Strengthening Diverse Forms of Leadership at Schools

Schools are organizations, and as such, they have institutional cultures shaped by the leadership styles of their principals. What does positive school leadership look like? How can schools strengthen their leadership forms to achieve higher and better outputs on education and learning?

While working as a school teacher many years ago, there was a megaphone through which inspectors used to make general announcements, especially to call students or teachers to specific points of the school. Sometimes, when teachers were called by this megaphone, it was for receiving negative feedback. So when hearing the “Mr. Herrera, your presence is needed at the principal’s office” message, it was common to have a feeling that something was wrong. But besides that feeling, there is an insightful question to tackle: why are schools sometimes a place where teachers feel discouraged to do something? Why do classrooms sometimes feel like stressful environments? Do these issues have to do with school leadership and culture? School leadership can have important effects on how teachers behave, and also on how they teach and interact with students. 


What Does Positive School Leadership Look Like?

Successful schools require strong and positive leadership in different directions. First, good leadership should occur at the higher managerial level and these leadership styles should be reflected in how school policies and dispositions are being developed and implemented by the rest of the school members. But, what does positive leadership in schools look like? 

Research shows that positive leadership should be visible in healthy and fluent relationships between school staff, students, parents, and community members, resulting in the generation of learning environments that motivate students and teachers to reach their highest learning outcomes and potential. There are many factors that can affect the motivation of students and teachers. To name a few, these factors can be either intrinsic or individual-related (such as quality of nutrition, domestic dynamics within families, good physical and mental health, personal interest in studying, personal engagement, etc.), or also extrinsic factors related to external issues (e.g. school infrastructure, teachers’ wages and workload, economic needs and limitations, technological constraint, among others).

Although the external factors are not easily manageable by school leaders, they can actually support organizational structures allowing the internal motivation factors to be fostered and potentialized to strengthen a positive working culture and learning environment in schools. A theory that can help us understand how school leadership can influence learning outcomes and teaching performance is the ‘cascading leadership theory’.


School Leadership as a Cascading Effect

Sometimes what happens at a higher managerial level (especially regarding organizational culture and behavior) is reflected in how staff members at lower levels behave and act. This is, in a very brief way, how cascading leadership works. Basically, the working environment of teachers can be highly affected by the decisions made by school leaders, as well as by how they interact with their teaching staff. 

Schools are very dynamic institutions, in which levels of bureaucracy and organizational structures tend to be hierarchical and well-documented, in order to save evidence of the work and legal protocols followed. And as such, the working environment can be very challenging, especially affecting the motivation of their teachers. Researchers have found that teachers’ motivation tends to decrease when they are exposed to a toxic working environment. Teachers’ motivation can be also affected by external factors: excessive workload, not feeling appreciated enough, lack of support in difficult cases with other parents and students, and low wages, among others.

This takes particular relevance, given that research has also found a positive relationship between teachers’ motivation and students’ academic achievement. Education policy briefs suggest that teachers must encourage students to feel passionate about learning and to find schools as a good place to learn. But how can teachers authentically do that if their working environment is actually discouraging them from their vocation? The good thing is that cascading effect can also represent opportunities for school leaders to transform and model different types of working cultures, and become better places to work and learn.


Practical Ideas to Improve School Leadership Models

Although it is important to meet the legal dispositions already given by Ministries of Education and educational leaders, certain small actions can result in an improvement in how schools are led. These suggestions can be implemented in a cascading format: either from the managerial level to teaching staff or between teachers and students.

  • Diagnosing and monitoring school needs and perceptions: Surveying teachers and/or students about how they perceive their working/learning environment, which aspects are positively influencing learning outcomes, and collecting feedback and suggestions on how to improve these environments can be helpful. A critical and positive discussion on these perceptions may help school principals and teachers express ideas and suggestions, and use these insights for decision-making.
  • Raising the voices of our school members: Even though time is very limited, giving some space to deepen certain feedback and suggestions from our teachers or students can be interesting to understand better what they need, and what can be feasibly considered for decision-making. Also, hearing these voices can be an opportunity to involve them in leading specific actions and requests made by them, and thus create co-responsibility between parties. This can be done either in a specific class or in a meeting.
  • Caring for internal motivational factors: There are a lot of external motivational factors which cannot be controlled due to budget limits or logistical constraints. However, internal factors can be a good opportunity. For this, it is necessary to know and understand the strengths and limitations of every member of the team of students or teachers. An interesting tool for this can be the ‘Situational Leadership Model’, based on the needs of the staff members or the students’ group.
  • Celebrating goals and success: A lot of times, teachers call parents just to inform them about the poor academic performance of a student, or because of behavioral issues. And this kind of promotes the belief that teachers only call parents to give bad news about students. Curiously, school principals sometimes call teachers and meet them to inform them about problems or challenges to be solved urgently. What if we change the narrative? For example, a teacher can also call parents to inform them how a student has increased their performance or their attitudes in a positive way. Same with teachers: a school principal can call them to congratulate them because of a goal achieved. Sometimes changing the narrative can play an important influence on our team’s motivation.


After all, school leadership is a very complex managerial aspect to deal with. Cultivating a positive school leadership and culture is very complex and needs the support and active participation of different parties. But its outcomes can be very fruitful and support the institutional efforts and goals of the school, so it is worthwhile to work on it because if a school has a strong leadership model, teachers will be more likely to enjoy their work and the students will find schools a nice place to go to.



Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock


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