaching and learning within schools if teachers discussed their practice with colleagues, gave and accepted critiques of their work and were open to learning from each other.
Another perspective broadened the scope of their leadership to decision-making in the overall operation of the school. Hallinger and Heck (1996) found little evidence linking distributed leadership to improved student outcomes. Weiss and Cambone (1994) found that teachers' involvement in whole-school change could detract from classroom teaching. On the other hand, Greenleaf (1996) found it led to positive effects on teacher efficacy and levels of morale within schools.
Spillane, Halverson and Diamond (2001) view distributed leadership as being central
to the teaching and learning process in the school and agree that leadership involves all
members of the school community, not just the principal and deputy principal. They argue that leadership happens in a variety of ways throughout the school and is centred in the interactions between people. "Depending on the particular leadership task, school leaders' knowledge and expertise may be best explored at the group or collective level rather than at the individual leaders level" (Spillane, Halverson and Diamond 2001, p.25)
"People in formally designated positions and those without any such designations can and do take responsibility for leading and managing in the schoolhouse" (Spillane and Diamond 2007 p.7). Therefore, this distributed leadership perspective recognises that leadership roles are played by different people at different times.
Distributed leadership (Gronn, 2000) 'sees leadership as a function which is widely dispersed through the organisation rather than as a responsibility vested in an individual' (Study Guide, pg.21). The post of responsibility structure in Irish schools allows for some of the leadership functions to be distributed throughout the designated post holders, though this still leaves the question about how to involve all non-post holders. Distributed leadership 'assumes that there is an underlying values consensus that enables staff to work harmoniously towards shared purposes and to agree on the bases by which the effectiveness of their organization is judged' (Study Guide, pg.21). This, therefore, would appear to assume a greater involvement by all staff in the decision process of the organisation.
One of the characteristics of distributed leadership is "an emergent property of a group or
network of interacting individuals" (Woods et al 2004, p.441). Gronn terms this pooling of
energies 'concertive action' and suggests that it is about the additional dynamic which is the product of conjoint activity - where people work together in such a way that they pool their initiative and expertise, the outcome is a product or energy which is greater than the sum of their individual actions (Gronn 2000).
This is comparable to Spillane's definition of distributed leadership as "the collective
properties of the group of leaders working together to enact a particular task, leading to the
evolution of a leadership practice that is potentially more than the sum of each individual's
practice" (Spillane et al 2001 p.25).
Theories on teamwork share the view that working together produces results over and
above what would be expected from individuals working alone. The literature on teamwork
often makes the distinction between formal and informal teams but suggests that both types
operate best in a culture that fosters an open climate and where relationships are based on
trust, mutual protection and support (Belbin 2000, Nias et al 1989).
There can tend to be some tensions between 'designated leaders and distributed leadership' (E849 Study Guide, pg.146). School Principals are accountable for school performance, supported by deputy principal and designated post holders. 'On the other hand, much of the productive work of educational organizations takes place in collaborative teams, characterized by professional norms and distributed leadership, where those with relevant expertise take the lead, irrespective of formal roles' (E849 Study Guide, pg.146). However, 'the concept of distributed leadership still assumes that individuals will follow that lead when it is provided' (E849 Study Guide, pg. 21).
Teamwork is a key element of distributed leadership in that the nature and purpose of distributed leadership is "the ability of those within a school to work together, constructing meaning and knowledge collectively and collaboratively" (Lambert 1998 p.5). However, the existence of structured teams alone does not constitute distributed leadership. In fact, distributed leadership practices may not emphasise the formal structured approach to teamwork but rather acknowledge that groups of teachers work together as appropriate in order to achieve a particular objective at a given time.
Another distinctive characteristic of distributed leadership (Woods et al 2004), is
that the distribution of leadership varies according to expertise. There is recognition that
various tasks require different expertise and that all the expertise does not reside in one
person at the top. Schools nowadays are complex organisations and therefore it is too much
to expect that they can be led by one person. "The role of principal is now so complex and
demanding, that it is unrealistic to think that any one person can discharge the role without
the assistance of considerable number of colleagues, both from the teaching and the support
staff" (Martin 2006). This is particularly significant in the context of leadership for
improved learning as it is recognised in the literature that the most significant influence on
student learning is the direct influence the teacher has in the classroom.
The concept of trust emerges from the literature as being significant (Duignan 2006). Teachers need to feel trusted and supported by their principals and their colleagues. Trust is necessary if teachers are to feel motivated in their work and if they are to be allowed to initiate an activity and take responsibility for decisionmaking. Along with being trusted in their work, people also need support. People want to talk about what they are doing - supporting these conversations is an essential task of the leader (Wheatley 1999). Trust, allied with support, is an underpinning value within the concept of distributed leadership.
Harris (2004) recognises that structural and cultural barriers operate within schools which could make it very difficult for some teachers to show leadership. Jockeying for power positions in a school can create a climate which is not conducive to, for example, young teachers expressing their opinion, especially if it differs from the traditional or prevailing opinion. Such action could be perceived as a threat to the status quo.
Another concept that links distributed leadership with learning is that of professional
learning communities. Professional learning communities may be viewed as an extension of
teacher leadership. For example, Harris et al (2003 p.79) identifies four dimensions of the
teacher leadership role that extends to the overall operation of the school. Teacher leaders:-
1. translate the principles of school improvement into the practices of individual
classrooms ( a brokering role);
2. assist other teachers to cohere around a particular development and foster a more
collaborative way of working;
3. play a mediating role in school improvement. They are an important source of
expertise and information;
4. forge close relationships with individual teachers where mutual learning takes place.
Schools with professional learning communitiess report significant benefits for students, including lower rates of absenteeism and decreased dropout rates. students have also
exhibited academic gains in maths, science, history and reading than in traditional
schools. (Hirsh and Hord 2008 p.27).
The direct link between leadership and student outcomes "is a rare event indeed in the
research literature on educational leadership and school improvement" (Mulford, Silins
and Leithwood 2003 p.3) However, Mulford et al's research found that what was important
was that staff are actively and collectively participating in the school and feel that their
contributions are valued. This contributes to creating a learning organisation where
teachers' learning, as well as student learning, is valued (p.6).
Davies and Ellison (1999) argue that a variety of data-gathering techniques should be used to develop a balanced view of the organisation's strategic position. For this reason, my main research methodologies involved the use of a detailed questionnaire distributed to all teaching staff as well as a follow up focus group meeting. These methods of investigation have designed with the purpose of better serving the objectives of the research. Mellon (1990, pg.49) states that the two main questions to be addressed were: "who might have the information you need and who is accessible"? As highlighted by Patton (1990, pg.45), "where the focus is on individuals, an inductive approach begins with the individual experiences of those individuals". This multi-method approach allowed for triangulation, using different methods of data collection within the study to ensure that it is as full and balanced as is possible within the relatively short time scale.
A mixed-method approach was decided on, through which a questionnaire would identify relevant issues on distributed leadership in order that these issues could be examined in more detail in focus groups.
Strauss and Corbin (1998) highlight the role of literature review as a valuable source of experience that leaves the researcher with: better understanding of the information needs on the field, aware of the gaps left by previous studies, and sensitive to the issues he/she might identify in the data. Literature could be a secondary source of data, and help the researcher to formulate questions to be used in interviews and questionnaires, during the initial steps of the research. It can also confirm findings, comparing the research results to past evidence. This will be very important in this study.
My trust with all teachers involved is very important to develop. ' As Bassey (1999) points out, researchers, in taking data from people, should do so in a way that recognizes those people's initial ownership of the data and that respects them as fellow human beings who are entitled to dignity and privacy' (Study Guide, pg.55).
As humans were obviously be the most important component of this research, the issue of informed consent had to be addressed. Therefore, it was necessary to inform all interview participants about the study, their role within the investigation, and how the information they provided would be used. While, as argued by Miles and Huberman (1994, pg 291) it may be that truly informed consent is impossible in qualitative research the issue could not be dismissed, and, accordingly all participants selected for the study were informed of both the nature and purpose of the research. They were also given the opportunity to decide whether to participate in the survey or to withdraw at anytime.
The main principles of research ethics are:
The identity of participants' must be protected in order that the published results of the study do not humiliate or harm them in any way. Anonymity must therefore be extended to all records, written or electronically recorded, that are collected during the study.
All participants must be treated with respect and informed of the researcher's interests. The participant must agree to participate in the study. The researcher must not lie to the participants or record conversations on hidden mechanical devices.
The researcher must make clear the terms of the research and abide by the terms of the agreement.
The findings must be based on the data and truthfully reported.
(Bogdan and Biklen, 1992)
These form the main thrust of my ethical considerations when conducting the study.
For this research, a questionnaire was designed to guage teachers' perceptions of
distributed leadership and the practices in the school that contribute to it. The findings
were used to form the basis for further investigation through a focus group discussion.
The questionnaire was primarily an attitudinal one and therefore used the
Likert scale which places people's answers on an attitude continuum (May 2001 p.104). In
addition, three open questions were included. This allowed participants greater freedom in
their answers. Responses to the questionnaires were used to clarify the research questions
and identify more specific issues which would be discussed within the focus group.
Focus groups have been defined as a group of individuals selected and assembled by
researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the
subject of the research. (Powell et al 1996 p.499) They can be used to ascertain attitudes, feelings, knowledge, perceptions, ideas and beliefs of participants, from the participants' personal experience. As the literature suggests (Gibbs 1997 and McNamara 2006), the researcher plays an important role which includes providing a clear purpose, helping people to feel at ease and facilitating interaction between group members. This was made somewhat more difficult, given that the research was conducted in my own school. In hindsight, it may have been more appropriate to conduct the investigation in a neighbouring school.
Questionnaires were distributed to all teachers in the school. The questionnaire was designed
on the basis of findings from the literature on distributed leadership.
Part 1 of the questionnaire contained fifteen statements pertaining to leadership and
participants were asked to rate their agreement or otherwise with these statements using the
Likert scale. Respondents' scores of 4 or 5 denote agreement or strong agreement. Scores of 2 or 1 denote disagreement or strong disagreement respectively and a rating of 3 is considered 'neutral'.
Part 2 consisted of fifteen statements pertaining to leadership practices in schools. In this
section, participants were asked to score each item on the basis of how far along a spectrum
their school was in implementing this practice. A score of 4 or 5 denotes a well-established
practice and a practice which is being refined, respectively. Scores of 2 or 1 denote that the
practice is starting or does not happen in the school respectively. A rating of 3 denotes that
progress is being made in this practice.
By asking respondents to indicate their degrees of agreement with these statements, the
researcher can ascertain the respondents' perceptions of distributed leadership and identify
the key issues which they highlight as being central to the practice of distributed leadership
and its connections to teaching and learning. These can be analysed from a normative
perspective, based on the literature findings.
The questionnaire included three open questions; the first elicits further insights into
respondents' understanding of distributed leadership, the second asks them to identify
factors that support their work and the third seeks to identify factors that inhibit their work.
Following discussion at a staff meeting, where I explained the purpose of the research, staff agreed to participate and questionnaires were distributed to the 28 teachers on staff. A total of 16 questionnaires were returned ( 57% response rate).
In order to answer the research questions it was necessary to gather further data from a focus group comprised of teachers that have experience of different levels of leadership. Therefore, the group comprised of the principal and deputy principal, 3 teachers who hold posts of responsibility and 3 teachers who do not hold posts of responsibility. The focus group was approximately one hour duration.
Responses to the first set of statements on the questionnaire identified a number of issues
perceived by the respondents to be associated with distributed leadership. It was clear from the questionnaire responses that all teachers perceived themselves to be leaders.
However, the context of that leadership was in the classroom - they see themselves
as leaders of their students within the classroom, having a direct influence on their learning.
Their view of themselves as leaders with influence beyond the classroom was rather limited.
The questionnaire also revealed that teachers believe that teaching and learning is
influenced positively when teachers work together and when they engage in professional
development to improve their knowledge and skills.
Also, teachers saw distributed leadership as including their involvement in
decision-making and in leading new initiatives in the school. However, they also
acknowledge the key role the principal plays, for example in ensuring that there is a shared
vision among staff and that pastoral care systems operate effectively for students.
In response to the second set of statements on the questionnaire, respondents highlighted a
number of leadership practices that are operational in the schools to a greater or lesser
extent. These practices were identified as:
Monitoring and supporting student learning
Working together as a staff
Structures and systems such as subject departments and posts of responsibility
Monitoring and supporting student learning included
having systems to support student learning
analysing results of examinations and using the data to
all teachers playing a role in monitoring student performance and iv)
all school policies being designed with a focus on enhancing, improving and developing a high quality learning environment.
These points were all part of a recently completed DEIS plan in the school.
Working together as a staff incolved:
discussing school development priorities at staff meetings,
professional development on whole-school issues,
collectively prioritising specific actions to improve learning.
Subject departments were seen as forming a central part of distributed leadership. However, in the school they are considered to be a forum for sharing resources and are only now being used for subject planning.
The responses from the open question on distributed leadership emphasised community and collaboration rather than hierarchy.
The second open question on the questionnaires asked teachers to name the factors that
support them in their work. The key issue emerging was the need for support and help from
both colleagues and management, particularly in dealing with student behavioural or
disciplinary issues. They also referred to the approachability, accessibility and openness of
the principal as being an important factor in enabling them to do their job well. Other
factors stated were encouragement from management, being trusted and treated as a
professional, good organisation and planning and being allowed to try out new ideas
The views of distributed leadership expressed by respondents in the questionnaires were
reinforced in the focus group discussion, particularly by the post-holders. However,
different views on the nature of decision-making were expressed by the post-holders' in the focus group; firstly, if leadership is distributed then that should mean making decisions together but on the other hand, "sometimes it is important for a principal to make a decision. There might be a decision that the team can't agree on and it is a horrible decision and the
principal has to make the decision."
The participants in the focus group agreed that it was important that everybody has a voice. The idea of having a voice was extended further by a non post-holder, who stated that "if, at a staff meeting, people are listened to, then you are going to get the message that this is a good place to share initiative and share ideas."
Participants also agreed that teachers are role models for the students and that their behaviour and interactions with colleagues, as well as with students, have a major influence on students.
'We're role models for students in what we do, in how we interact and speak with each other'.
The focus group discussion allowed for a degree of interaction, disagreement and debate
about issues and concepts that was not possible in responding to a questionnaire.
Leadership and management were debated. While there was a general consensus that
leadership involved everybody in the school, there was some debate about the role of postholders. The consensus among the group was that all teachers, not just post-holders, can be empowered to lead.
The principal saw distributed leadership as extending beyond classroom leadership to whole-school issues.
'Now almost every member of staff will either have authority delegated to them for a
particular area or will take it on their own back to organise something. Whether you
are a tutor or whatever it is, there is much more involvement in school life now than
there was in the past'.
'I would see leadership as leadership wherever it expresses itself throughout the
school, whether it is in management or whether it is running the school musical or
whatever it might be that it is the capacity of the person to bring people with you to
achieve a particular task'.
Concepts mentioned by both the principal and deputy principal included empowerment, giving independence, involvement in decision-making, recognising expertise, leading by example, delegation and creating an environment where people are not afraid to take risks and are encouraged to take initiative. There is strong overlap between the views expressed by the principal and deputy principal and those expressed by both post-holders and non post-holders.
There was very strong agreement among all participants in the focus group that leadership is a concept that can apply to all teachers, whether they hold a position or post of responsibility or not. The participants all agreed that distributed leadership is about empowering people, allowing them to take initiative and be involved in decision-making. They also agreed that it is about the atmosphere in the school that encourages teachers to take leadership roles in specific aspects of the school, e.g. extra-curricular activities and special functions that occur in the school from time to time.
There was agreement that distributed leadership incorporates the idea of teachers working together in teams and collaborating in planning and providing learning opportunities for students. This applies at both subject department level and at whole school level, for example having a team approach to policy development.
There was agreement that if all teachers took leadership responsibility beyond their
classroom, e.g. for students' behaviour in the corridor, it would be a very good school. But
a note of caution was sounded about some teachers taking on too much power and the need
for the principal to "direct" came through strongly
"he directs us to make sure we're all speaking with one voice to students and parents".
All were in agreement that the principal and deputy play a particular leadership role, whether in managing staff or directing practices, so that there will be a shared vision in the school.
The post-holders themselves discussed the preparation and training they received when
appointed to their posts of responsibility. There was strong agreement that they had no
formal training for their post. They watched other post-holders doing similar jobs,
especially year heads. They all agreed that not only did you watch them but you consulted
with them and asked their advice and opinion. Some posts, however, are new and their
incumbents therefore have no 'predecessor' or colleagues to consult with. These posts
require "an awful lot of initiative".
Some time was given to discussing the system in place for communication between post-holders and the principal or deputy principal. The participants in the group consider meetings, whether formal or informal, with the principal or deputy as being a form of support to them in their role. The arrangements for formal meetings varied significantly between schools and also between the two levels of postholders, i.e. assistant principals are more likely to have formal meetings with the principal and deputy than special duties teachers. The participants agreed that the special duties teachers were not seen as a team because they never meet. Generally all Assistant Principals held year head positions, while the special duties functions were more varied which may go some way in explaining why meetings never took place.
The discussion led to a debate about staying after school for meetings. In a neighbouring school this is the norm once a month. Post holders stated they would not be willing to do this, as posts were supposed to be carried out during the school day. However, a non post holder mentioned that because post-holders get an additional allowance they should be willing to stay on after school to carry out duties related to their post. Nobody responded to this statement.
There was a significant degree of similarity in participants understanding of distributed
leadership. It is something that must permeate the whole school and is evident through the
prevailing culture and atmosphere. The principal and deputy principal play a very important
role in setting this atmosphere and they do this in both formal and informal ways. The
general 'approachability' of both principal and deputy plays a key role - showing a genuine
interest in and concern for the work of each individual teacher helps to set the tone for how
people approach their work. But distributed leadership goes beyond that to providing
opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership. This may be through actions like chairing
a meeting, leading a new initiative or leading an extra-curricular activity. This opportunity
to exercise leadership must be facilitated from the top, i.e. the principal or deputy.
There was also agreement that structures were an important element of distributed
leadership as they allow for leadership to be exercised by a variety of people. Structures
included subject departments and teams set up to address a variety of school development
issues from time to time. To be considered a 'structure', they must have time to meet and
particular goals to achieve. Different people may play different roles from time to time
within these structures and in that way they allow for teachers' voices to be heard, thus
including them in the overall decision-making of the school. They also provide
opportunities for teachers to exercise their influence, whether they hold a formal position of
leadership or not.
In the responses to the questionnaires 93% of respondents agreed that when teachers work
together student learning is enhanced. The focus group also agreed that the students benefit when everybody works together.
'I think they [students] pick up on an atmosphere where everybody is working
together, and where more knowledge is transferred between departments, staff is
more aware of how students are doing. They pick up on those kinds of things that
are in the ethos of the school'.
Subject departments are now playing a more important role than in the past. The subject department meetings offer the opportunity to plan lessons together, to synchronise teaching across a year group and to discuss teaching methods for particular elements of the syllabus. There was agreement that many subject departments are in the early stages of development, and that having formal subject meetings is essential for this development to continue.
But subject department meetings are not the only structures that enable teachers to work
together. An example was given of a meeting, set up by a principal, to review the progress
of a particular student. All teachers involved with this student were invited to analyse the
situation and help teachers to work together to meet the challenges of supporting this
student in his learning. This meeting required a restructuring of the timetable for the period
of the meeting and the provision of class cover for some teachers but the priority it was
given showed the belief in the power of teachers working together to improve the
educational experience for this student.
In the focus group there were two teachers who had trained and worked in the UK and Australia. They spoke of their experience of working as part of a team in their respective schools . They both agreed that the structures were more formal than in Ireland and that these
formal structures not only enabled teachers to work together but created the expectation
that they would. There were formal systems in place for sharing resources, for holding
meetings and for observing each other's lessons. Both teachers agreed that these systems
and structures were beneficial.
There was consensus in the focus group that when the atmosphere is friendly teachers can talk to each other and ask questions in an informal setting such as the staffroom. They expressed the support they felt when they work together. It removes the sense of isolation and supports their classroom teaching. The quote below is reflective of the consensus among the group. Not only does it help teachers but they also perceived that it has a positive impact on students.
'I will ask the other teachers questions and I think it has really helped me to relax
and feel that I am not ... a little island on my own. I can ask for help. Things like
that do permeate out to the students as well when they see it'.
There is also acknowledgement that newer practices such as school development planning and Department of Education inspections have encouraged teachers to work together.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In the questionnaire in this research, the respondents suggested that students and their
parents should play a leadership role in the school but, in practice, their voices are often not
heard in decision-making. A very significant perspective on distributed leadership is
missing from this report by not including these two constituent groups. Further research should include both students and parents in the data-gathering process. Schools are now required to have both student and parents' councils and are expected to include them in policy development in the school.
The role of subject departments
The role of subject departments has become more prominent in schools in recent years, as a result of the school development planning and the whole school evaluation processes. In this study the role of subject departments in enhancing student learning was acknowledged. Subject departments could provide a forum for sharing good ideas and resources. A more formal approach would improve the opportunities for these departments to influence classroom practice, for example by discussing pedagogy as well as curriculum provision. Further investigation into the leadership of subject departments would add considerably to the
practice of distributed leadership in the school. This is certainly an area of untapped potential. If teachers are trained in leadership in their subject departments it would improve the functioning of a department and therefore improve teaching and learning. It would also lead to the improvement of teachers' confidence in their own leadership abilities therefore building leadership capacity in the school and ultimately contributing to school improvement.
Reflections on my work in this ECA
In this exploration of distributed leadership, I had concerns about discussing distributed leadership with research participants before defining or ascertaining their understanding of leadership in general. For that reason, a questionnaire was given to teachers. This was a very useful exercise in that it produced ideas about leadership and how teachers perceived school leadership. It yielded a very broad interpretation of leadership but identified the fact that teachers accept that they play a leadership role - leadership is not the sole prerogative of the principal and deputy principal. However, in hindsight, more exploration of the difference between leadership and management would have been helpful.
I learned a lot about practitioner research in one's own educational organisation. While one has the benefit of knowing the participants, this can also have disadvantages. I was conscious that participants may not have been as open and honest with me as they would be with an external researcher and that this may have some implications for my findings. In future research, i would prefer to work with staff in a school external to mine. I would interview the principal and deputy principal separate to the focus group (in order to ensure a more open discussion) and would conduct two separate focus groups - one for postholders and one for non postholders in order that their views could be comprehensively compared.
A useful outcome of the research process has been the articulation by teachers themselves
of their leadership role, and a recognition of the influence they exert not only on the
students but also over their colleagues.
The research has highlighted certain issues that the school could focus on that would enhance teaching and learning. If the atmosphere is positive, then a culture of collaboration can be developed and the leadership role of postholders can be discussed and articulated more clearly. Similarly, more training for subject department teams holds the possibility of making a very positive contribution to school improvement. The leadership of the principal and deputy principal is very important. Firstly, they create the positive atmosphere by paying attention to each individual teacher - recognising that their influence on student learning is through their teachers. Secondly, they are in a position to form structures and systems that enable teachers to work together and to develop leadership skills. Thirdly, professional development is an important part of creating an atmosphere of learning among staff.
Having completed the study, the findings can be used by the school in a number of ways. The principal will receive a report outlining the responses to the questionnaire and a summary of findings from the focus group discussion.
The key issues will have implications for the principal and deputy principal in that the findings highlight the importance of their leadership role in developing a positive learning environment but also in developing individual leadership skills in teachers and providing opportunities for leadership to be exercised among colleagues. All of these have the potential to improve teaching and learning. The reports could also be used as a basis for discussion among postholders, focusing on their role in leading learning.
This research report set out to explore what was meant by distributed leadership and to see, if
practised in a school, would it contribute to improving teaching and learning. Through
questionnaires and a focus group discussion the concept of distributed leadership was
explored and the results presented and analysed. A wide ranging definition emerged that
recognised that all teachers can be leaders, but the extent of their leadership functions
varies from within the classroom to their influence on students beyond their individual
classroom, to their leadership influence over colleagues. Their understanding of distributed
leadership encompassed structural and cultural issues, both of which had the potential to
influence teaching and learning. This potential is not fully realised, but with a more
intentional focus on teaching and learning and a conscious development of leadership
capacity this situation could change to the benefit of students.