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Teacher leadership as a model of school leadership and professional development

Written by: Jonathan Doherty
8 min read


A changing picture of school leadership

Over the last few decades, roles in schools have changed in response to an evolving educational landscape. School leadership includes not only includes headteachers now, but staff at all levels, supporting their career advancement (ET2020, 2019). Classroom teachers are assuming greater levelsof responsibility and leadership, moving between roles in ‘flatter’ career structures. Atwal (2019) stresses the importance of learning-focused leadership in schools, where every member of staff, regardless of their role, is a leader. They focus on their own learning as practitioners and on outcomes for the students they teach. This brings with it opportunities to make leadership decisions and for teachers as leaders to impact significantly on teaching, learning and whole-school development. This article aims to explain and champion the concept of teacher leadership as a powerful model of leadership in schools and for career progression for all classroom teachers.

Career pathways and leadership

Increased routes into teaching means that progression can begin from the start of a teacher’s career. Leadership for learning (MacBeath and Dempster, 2008) is for every teacher at all stages of their careers, taking responsibility for their own continued development and applying their professional skills. Career progression is about moving into roles with associated leadership responsibilities and this can occur formally or informally, or a combination of both. Upward career paths may be through a hierarchy of roles such as head of year, head of department, phase leader and assistant headteacher. Programmes such as Middle Leadership, Aspiring Leaders or New to Headship and the Specialist (SLE), Local (LLE) and National Leader of Education (NLE) programmes reflect conventional formal routes. The Chartered College has its own Chartered Teacher (Leadership) Status programme.Informal routes are more circumspect but extend beyond a teacher’s own classroom. These are less structured but with the potential to be very powerful. They include professional development opportunities that grow out of daily school practices, which advance teachers as leaders and identify their roles as ‘head learners’ (Yendol-Hoppey and Dana, 2010). All provide excellent opportunities for any teacher to extend their ‘reach’ and directly influence other staff colleagues and student outcomes.

Distributed leadership in the new landscape

Distributed leadership is the preferredleadership model in the twentieth century (Bush, 2019). Traditional models, where responsibility and decision-making rests with one person at the acme of the organisation, may no longer be effective. Breaking away from the ‘hero at the top’ view, advocates of this model view it as decentralised practice (Holloway et al., 2018), where leadership is achievable throughout a school. Gronn argues that ‘the potential for leadership is present in the flow of activities in which a set of organisation members find themselves enmeshed’ (2002, p. 324). Distributed leadership redistributes power and realigns authority within the school organisation. It is based on the idea that everyone can lead and that leadership is a form of agency to be distributed or shared (Muijs and Harris, 2003). Collaboration is an essential ingredient of distributed leadership. Teachers work in teams, planning lessons, co-teaching, sharing resources, reviewing and supporting each other to bring about change and improvement. Working in this way, knowledge is constructed and collective leadership is demonstrated. This admirably demonstrates teacher leadership.

Teacher leadership and how teachers can develop it

Teacher leadership is not a new phenomenon and it is becoming more embedded in schools as a feature of the new landscape. School improvement projects provide evidence showing how teacher leadership demonstrates improvements at both classroom and whole-school levels (Harris, 2003). The scope of teacher leadership is captured in the definition from York-Barr and Duke, who see it as ‘the process by which teachers, individually or collectively; influence their colleagues, principals, and other members of the school community to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement’ (2004, p. 287). This fits directly with a distributed view of leadership. It is removed from the traditional hierarchical view of school leadership, where decisions reside with the headteacher or senior leadership team in a top-down approach and where leadership is an institutional property. The argument is that through ‘teacher leadership’ all teachers are leaders of learning, and that effective leadership is not the sole responsibility of the senior leader but it can be dispersed among the staff in a school, where teachers at any stage are directly involved in leading learning (Doherty and Guthrie, 2018). The challenge suggested by Harris is how that potential in every teacher can be released. She argues the importance of collaboration, where ‘teachers who are engaged in learning with their peers are most likely to embrace new initiatives and to innovate’(2003, p. 78).

Fairman and Mackenzie’s model of teacher leadership (2012) describes the different ways in which teachers engage in leadership activity. From this work came the spheres of teacher leadership action for learning model, showing how and where teachers, individually and collectively, influence others to improve teaching and learning. The spheres are:

  1. Individual teachers engage in learning about their own practice
  2. Individual teachers experiment and reflect
  3. Teachers share their ideas with other teachers
  4. Teachers collaborate and reflect together on collective work
  5. Teachers interact in groups
  6. Teachers question and advocate, building support and organisational capacity
  7. Teachers engage in collective school-wide improvement
  8. Teachers engage with the wider school community and parents
  9. Teachers share work outside of school/professional organisations. (Fairman and Mackenzie, 2012)

For Spillane et al. (2004), this type of leadership is vital for three reasons, firstly in galvanising staff in instructional change. Teacher leaders have a direct impact on other staff – for example, by introducing new approaches to teaching and learning or by signposting to evidence sources or a set of new resources, with either positively impacting on individual teachers and, potentially, the overall quality of teaching in a school. Secondly, leadership tasks are achieved through the work of multiple leaders. This recognises, as in distributed leadership, the potency of sharing and spreading leadership work throughout the school organisation, thereby adding impact across the school context. Thirdly, interdependency highlights the ways in which teacher leaders in different roles share responsibility and work together. From the work of Danielson (2007), examples of teacher leadership roles are:

  • Working in a team, teacher leaders initiate projects with other colleagues, e.g. parental involvement in reading
  • Within a department, teacher leaders analyse and improve an aspect of the school’s curriculum, e.g. English across Key Stages 3 and 4
  • Across the school, teacher leaders undertake curriculum improvement to ensure consistency across a school, e.g. a school’s marking and feedback policy
  • Beyond the school, teacher leaders become involved in networks and professional learning communities outside their own school, e.g. providing school-to-school support in maths across a multi-academy trust.

Poekert (2012) describes continued professional development and learning (CPDL) as both cause and effect of teacher leadership. The function of teacher leaders is to influence colleagues to improve teaching and learning and, as such, teacher leaders also act as professional developers. Leadership and learning are connected as activities rather than designated positions or roles. Teacher leadership is what teachers do, regardless of formal designation. It leads to better professional learning and impacts on whole-school development. Teacher leaders occupy unique positions where they can make change happen in schools, primarily because they act ‘close to the ground’ and have the knowledge and ability to control the conditions for teaching and learning in classrooms (Lieberman and Miller, 2004, p. 12). They bring new ideas. Often they seek out change and improvement. To quote Larner, these leaders are visionaries who are ‘never content with the status quo but rather always looking for a better way’ (2004, p. 32). They become ‘enablers’ and ‘catalysts for improvement’. They lead in and beyond the classroom, extending their reach and influencing whole-school development.

Frost’s pioneering ‘teacher-led development work’ (2013) in the HertsCam Network offers useful descriptions of teacher leadership in action. Examples are inquiry in science, dance, geography, language learning, using ICT for feedback and networking to develop professionalism (Frost, 2014). This reinforces the potential of all teachers to exercise leadership, emphasising the fact that it’s a non-positional leadership function. It is instead informal leadership, not linked to a title or years of seniority. In such a model, teachers at all stages act as advocates of change through teacher-led development work from the classroom. Teacher leaders are change agents. They act as role models. They provide encouragement and offer support – vital in times of change and innovation. They mobilise colleagues to take action. Teacher leaders empower others to feel part of any change process. They mediate, acting as references of expert knowledge, and marshal resources or seek external assistance. They take initiative by recognising opportunities for development and change. They have a deep commitment to student learning and curriculum development and for schools to become ‘learning organisations’ (Doherty, 2019).


Traditional leadership models may no longer reflect the realities of schools today. The ‘power of one’ may no longer be the most effective model of school leadership. The changing educational climate demands more of leaders, and new models of leadership are happening already. This article draws on distributed leadership as an important model of school leadership. It has championed teacher leadership and argues that all teachers can lead and that leadership is seen at any level. For all teachers, there are many formal and informal opportunities to extend their reach and progress their careers. When teachers become teacher leaders in roles of facilitators, modellers, curriculum developers, problem-solvers and innovators, they make a difference, not only to student learning but also extending their impact across the whole school and beyond.



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