Secondary head teachers as leaders for learning: perceptions and practices of leadership focused on learning and teaching
Thomson, Graham R.
The key rationale behind this primarily instrumental case study (in three Scottish secondary schools) was the need to comprehend more clearly the scope, nature and influence of secondary Head Teachers’ leadership for learning. This is generally understood as leadership that is directed at the learning of pupils and the teaching of teachers. Crucially, it is also concerned with influencing the conditions that nurture and support these. Leadership for learning underpins the Scottish Standard for Headship (General Teaching Council Scotland, 2012), designed to support the learning and self-evaluation of Head Teachers. Within existing literature there is a need for more information on the practice of leadership for learning, particularly around what it is that Head Teachers actually do in practice that is focused on improving learning and teaching (Kalman and Arslan, 2016; Hitt and Player, 2018; Nuemerski, 2013). This study provides a more detailed understanding of the how of leadership focused on learning and teaching. This study explored how three Scottish secondary Head Teachers conceptualised their role as leaders for learning in their schools, their perceptions around the operationalisation of this role and the scope and nature of this leadership according to teachers. Using a qualitative interpretivist approach, semi-structured interviews were conducted with Head Teachers and teachers from three very different state schools. Each Head Teacher was selected on the basis of evidence which indicated that they were both very knowledgeable about leadership for learning and also that it was a key focus of their practice. Head Teacher perceptions were sought through two interviews each, one at the start of the research process in each school and a final one, conducted on completion of all the teacher interviews. A total of 19 teachers were interviewed and data from these interviews, and the Head Teacher interviews, were analysed thematically. Teacher respondents were representative of roles across the school: unpromoted teachers, middle leaders and Depute Head Teachers. In addition, emails from several interviewees following the interview process were added to the data base. Documentation was also gathered in the interest of providing context to help make sense of some of the data A number of key and overlapping themes were identified from the interviews. An emerging theme from all participants’ testimonies was the identification of each Head Teacher as a leader with improving learning and teaching as their key priority, particularly through an inclusive focus on meeting the needs of each and every pupil. The development of a shared whole school vision about what effective learning and teaching meant in practice was prioritised in all three schools, with particular examples of each Head Teacher’s actions in this area. This was supported by a Head Teacher focus on growing capacity and capability across the schools through a variety of mechanisms including: supporting teacher learning, collaboration and engagement; engaging the middle leader structure; and endeavouring to ensure coherence across concurrent developments. A marked feature of each Head Teacher’s work was ensuring that all of these were focused in the service of improving learning and teaching. Four themes arose from the interviews which appear particularly significant to the way each Head Teacher led developments in learning and teaching, themes that are either under-theorised in the educational leadership literature or are areas of contention. These were: i) Head Teachers’ frequent engagement in reciprocal dialogues with teachers around learning and teaching matters; ii) each Head Teacher staying in close proximity to the practice of learning and teaching in a number of significant ways; iii) the important role of each Head Teacher’s knowledge and understanding about learning and teaching; and related to this, iv) the Head Teacher’s role as lead learner in the school. This study found that all four underpinned each Head Teacher’s leadership for learning, thinking and practice. In the present Scottish policy climate, where Head Teachers are expected to be leaders for learning, this study provides timely empirical evidence of how some Head Teachers are putting this into operation with, and through, the colleagues for whom they have leadership responsibility. Using the perceptions of both teachers and Head Teachers, this study adds to knowledge by providing deeper understanding of Head Teacher leadership for learning practice in the Scottish secondary context. It provides detailed analysis of particular key practices, highlighting the importance and enactment of some key reciprocal relationships focused on learning and teaching that each Head Teacher had with teachers.