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The changing face of school, principal, and teacher leadership: Ken Leithwood

Roderick Benns recently interviewed Ken Leithwood, Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto, on leadership in education. Dr. Leithwood serves as advisor to the Leadership Development Branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Education. His research and writing is about school leadership, educational policy and organizational change. 

Benns: How is school leadership evolving across Canada?

Leithwood: Four features of today’s school leaders’ work in Canada capture much of this evolution.

A learning orientation. A very high proportion of school leaders across Canada have adopted a “learning orientation” to their work and have left behind the “managerial” orientations that dominated school leaders’ conceptions about their roles historically. This learning orientation awards priority to student outcomes and school improvement as the end game for leadership, with various types of organizational changes viewed as means to that end.

“Instructional leadership” is a popular term used to signify this learning orientation; but that commonly- invoked term does a poor job of capturing what Canadian principals are now expected to do. Many principals in Canada, as elsewhere, run very large and always complex organizations with large budgets, significant physical facilities, serving diverse student populations in a context of ever-changing policy expectations from their districts and provinces. Aligning all of this complexity in the service of student learning is the job of school leaders, however that job might be labelled.

Leadership distribution. Many Canadian school principals also strongly encourage some form of leadership distribution in their schools. While research about shared and distributed educational leadership is relatively recent, the practice of leadership distribution –or at least delegation – has been common in schools from the time the one-room school house began to be dismantled. What is relatively recent about this approach to leadership is the extent to which formal structures for its exercise have been established.  “Professional learning communities,” for example, have spread like a virus across Canadian schools. Whatever their accomplishments (some impressive, others a waste of time), they are one of the most visible manifestation of today’s school leaders’ willingness and desire to share leadership with their teaching colleagues.

Accountable policy contexts. The context in which Canadian school leaders work is increasingly similar to the context faced by school leaders in most Western countries today. It is a highly accountable context replete with external student tests, standards of practice for teachers and school leaders, various forms of inspection and increasingly codified performance appraisal procedures. These similarities are largely a function of global policy-copying not robust evidence about what will best achieve the goals we value for students on a large scale. To be candid, however, it is not that the results of such policy copying are necessarily bad. Rather we just don’t know the consequences of their use with any degree of certainty whereas we have considerable experience with what they replaced and much of it was disappointing.


Tightly coupled. There was a time when the claim that schools were “loosely coupled” organizations seemed right. Few Canadian school leaders today would imagine such a claim applying to the relationship they have with their district, a consequence of the highly accountable context in which they work. School leaders in most parts of Canada are strongly tied or connected to their districts. In some of the highest performing districts, however, this tight coupling works both ways. That is, districts are as attentive to the work and advice provided by their school leaders as school leaders feel compelled to pay close attention to the priorities of their districts. The tightly coupled relationship between school and district leaders has yet to be adequately reflected in most conceptions of successful school-level leadership. Most such conceptions, at least implicitly, adopt a CEO-like orientation to the principal’s role, a vastly simplified version of the reality now experienced by either American or Canadian principals. Indeed, it is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that there is an inverse relationship between one’s professional autonomy and one’s position in the organizational hierarchy, The further “up” the hierarchy you travel, the less autonomy you have over the decisions for which you are responsible.

Benns: What has been the most discernable result of the changing face of principal leadership? How have schools been affected as a result?

Leithwood: The press to adopt a “learning orientation” to one’s job along with the need to align one’s responses to external demands for change (demands which often entail greater external accountability) to that learning orientation capture much of what is changing for principals.

Leaders’ focus on instruction. While the consequences of these changes are believed, by many, to be creating a job which is impossible for mere mortals to do well, the principals’ job has been described as “hectic and fast paced” since empirical studies of the job were first reported in the early 1970s. It is likely fair to say that the job remains hectic and fast paced; the best available evidence suggests that today’s principals work a total of 50 to 55 hours per week and this is not much different from the time devoted to work by their predecessors. But the work has a much more dedicated focus on improving the outcomes for students. So for teachers it means their principals are much more likely to have an abiding interest in the quality of their instruction. This interest often plays itself out in much more visibility of principals in individual classrooms, much greater participation by principals in collaborative teacher work (including participation in PLCs), along with the implementation of procedures for judging and improving the quality of instruction in classrooms such as “walkthroughs”.

Greater uses of reliable evidence for decision making. The accountable policy context in which leaders work drives the need to justify claims about school achievements using “objective” or systematically collected data. While much of this data is about student achievement, the need to base one’s decisions about how to improve such achievement places educational research results in a more central position than has been the case previously. Most Canadian principals (and superintendents) at least have John Hattie’s massive synthesis of research on their book shelves[1]. Helping school staffs unpack the results of provincially collected test results for purposes of instructional decision making occupies a fair bit of time on the part of both school and district leaders.

Many highly educated and economically well off parents are much less likely, than in the past, to simply trust schools to do the  best for their students; they want to know what the school is doing for their children and expect the school to take parents’ ideas seriously.

Responsiveness to parents. Greater demand for external accountability has also resulted in the need for principals and their teaching colleagues to be much more responsive to parents’ interests and demands. These demands can take two extreme forms. Many highly educated and economically well off parents are much less likely, than in the past, to simply trust schools to do the  best for their students; they want to know what the school is doing for their children and expect the school to take parents’ ideas seriously.

Collaboration with other agencies. At the other extreme, parents who are struggling economically, come from quite different cultures and/or face significant social and health-related challenges want the best for their children also. But these parents need the support of educators who appreciate the challenges they face, can identify the family assets potentially available to the school and are willing to work with parents outside the formal boundaries of the school. Responding well to the needs of these parents often means forging partnerships with other agencies in the community and coordinating the work of the school with the work of these other agencies. This has proven to be extremely challenging work

Benns: Does it take a different set of leadership skills and orientations to be a skilled leader in schools or systems with diverse populations? If so, what do such successful leaders bring to the table?

Leithwood: My interpretation of research relevant to this question is that there are a set of core capacities and dispositions useful to school leaders in virtually all plausible contexts. For example, at some point in their work, almost all school leaders need to be able to: create a sense of purpose for their schools that is widely shared by staff and other stakeholders; help develop their staff’s capacities to accomplish those purposes; align their organization’s structures and cultures in support of those purposes; and staff their schools with the right people to accomplish those purposes. Optimism, resilience, persistence, proactivity, and systems thinking are traits that contribute to leaders’ success in almost all contexts[2]. So these capacities and traits will certainly be useful to principals leading schools serving diverse populations, as well.

4005631298_50241b41abIn addition to these core traits and dispositions, serving diverse student populations certainly requires a willingness to take seriously the “all” as in “learning for all students,” something requiring considerable persistence in the face of failure. Many school staffs have not yet had the opportunity to appreciate the changes required to their instruction and to their relationships with families if they are to serve their diverse student groups as well as they would like.  Successful leaders in schools serving diverse student groups also requires a willingness to adopt an “assets based” orientation to school improvement, as we noted above.

Benns: You have written before about teacher confidence or self-efficacy on the part of teachers as an important component of good leadership. How do we ensure we see more of this?

Leithwood: There is a considerable body of evidence about the causes and consequences of self-efficacy, including self-efficacy on the part of teachers, in particular. This evidence, much of it attributed to Albert Bandura[3], points to four influences on the development of self-efficacy.

Leaders create mastery experiences for their teaching colleagues by providing them with opportunities to take on new challenges that stretch their capacities, while at the same time ensuring enough support to safeguard against premature failure.

The most powerful of these sources is mastery experiences or feelings of success at some task. Such feelings of success increase one’s anticipation of success at subsequent tasks and nurture resilience in the face of failure. Leaders create mastery experiences for their teaching colleagues by providing them with opportunities to take on new challenges that stretch their capacities, while at the same time ensuring enough support to safeguard against premature failure.

A second source of self-efficacy is vicarious experiences provided by examples. Seeing someone else succeed as a result of persistence and sustained effort contributes to the belief that “I can do that.” When a school leader goes into a teachers’ classroom and attempts a new instructional technique being considered by the staff, it is the school leaders’ willingness to risk failure and her demonstration of persistence that contributes most to the teachers’ sense of self-efficacy. Contrary to popular belief and practice, it is not the experience of seeing a highly accomplished demonstration of some new practice that contributes to self-efficacy, it is the experience of seeing what it takes to learn that new practice. Indeed, a highly accomplished performance might just as easily result in a teacher deciding that “I could never do that”.

Verbal persuasion is a third source of self-efficacy. Teachers are likely to believe they can succeed when others express confidence in their abilities. Many teachers have few opportunities to know how other professionals judge their instructional expertise, for example. And this uncertainty can undermine their confidence. Knowing that a trusted and respected “other,” perhaps their principal, has confidence in their ability to master some new practice boosts their own confidence and their resolve to learn.

The final source of self-efficacy is emotional arousal processes. Self-efficacy is influenced by one’s mood. When leaders create a positive and optimistic atmosphere in their schools, a sense that we are all in this together and if we persist we can accomplish our goals, then everyone’s mood become more upbeat and self-efficacy improves.

Benns: Out of the four leadership pathways that you note are important, what is the least understood pathway in terms of importance and why might this be?

Leithwood: For those not familiar with the four pathways alluded to in this question, I have labelled them the Rational, Emotional, Organizational and Family paths[4]. The Rational path includes features of schools and classrooms typically considered the “technical core” of schooling such as instruction, curriculum and the priority awarded academic work by the school and its various stakeholders. The Emotional Path includes mostly teacher-related dispositions such as commitment to students, instructional self-efficacy, and trust in colleagues, parents, and students. How schools are structured or organized to do their work defines the meaning of the Organizational Path including such variables as structures for decision making, uses of instructional time and cultures supporting professional collaboration. These three paths receive considerable attention by most leaders and their staffs as they pursue their school improvement goals.

Far less attention is typically devoted to the fourth path, the Family Path. There are good reasons for the neglect of this path in leaders’ school improvement planning. Families lie outside the taken-for-granted boundaries of schools, the considerable attention devoted to such hard-to-change features of families such as socio-economic status persuades many that nothing can be done. As well, many administrators and teachers feel unprepared to partner with families in their school improvement efforts.

This path, however, includes many malleable characteristics of families (not socio-economic status) that have a significant impact on children’s chances of success at school. Among the most powerful of these characteristics are parental expectations for their children, both at school and in life more generally, and the nature of parent-child communication in the home (closely related to parenting styles). Parents’ social and intellectual “capital” related to schooling, a third powerful family variable, includes both the understanding parents have about the schooling process and how to influence it on behalf of their children, as well as parents’ connections with others able to extend that influence. Compelling evidence now indicates that family educational cultures, including such characteristics, explain as much or more of the variation in student achievement across schools as everything that happens within the school’s walls. This evidence also indicates that many parents are open to partnering with schools to improve the educational culture of their homes and that school staffs are capable of providing such assistance.

[1] Hattie, J. (2010). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.

[2] I have drawn on the Ontario Leadership Framework as my source for these examples (Leithwood, K. (2012). The Ontario Leadership Framework with a Discussion of its Research Foundations. Toronto: Institute for Educational Leadership)

[3][3] See for example, Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

[4] Leithwood, K., Patten, S., Jantzi, D. (2010). Testing a conception of how leadership influences student learning, Educational Administration Quarterly, 46, 5, 671-706



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