Teachers exercising leadership

For many teachers, that initial sense of vocation can become tarnished as they experience the reality of teaching in schools, and within educational systems, that are not necessarily designed or equipped to enable teachers’ professionalism to flourish.  In the early 1990s Michael Fullan argued for “a conception of teacher professionalism that integrates moral purpose and change agentry, one that works simultaneously on individual and institutional development” (1993: 12). Twenty years on it is evident that hopes for such a conception have been eroded by educational systems that are increasingly centralised and driven by a misguided obsession with the measurement of educational performance.

Teacher voice and self-efficacy

Last year the Leadership for Learning group at Cambridge carried out a small, but global, study commissioned by Education International to explore teacher self-efficacy, voice and leadership. The purpose of the research was to investigate the current environment and existing opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership,influence policy,shape professional practice, andbuild professional knowledge.The outcomes of this project have made a significant contribution to the debate about the future development of the teaching profession in that it shows that, although the current situation is dire, there is nevertheless an appetite amongst teachers for a more dynamic professionalism. 

In this study we gathered the views of teachers in Bulgaria, Denmark, U.K., Greece, Egypt, Hong Kong, Macedonia, The Netherlands, Turkey and the USA. More data were collected in three in-depth studies in Egypt (Eltemamy, 2012), Macedonia (Josevska, 2012) and Kyrgystan (Teleshalyev, 2012). We also talked to union officials in Australia, Canada, Norway and the US. The overall purpose of this survey was to enable groups of teachers to express their views about the extent to which teachers are currently able to take responsibility, have influence and contribute to the leadership of the development of practice in their schools. Teachers also expressed their views about the conditions that nurture teacher voice and influence, the extent to which teachers are consulted, and the strategies and policies that would enhance their self-confidence and self-efficacy.

At an early stage in this study, it was clear to us that teachers in general are not central players in establishing educational policy and in many countries they struggle to have any influence over the nature of their professional practice. In a paper presented at an international conference my colleague, John Bangs, and I said that “… when it comes to policy making at national and international levels, teachers remain the ghost at the feast” (Bangs & Frost, 2012a). Some might assume that there is no problem here. They might suppose that it is entirely appropriate that decision making is left to politicians and government officials, but I want to argue that there some very good reasons why the teacher voice must be heard.

Firstly, it is a matter of expertise. The group of teachers we talked to in Athens reflected the widespread frustration of teachers when they said this:

“Teachers that have a long experience in classrooms do not have a role in developing curriculum. Teachers should participate or at least give feedback on the curriculum.”

This sentiment was echoed throughout the study. The data we collected consistently showed an enormous gap between teachers’ aspirations with regard to voice and influence and the actuality that is generally seen to be a matter of top-down prescription with the perspectives and views of teachers being ignored.

Is it not absurd to disregard teachers’ expertise?  As professionals they have normally had extensive education and training; they have achieved qualifications and engage regularly in continuing professional development; they also have the benefit of experience, all of which enables them to speak with some authority about educational matters. I don’t want to overemphasise the question of teachers’ expertise for two reasons: first it would be naïve to claim that the quality of teaching is consistently high throughout all education systems, and second, democracy demands that a wide range of community members are able to influence what goes on in schools. In any case, there is perhaps an even more important reason why teachers should be more influential and it pivots on the question of the kind of professionalism that we need in our education systems. Do we want the kind of professionalism in which teachers do not feel able to make judgements based on educational principles or do we want the kind that enables teachers to innovate and strive continuously to improve practice? 

The key to the right kind of professionalism is the idea of ‘human agency’, which is a defining characteristic of human beings as a species. Agency is the capacity for self-determination and self-conscious moral action which can either be enhanced or diminished by experience (Frost, 2006). The work of psychologists such as Albert Bandura tells us that, if agency is constantly frustrated, a person’s belief in their own efficacy is seriously undermined and they may become depressed and unable to function productively (Bandura, 1989). Clearly, the wellbeing of all of us depends on being able to exercise our agency, but the effectiveness of our schools depends critically on teachers having strong self-efficacy beliefs (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001). This is borne out by the TALIS research (Scheerens, 2010).  It is vital that teachers are able to make judgments, work to a set of principles rather than rules, take the initiative, self-evaluate and be accountable to peers and stakeholders.

Addressing the problem

It is of course important to investigate and to try to explain the way things are, but I suggest that we are in urgent need of practical strategies to address the problem.  Consequently, our report to Educational International last February, set out a number of recommendations (Bangs and Frost, 2012b). We suggested that an enabling policy environment for teachers should:

  • provide opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership in the development and improvement of professional practice;
  • ensure the right to be heard and to be influential at all levels of policy-making, including the content and structure of the curriculum;
  • protect and enhance a teacher’s right to determine how to teach within the context of collegial accountability;
  • support teachers in setting the direction of their own professional development and in contributing to the professional learning of their colleagues;
  • recognise the key role that teachers have to play in building collaborative relationships with parents and the wider community;
  • promote the role of teachers in pupil assessment, teacher appraisal and school evaluation; and
  • enable teachers to participate in activities which lead to the creation and transfer of professional knowledge.

These proposals are based on a particular vision of what it is to be a professional teacher, one which departs from that to which many teachers may have unfortunately become accustomed.

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