Creating a School Leadership Culture Part I

  • On 2015-05-15
  • David Gurr, instructional leadership, Lawrie Davidson, leadership, school culture, Successful school leadership, transformational leadership

Transformational and Instructional Leadership

“Leadership only arises when people are given the opportunity to lead”

This was the main insight I took away from a recent professional seminar I was involved in at the University of Melbourne. It was an important insight for me because it connected some thoughts and ideas that I had been mulling recently about some of the schools we had been working with. I left the seminar wondering how much opportunity for leadership teachers and people in positions of leadership actually had within the day to day running of a school.

In my experience when teachers took on positions of leadership they were generally given time in lieu to be operating as leaders. However the complaint I have often heard when coaching individuals in these positions is that this time was often filled with administrative issues – not leadership. Even when people in positions of leadership had dedicated time to lead they weren’t necessarily automatically good at leading teams – they lacked a framework for leadership.


Effective School Culture

This has led me to think that the opportunity for the leadership that schools need and want will only arise within a well thought out strategic framework for leadership. Even more so, as I have read in Leithwood and Day’s research – at different stages of school cultural development differing leadership is need. Furthermore, if a school is interested – as I believe they should be – in developing an effective professional culture, then at different levels of leadership within the school there are different foci that are important.

This is a critical point that struck me when I spoke to David Gurr, a lecturer in school leadership from the University of Melbourne. David used the diagram below to point out the different needs and opportunities for leadership at various levels within a school.


Effective School Culture Leadership Model


The following descriptions I outline are completely my interpretations of the discussion I had with David – not David’s. You can read more about Lawrie Drysdale’s and David Gurr’s model of successful school leadership here.



Classroom teachers (Level 1) have a direct impact on student outcomes as they are directly interacting with students. At this level the work that mostly needs to be done with teachers is instructional. The support they need to develop their capacity revolves around developing effective curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Just giving them time to do this is insufficient unless the teachers are highly effective planners working within a clear instructional model and instructional plan. More often than not the teachers need to be working within a framework that leads them to grow and develop their instructional capacity. They definitely need time to discuss curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and come to shared common understandings as a teaching team but within an effective instructional framework. Classroom teachers often don’t have many opportunities in their busy schedules to develop leadership. I am not saying they cannot be leaders but that leadership cannot develop without there being opportunities for it.


Middle Leaders

Middle leaders lie between Level 1 and 2 because they are moving into leadership. The challenge in most schools is that when one is appointed into a position of middle leadership there is rarely an effective structure for developing the leadership capacity of these individuals. Middle leaders have a less direct impact on student outcomes but they do have the opportunity to create the professional environment of learning and development for the classroom teachers to be effective.  I have found that middle leaders are given time to “lead” but they often fall into the pitfall of becoming administrators and managers rather than leading the way. Thus they unconsciously become the barrier to change and growth within a school. Middle leaders transfer the school values and strategic vision into action at the level of the teachers. Thus having an effective leadership development program for middle leaders is crucial to developing a professional learning culture within the school.


Senior Leadership

Senior Leadership within the school lie mostly at Level 2 impact where they have an even less direct impact on student outcomes however they set the context and capacity of the school. It is their role to articulate the vision and direction of the school and facilitate the relationships and conversations such that a powerful learning and development culture arises. Without their visionary role and guidance the school can flounder. It is critical that these individuals think from the whole school perspective. One of the consistent pitfalls that I see often at this level is that they don’t plan strategically or effectively for the long term. At this level one cannot just focus on the day to day – which is vital to the short term success and running of the school – one needs to be planning for and playing the long term game of the school. The development that is needed here is building the capacity of the senior leaders to strategic plan and create what John Kotter calls the “guiding coalition” to have the strategic vision become alive within the school. Senior leaders need to develop their understanding of causing and managing change within a relational organisation.

Finally, great Principals not only have strengths at Level 2 but also Level 3. They set the context of the entire school and partner the senior leadership team to strategically plan and enact the school vision. Their job is NOT to micromanage the change but to empower leadership throughout the school. The principal is also the buffer between the external influences on the school and the school. They are the voice of the future to the community (internally and externally) whilst filtering the requests and demands of the educational system within which the school exists such that they minimize upheaval for the staff and students.

In the Part II I want to share a little about my journey of discovering the importance of effective school leadership and connect what we are seeing with the thinking above. In the meantime, some useful articles and research around this topic include:

What We Know about Successful School Leadership – Leithwood and Riehl (2003)

Are You Leading Change or Building a Platform for Change? – Bruce Dixon

Leading for Growth – Connected Principals

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