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Effective leadership practices and teacher wellbeing: A review of international evidence

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The most commonly cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession are excessive workload and poor working conditions (Long and Danechi, 2022). Teachers in England and across a number of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are increasingly working under very stressful conditions; as the classroom environment becomes more complex, schools become more bureaucratic, with increasing accountability pressures (Schleicher, 2018; Skinner et al., 2019). These issues have adverse effects on teacher job satisfaction and their desire to stay in teaching (Fuchsman et al., 2023). An OECD analysis of teacher wellbeing indicates that, across almost all countries and phases of education, teachers who report a great deal of stress are more likely to leave the profession (Viac and Fraser, 2020).

In England, attention is focused on teachers’ workload, working conditions and mental health. Yet reducing teacher accountability and workload alone will not necessarily reduce turnover. Previous studies have highlighted the importance of school environment factors for teacher retention, with school leadership often being viewed as influential in determining the ethos and working conditions within a school (See et al., 2020). Few studies in the UK have evaluated the impact of effective school leadership practices on teachers’ outcomes. We therefore look towards international evidence, most of which is from the USA. This paper summarises findings from international literature on the impact of effective leadership practices on teachers’ job satisfaction, work environment and wellbeing. The paper is based on a wider study aiming to identify promising approaches in improving teachers’ job status, job satisfaction, work environment and mental wellbeing.


To facilitate the review, a list of keywords and their synonyms was developed. These included job satisfaction, wellbeing, mental health, school environment, morale and professional development. We focused on studies that evaluated any intervention, initiative or policy, and included causal terms in the search string such as effect, impact, experiment and quasi-experiment. Correlational studies were also considered, but rated lower in terms of evidence quality. The keywords were then applied to the following search engines:  EBSCOhost, Web of Science, PubMed and Medline. 

The first trawl of the databases found 73,600 articles. Of these, the majority were not relevant or were duplicates. This is normal when multiple databases are used. Those that did not evaluate any intervention or policy, those that were not primary studies (e.g. they were reviews themselves), those that were not empirical research and those that were duplicates, were all removed. A total of 77 studies remained, and of these, 27 were about school leadership practices.

Key information from each remaining study was then extracted and quality-assessed using five criteria based on Gorard’s ‘sieve’ (Gorard, 2021). These comprised the research design (e.g. is it appropriate for answering causal questions?); the scale of the study (sample size); sampling (how samples were identified and selected); the level of missing data or non-responses; and the validity of the outcome measures (e.g. self-report, objective tests). Each study was then awarded a star rating, with 4* being the strongest – that is, the most trustworthy. Correlational studies that could not establish causation, and which did not account for unobservable variables, were rated lower, even though they may have been well-designed and well-conducted.


This paper focuses on studies that specifically evaluated how school leadership can support teachers’ wellbeing, job satisfaction and retention. Table 1 summarises the strength of evidence in each study. Most of the 2* and 3* studies suggest positive effects of school leadership practices for teacher outcomes.

Table 1: Intervention – school leadership and organisational climate (n = 30 outcomes)
Strength of evidence Positive Mixed/inconclusive None/negative
3* 3 1
2* 11 2
1* 11 2

Note: Some studies reported two outcomes

Effective leadership practices

Effective leadership included a combination of practices. The strongest study (Jacob et al., 2015) evaluated a two-year professional learning programme (Balanced Leadership Professional Development Program) for school leaders, where 126 principals were randomly assigned to the programme or to a ‘business as usual’ control group. The programme emphasised five key practices for effective principals: shaping a vision of academic success; creating a climate hospitable to education; cultivating leadership in others; improving instruction; and managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement. Principals were taught three strategies for improving practices: knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it. Principals also reflected on real-life problems faced and how they would apply lessons in their context. Teachers reported slight improvements in their perceptions of principals’ leadership, instructional climate and collaborations with colleagues. Among the principals who attended the course, there was a seven-percentage-point reduction in turnover among their teachers and a 23-percentage-point reduction for principals. As the intervention was multi-component, it is not possible to say which of the five practices was most effective. Perhaps it is a combination of practices (balanced leadership) that is needed to bring about positive results.

Another study tested two occupational stress intervention strategies for middle school teachers in China (Wu et al., 2006). One strategy focused on helping teachers to adapt to the workplace environment. The other strategy focused on relaxation techniques, coping skills and work/lifestyle balancing skills. Participants were 961 teachers from eight middle schools. The results showed a positive effect on teachers’ interpersonal relationships, but no effect on their psychological and emotional wellbeing. Compared to the control teachers, the intervention teachers showed improvements in self-care and rational coping (accepting that stress exists and understanding how to overcome it). As the effects of the two strategies were not isolated, it is not possible to tease out the effect of one from the other, although we can conclude that the two strategies combined are effective in reducing some aspects of stress.

The majority of the other studies were correlational in design and thus weaker in evidence, as they cannot establish causation. However, they point to teachers’ perceptions of administrative support and leadership as being strong determinants of teachers’ intention to stay/leave. A supportive leadership is generally perceived as one that focuses on empowering teachers, fostering collaboration, recognising achievements, addressing challenges and protecting teachers from external pressures. These studies identify characteristics of school leaders that are associated with job satisfaction, wellbeing and retention. Effective school leaders have the following characteristics:

They are supportive 

Boyd et al. (2011) surveyed 4,650 first year teachers in New York City about the working conditions in their school. They found that teachers’ perceptions of administrative support were negatively associated with teachers’ intention to leave. Ingersoll’s (2001) analysis of the US School and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS) data found that schools with a poor support from the school administration had higher teacher attrition. Ladd (2011) found that leadership that is supportive and trusting, that empowers teachers, includes them in decision-making, and incentivises teachers working in challenging schools was an important determinant of teacher retention.

Analysis of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) data for England showed that it was not workload but teachers’ perception of whether or not their workload was manageable that mattered (Sims and Jerrim, 2020). An analysis of around 3,000 teachers in the USA showed that supportive school leaders reduce teachers’ likelihood of leaving school, but do not protect them from leaving the profession entirely (Player et al., 2017). Ingersoll (2001) suggested that it was the low pay, low student motivation and poor pupil discipline that made teachers leave the profession.

They promote collegiality and open communication

Other studies suggest that a collegial and communicative leadership can have positive effects on teachers’ psychological wellbeing and job satisfaction. Ronfeldt and McQueen’s (2017) analysis of data from 13,000 teachers showed that supportive communication with school leadership had the biggest impact on teacher retention, reducing the likelihood of teachers leaving the profession by about 55 per cent. Pagán-Castaño et al.’s (2021) study also found that teachers whose school leaders have open communication with them are more likely to report better psychological and physical wellbeing.

Another study, which analysed data from 24,848 teachers in Chicago public schools (Allensworth et al. 2009), showed that teachers were more likely to stay in schools where there were positive and trusting working relationships with colleagues, a strong sense of collaborative responsibility and commitment to school improvement.

Marinell and Coca (2013) examined data from 4,000 middle school teachers in New York City. They also found that teacher turnover was lower in schools where principals were perceived as trusting and supportive, where they fostered collegiality and where they gave teachers professional control. These were all important to teachers’ decisions to stay or leave. Another study (Ford et al., 2018), which analysed survey data from 70,000 teachers in Massachusetts, found that the social conditions of the school were most influential, particularly a culture that promotes collegiality among colleagues.

A German study that analysed data from a nationwide survey involving 3,250 teachers showed that teachers who rated collegial support as high reported lower stress and higher job satisfaction (Stang-Rabrig et al., 2022). This study illustrates how a collegial school environment is important for supporting teachers’ mental health. The study particularly looked at the relationship between support for colleagues, availability of technical support and personal resources, and teachers’ wellbeing (stress, exhaustion and job satisfaction) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are fair in their evaluation of teacher performance 

While reducing teacher turnover and raising teachers’ job satisfaction may be seen as a quality of effective leaders, Grissom and Bartanen (2019) argued that effective leaders should be fair in their evaluation of teachers, retaining only high-performing teachers.


The findings suggest that there is no one individual attribute or practice that makes an effective school leader. Most large-scale correlational studies using statewide or national administrative datasets suggest that effective leaders are caring and supportive. They provide necessary instructional and resource support. They protect teachers from outside pressures, they are fair, consultative and inclusive, and they involve teachers in decision-making.

The findings of this review suggest that effective school leaders are an important influencing factor for teachers’ self-efficacy, wellbeing, job satisfaction and retention. It therefore follows that professional development for school leaders in order to equip them with the knowledge and skills to create a supportive school culture should ultimately improve retention.

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