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Leadership for “The All of It”: Formalizing Teacher-Leader Networks

by BetsAnn Smith - 2019

Background/Context: Research underscores that school improvement relies on leadership that stretches beyond a principal, but significant developments to the design of school level leadership lags. This paper shares data and interpretations of school leadership organized as a network of formalized teacher-leader roles that are ranked, titled, and differently paid.

Purpose/Research Question: The study examined the functions, tasks, and boundaries of different teacher-leader roles as well as teachers’ perceptions of their legitimacy and value. It also explored whether formal roles generated negative side effects on school climate or teacher relations.

Focus of Study: Ongoing skepticism of role formalization and ranking within teaching directed the study’s attention to an extensive empirical case of formalization.

Setting: Data were collected from eight secondary schools in England, where formalized teacher-leader roles are long established and associated with school performance.

Research Design: The study was designed as a descriptive investigation of a leader system. It was conceptually framed by perspectives on schools as organizations and literatures on role formalization, leadership, and school improvements.

Data Collection and Analysis: Observation, artifact, and interview data were collected. Description and analysis focused on the design of leader roles, the activities and conditions they generated, and school member perceptions of their legitimacy and value.

Findings/Results: Formal roles that blend teaching with instructional and managerial leadership gain legitimacy and pass tests of goodness and value for teachers when they directly contribute to teachers’ day-to-day work and success, as when they elevate working conditions, bring disciplinary knowledge and local understandings to learning and problem solving, and contribute to individual and collective efficacy.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Networks of formal teacher-leader roles can bring more substantial and reliable resources to the conditions of teaching and school organizations than informal leadership or targeted coaching roles. Fears of negative social and professional consequences do not emerge when roles remain rooted in teaching, when leaders’ tasks flow across logistical, instructional, and social dimensions of teachers’ work, and when norms emphasize help and reciprocity.


School improvement relies on leadership that stretches beyond a principal. This understanding is established by research on shared, distributed, and teacher leadership (Leithwood & Louis, 2012; Mangin & Stoelinga, 2008; Spillane & Diamond, 2007) on teacher learning (Darling-Hammond, 2008) and on school improvement (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010). It has stimulated new ways of thinking about leadership and generated new professional programs in teacher leadership and coaching.

In schools, this understanding is enacted in formal and informal ways. Informally, many embrace conceptions of shared and distributed leadership embedded in activities rather than roles or positions (Gronn, 2000; Harris, 2009; Spillane & Diamond, 2007). Formally, many recent developments have coalesced around instructional coaching positions (Borman & Feger, 2006; Knight, 2011; Sailors & Shanklin, 2010). In between are semi-formal roles as department heads, grade team leaders, and members of instructional improvement teams. All have developed without major changes to school organizational arrangements. Principals and teachers collaborate extensively and appreciate leader resources embedded in many actions but do so largely in schools where principals and assistant principals do not teach and teachers do not formally lead, supervise, and manage.

This article reports an examination of school leadership organized as a network of formal teacher-leader roles: Englands system of multiple, school-based positions that formally blend teaching with instructional and managerial leadership. These roles are titled, ranked, differently structured, differently authorized, and differently paid. Collectively, they enact a continuous leadership model. Data come from a study of secondary schools, where networks of formal teacher-leader roles are long established and associated with school performance (Harris, Day, Hadfield, Hopkins, Hargreaves, & Chapman, 2002; National College, 2004; Supovitz, 2014). The approach is overlooked as a means to significantly strengthen teachers professional influences while building school organizational capabilities. Overlaps with teacher and distributed leadership are plain, but the model is a bolder departure, going beyond add-on roles or redrawn decision and sensemaking arenas to alter the work structures of schools and the profession more markedly. The work of teachers, coordinators, assistant principals, and others would be significantly affected, while principal roles would stress skills to formulate and support large, embedded networks of formally accountable teacher-leaders.

As many teacher-leader literatures are marked by skepticism and hypothesizing, the studys purposes were fundamentally empirical and focused on the design, legitimacy, and value of a laddered model to teachers and to school improvement. This article shares data on the design of roles and interpretations of the value of the model to teachers, including 1) how multiple formal roles were framed and operationalized, 2) teachers perceptions of the legitimacy of roles and sources of that legitimacy, 3) teachers perceptions of the value and benefit of these roles to their day-to-day work, and 4) whether formal roles generated negative side effects on school climate or teacher relations.


Formal differentiation of teacher roles is a worn conundrum, but stubborn problems press the issue. Reform and improvement research (Bryk et al., 2010; Coburn, 2003; Curtis, 2013) as well as policy analyses (Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002; Murnane & Papay, 2010; Rowan, Correnti, Miller, & Camburn, 2009) indicate insufficient leadership resources as a barrier to progress. The bleak result of pay-for-performance schemes and calls to focus on teacher learning invite consideration of how remunerated teacher-leader roles could facilitate instructional quality and equity (Marsh, 2012; Springer, Ballou, Hamilton, Le, Lockwood, McCaffrey, & Stecher, 2011). The elimination of salary lanes for earned degrees absent formally assigned duties lends another reason. Opportunities that acknowledge and reward professional investment in pedagogic and leader skill can also contribute to talent retention.

The contributions of school embedded roles over those located in districts and external organizations are significant. Formally embedded roles plant stronger systems of authorized action and relational capacity into the fabric of school organizations (Hord, 2004; Leithwood & Louis, 2012). Temporary, reform-based, or circuit rider approaches may do this, but roles located outside core operations do much less to diminish the fundamental problem of overwhelmed school organizations or the flight of accomplished teachers out of schools and classrooms (Goldhaber, 2006).

Additionally, expanding policy controls over teachers and teaching invite new thinking. Internal systems of professional self-regulation become more attractive, even with their risks, when compared to external systems of algorithmic regulation.

The pressing paradox in teacher leadership is that, while the concept and its possibilities are vibrantly popular in research, rhetoric, and professional programming, new leader roles and systems remain limited and often struggle for survival when piloted (Desimone et al., 2014; Neumerski, 2013). Individuals who assume teacher-leader or coaching roles work in shifting spaces between administration, semi-formal professional learning, and informal networking (Mangin & Dunsmore, 2013). Some positions continue to associate with deficit narratives of weak teaching and school failure, leading to resentment (Donaldson, Johnson, Kirkpatrick, Marinell, Steele, & Szczesiul, 2008; Papay & Johnson, 2012). Formalizing roles in all types of schools could help them grow beyond these associations and early stages of development.


Teacher-leader roles have a bruised history and awkward relations with identity and authority (Firestone & Pennell, 1993; Smylie, 1995). Early reviews of teacher leadership arrangements (York-Barr & Duke, 2004) suggested that the success of teacher-leader roles rested on the clarity of their purposes, boundaries, and expectations, but these continue to challenge. Research describes many teacher-leader initiatives as loosely structured efforts with unspecified role descriptions, work processes, and performance criteria (Mangin, 2009; Neumerski, 2013). Skeptics worry they might disrupt the development of professional learning community and schools as collaborative organizations (Darling-Hammond, Bullmaster & Cobb, 1995; Wood, 2014). Some fear that formal roles will stir competition and generate incentives to hoard rather than share knowledge (Johnson, 2003; Little, 2000). For others, a risk is control, whereby leader networks devolve into subtly coercive monitoring regimes (Connell, 2009; Hatcher, 2005).

Currently, instructional coaching roles seem the most formalized expression of teacher-leadership (Knight, 2011; Walpole & McKenna, 2005). They are more common in elementary schools and frequently focus on literacy, mathematics, and novice teachers. Stimulated by accountability pressures, instructional coaching roles are subjected to narrower value criteria, mainly their influence on teachers pedagogical skills and student learning outcomes. Paradoxically, this has been a lead source of tension and uncertainty. Coaches often arrive in tandem with specific policies and reforms. Some studies found that teachers resist coaches status as change agents, question suggestions of superior knowledge, or object to the reforms that spurred their hiring (Datnow & Castellano, 2000; Pappay & Moore-Johnson, 2012; Rhodes & Beneicke, 2002).


Theories of distributed leadership have dominated contemporary leadership research. They expose the limits of hero-leader frameworks and illuminate the centrality of teachers knowledge and skills in school improvement. Scholars have highlighted positive influences on school climate (Harris, 2009), teacher commitment and efficacy (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004; Leithwood & Jantzi, 2000), and general school effectiveness (Bennett, Wise, Woods, & Harvey, 2003; Camburn, Rowan, & Taylor, 2003; Gronn, 2002; Spillane & Diamond, 2007). Interests in distributed leadership can reflect a dismissal of rational-technical solutions (such as formal roles) to complex school improvement challenges. A motivating proposition for many is that schools thrive on the basis of teachers social-normative resources and conditions that support them to look to their own professional experience and collaborations for direction. It is through these teacher interactions that schools develop supports that lead to student learning (Bryk et al., 2010; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005; Ronfeldt, Farmer, McQueen, & Grissom, 2015). Similar orientations underlie social network theory and research mapping informal influences and social capital on program or policy implementations (Leana, 2010; Penuel, Riel, Krause, & Frank, 2009; Smylie & Evans, 2006).

Leadership actions are now understood to distribute informally (Darling-Hammond, Bullmaster & Cobb, 1995; Mayrowetz, 2008; Murphy, 2005), semi-formally through fluid assumptions of particular tasks (Gronn, 2000; Harris, 2009; Printy, Marks, & Bowers, 2010; Spillane & Diamond, 2007), or more formally through pre-specified contributions (Camburn, Rowan, & Taylor, 2003; Louis, Mayrowetz, Murphy, & Smylie, 2013). A commonplace remains the extraction of leadership from formal role, position, or job.

Valid empirical comparisons of formal and informal leader networks are hindered by fluid definitions and actions. But, documented and generally accepted is, first, that leadership has a greater influence on teachers and students when it is widely shared and distributed (Bennett, et al., 2003; Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Printy & Marks, 2006) and second, that it is the totality of leadership action in a school that influence school improvement and student achievement (Curtis, 2013; Leithwood & Louis, 2012; Spillane & Diamond, 2007). In essence, leadership from more sources is more responsive to the challenges and complexities of teaching, learning, and school improvement.

Yet reliably supporting or maximizing teacher leadership without formal role or structure is difficult (Ackerman & McKenzie, 2006; Burns, & Stalker, 1961; Elmore, 2005). Informal, discretionary contributions are more vulnerable and fall into uncertainty with administration and teacher turnover, with burnout, with contract bargaining, shifts in school climate, and vacillating policy mandates. On the ground, many coaching roles are reliant on special funds and are term-limited. On commencement day, graduates of new teacher-leader programs see few solid opportunities for their ambitions; many leave classrooms for traditional administrative roles or leave schools for external support organizations. These conditions warrant search and scrutiny of alternatives, including new role designs for school leadership.


Formalization is often associated with rigidity and disconnection, even oppression (Burns & Stalker, 1961; Hatch & Cunliffe, 2013). More recent organizational scholarship challenges these associations (Juillerat, 2010; Scott, 2004; Sine, Mitsuhashi, & Kirsch, 2006; Stinchcombe, 2001). Modern organizations are understood as evolving hybrids seeking to mix exploitation and exploration through both structure and flexibility, for example as mixed hierarchies (Diefenbach & Sillince, 2011; Dunford, Palmer, Benveniste, & Crawford, 2007), as matrixes and networks (Powell, 2003), or more simply as patterns of interaction. In day-to-day life, organizations, including schools, rely on multiple, interacting properties with no set of formal or informal processes serving all goals (Grote, Weichbrodt, Günter, Zala-Mezö, & Künzle, 2009; Gulati & Puranam, 2009). They have some elements that are fixed and others that are fluid. They benefit from routines but also processes that support local interpretation and re-creation (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). Formal roles can assist work in settings where social interactions dominate mechanized processes (McEvily, Soda, & Tortoriello, 2014). Many organizations: fire stations, health clinics, high-tech companies, even army units (McChrystal, Collins, Fussell, & Silverman, 2015), have formal role structures that co-exist with professional norms emphasizing flexible, collaborative, and reciprocal relationships.

Role formalization can be a source of efficacy and is potentially responsive to known teacher-leader challenges (Bray & Brawley, 2002). It can reduce ambiguity and signal legitimacy by providing direction to what someone is expected to do, their decision-making arena, the relative importance of tasks, and the knowledge and skills to draw upon (Hackman & Oldman, 1980). Formalization is more able to tolerate ambiguity by lending a stable, ongoing space to emergent practices and by supporting knowledge development as successive incumbents develop and share know-how. In turbulent environments, formalization brings reliability and helps get things done. Studies of emerging industries suggest that formalization predicts survival by enabling focus, decision-making, and organizational learning (Sine, Mitsuhashi, & Kirsch, 2006). These literatures argue that formal role and structure can assist more substantial development of teacher-leader roles and contributions.

Formal roles can also be structured to serve core values and purposes. They can be designed to facilitate lateral relationships based on shared respect, knowledge, and goals as much as vertical lines of control (Balogun, 2003; Gittell & Douglass, 2012). They can also assist task interdependence rather than segmentation. While formalization specifies what is to be done, it does not have to control how something is to be done. In work contexts marked by uncertainty and complex events requiring professional judgment, roles can formalize around sensemaking processes that gather together professional interpretations (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). Formal roles can be broadly defined, with cross-role elements that defy strict delineation between role, expertise, and authority.   Blended teacher-leader roles do this to a great extent.

A basic test of goodness for formalization is whether it enables or hampers employees to do their work well (Adler & Bury, 1994; Bunderson & Boumgarden, 2010; Juillerat, 2011). In the case of teacher-leaders, role formalization would add value if leaders actions signaled trust in teachers desires to do well, lent concrete supports, provided direction informed by professional values and knowledge, enhanced teachers efficacy, and was perceived as generating more good outcomes than bad based on shared interests, for example, buffering and enhancing teachers time, facilitating information flows, enabling local problem solving, and benefiting students. New roles would have negative effects were incumbents to act in bad faith, suppress voice, drain agency, or impose rules that frustrate core beliefs and aspirations.

Many modern perspectives on organizations propose, then, that development of formal teacher-leader roles could support teachers and enable schools to work with complex improvement challenges.


This study was designed as a descriptive investigation of Englands formalized leadership model and teachers experiences working within it. I entered the study as a qualitative researcher interested in what was in one context and might be in another. My purposes were pragmatic (What do leaders do? How does this approach work in practice?) and appreciative (What is good in this approach?) but also probing (Have you observed negative side effects of school climate, teacher relations, or other matters?). Conceptually, it was framed by perspectives on schools as organizations (Scott, 2013) and how formal roles contribute to organizational capabilities (Adler & Bury, 1994; Bray & Brawley, 2002; Bunderson & Boumgarden, 2010; Juillerat, 2011). Those capabilities depend first on the value of roles to teachers. Hence, analyses first examined how teachers perceived their legitimacy and value.

I drew on core qualitative inquiry methods, studying participants in their work contexts (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Patton, 2015) and on narrative inquiry perspectives, approaching teacher and leader data as implicit organizational stories that schematize member experiences, views, and logics (Czarniawska, 2014). I had spent parts of my life in England and was versed in local language and terms, the organization of schools, instruction and testing, staffing traditions, and shifting policy frameworks across governments.

Interpretations focused first on how narrated experiences might speak to teacher-leader developments in the United States. Thus, the study stipulated research on the benefits of shared and distributed leadership, on the qualities of positive leader actions in schools (Leithwood & Louis, 2012; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008;), and U.K. research on the value of middle leadership to school improvement (Harris et al., 2002; National College, 2004).


A sample representing different secondary schools and contexts was formed to explore defining characteristics and to query whether role enactments and perceptions converged and overlapped. Interpreting shared enactments and perceptions was an initial means to probing viability and guidance for U.S. schools.

The leader models of eight secondary schools1 in northern England were studied. Two were academies (equivalent to charter schools) serving urban communities with high deprivation levels, one minority-dominated, one largely white. Three were Church of England schools; three were local comprehensives. These six schools resided in former mill and mining towns serving student bodies with minority, immigrant, and low SES enrollments ranging from 15 to 80 percent. The sample reflected well functioning but not incomparable schools that had earned a mix of outstanding, good, and satisfactory school inspection marks. Five schools (one academy, two Church of England, and two comprehensives) had well-regarded principals, based on official measures and award programs.

Some patterns among the schools were similar to those in the United States: the academies served poorer communities; the comprehensives served a range of low, middle, and high SES communities; and the Church of England schools served mixed student bodies (as pledged in their charters) but had high expectation cultures. All of the schools enrolled between 900 and 1100 students across grades 711.1 They were organized by subject departments and shared secondary school orientations toward subject matter.

Less like the United States, all the schools were state-funded (England funds religious schools), all were non-selective, teachers and leaders worked to the same national contracts, and all answered to ministry curriculum, assessment, and policy mandates. All participated in various ministry program and award opportunities. On these measures, the schools shared more operational conditions than might a parallel sample in the United States.


Data were collectedover 50 days of fieldworkon the design of leader roles, the activities and conditions they generated, and school member perceptions of their influences and contributions. Three school visits were immersive and involved shadowing, observing, interviewing, and hanging about to absorb educational and organizational routines, terms, acronyms, policy histories, and the like over 28 days. Four schools were visited for one week each. One visit was cut short by a student tragedy; interviews occurred later via email exchanges. Around the study, I visited other schools and interacted with teachers, leaders, reformers, and professors. Core data collection activity is displayed in Table 1.

Table 1. Data Collection Protocol


General observations (hallways, lunchrooms, assemblies) were jotted in a notebook. Note taking at meetings involved a running log focused on 1) the types of content and information individuals in particular roles reported, 2) the types of tasks they discussed and assigned, and 3) any evident forms of coordination among leaders.

Interviews ranged 6090 minutes in length. Table 2 displays sample questions from two types of interviews and their relationship to research questions. I probed for examples, specifics, and elaborations. Audiotapes and notes (when audio recording was not allowed) were summarized, with selected passages and remarks transcribed word for word. Summaries and quotes were shared via email with interviewees for accuracy before leaving the school.

Table 2. Sample Interview Questions



Initial data analyses sought to determine and understand if common patterns of role use and responsibilities prevailed across sites. Prior to site visits, I studied school directories and reports to learn what leader roles were in use as well as a schools size, structure, programs, achievements, and goals. This assisted me to recognize names, acronyms, programs, and other local references during interviews and allowed me to probe relationships between leader roles and specific school goals and programs.

Table 3. Data Analysis Process


First-order data organization and analysis created school-level storyboards organized by questions on role designs, legitimacy, value, and perceived side effects. More systematic analysis developed over an iterative coding process that began by identifying common descriptors and sentiments (see Table 3). Through inductive analyses, I sought common terms, sentiments, and logics structuring teacher and leader narratives. I then worked holistically to identify story lines on common, shared perceptions and frameworks. Comparisons between teacher versus middle and senior leader code patterns and narratives were explored. From this, key themes and findings were established.

This paper shares findings from aggregate analyses related to teacher experiences and perceptions. These did not surface distinct patterns in perspectives by type of school (or by gender). This may reflect the sample size and the focus, at this stage, of understanding defining commonplaces across the sample. This focus limits the papers space for extensive description of variations in leadership enactments.

Draft findings and interpretations were shared with a sample of teachers and leader participants for accuracy checks. Following qualitative principles for descriptive expression of participants experiences, participant voices are used here as much as space permits.


Descriptive validity was sought through participant checks and feedback. Heavily commensurate and overlapping narratives across participants and schools signaled many shared perceptions and meaning systems, lending interpretative validity to findings. Shared descriptions and meaning systems also suggested a stable and somewhat generalizable set of enactments and experiences across school contexts.

The study carries an inherent bias in the familiarity and institutionalized status of multiple leader roles among the participants, who had not known schools without such roles. Many were puzzled by suggestions that such roles could be contentious or harmful. While imperfect, subject to bad cases, and challenged by rapid change, they were accepted as essentially good for teachers, students, and schools. Secondly, educators across England were seriously exasperated with national educational policies and politics at the time of the study. In this context, critical perspectives frequently targeted matters external to the school, and local, peer leaders were valued as legitimate and informed mediators. This does not invalidate study data, but readers may keep these matters in mind.


In this article, teachers refers to teachers in the sample schools with no formal leadership duties. Leaders, middle leaders, and senior leaders refer to individuals in formal assignments combining teaching and leadership duties as subject, department, assistant deputy, or deputy heads. The paper uses the term principal rather than school head to reduce some confusion with all the heads.

The term teacher-leader is most often used to reference U.S. teacher leader, mentor, or coaching roles, initiatives, and literatures.

The article uses the term role, though it explored teacher-leader work as a "job." "Job" technically refers to assigned duties and "role" to more fluid and subjective social expectations, but the author views them as irreducibly joined and prefers role.


A crucial task of English secondary principals is to design and coordinate senior and middle leader teams that engage manyroughly two dozenteachers in a range of formal teacher-leader roles (Currie, Lockett, & Suhomlinova, 2009; National College, 2004). The model fosters leadership density (Sergiovanni, 2001), where high numbers of teacher leaders are trusted with information, authority, and action spaces. These roles generally divide into middle leader and senior leader categories and have formally specified and differentiated responsibilities, work schedules, pay differentials, and performance review processes. Per global trends, the purpose and tone of these roles has evolved to emphasize instructional leadership, greater attention to equity, and performance outcomes (Ball, 2008; Ladd, 2011). With the exception of most principals, everyone continues to teach, with leadership duties occupying anywhere between 5 and 85 percent of their position profile.

The approach carries assumptions about schools as rational systems, with the role middle leader a clear echo of middle manager. A comment by one principal captured this: If its important work, you pay someone to see that its done to the highest standard possible. (Principal, S2) Like middle managers, persons in these roles engaged in downward, lateral, and upward framing, translating, and brokering. Yet the roles are distinct from middle managers in their movement across technical, managerial, and institutional domains. Table 4 sketches role categories and rankings.2 This study focused largely but not exclusively on middle leader roles.3

Table 4. Leader Roles


Principals and senior leader teams formulate leader roles and networks by deciding the number, type, and combination of roles they desire and can afford. Exact roles and configurations are fluid; any particular arrangement reflects judgments about work processes, tenure (which some positions carry), internal talent pipelines; and interests in external searching. Each of the eight case-study schools had slightly different mixes in use; Figure 1 is a representative composite for a secondary school with roughly 1200 students. The figure conveys the range of roles, the balance of teaching and leadership duties within roles, and the spread of duties. Prominent are a mix of narrow and broadly framed roles, and the large number of middle leader roles still rooted in teaching.

Figure 1. The distribution of leadership resources



Secondary educators begin as full-time teachers and have options to seek and assume different leader roles. The model eschews a blunt leap from full-time teaching to full-time administration. Teachers learn leadership through incremental growth and practice; they identify strengths and weaknesses and establish track records that influence their interests and options going forward. In the studied schools, the average time from teacher to middle leader was 6 years; to deputy leader it was 9 years, but both had ranges.3 Formal certifications and degrees have not traditionally been required, but National Professional Qualifications for Middle (NPQML) and Senior (NPQSL) Leadership were launched in 2014.4 Training and development programs emphasize interpersonal skills, coaching and mentorship, team building, and leadership that focuses on improvements in teaching, learning, equity, and inclusion.

Middle and senior leaders remain active teachers anchored to policies, classroom instruction, and students who try their souls. They flow in and out of contexts that may call on them to be formal leaders, informal leaders, or followers. Distributed perspectives and assumptions were intrinsic to their descriptions. Explained one, Formally, I am a deputy head with responsibility for certain departments and for progress monitoring. Informally, I could be a leader of pastoral care provisions, because I did that for many years. I also teach history. When Im at history meetings, Im a teacher, more a fellow- follower of the department head . . . Whats the saying? You are where you sit. (Deputy Head, S5)

The band of middle-leaders is built on teachers with one to four added periods of release over a two-week cycle of 50 periods. Combined with standard teacher release schedules, they have between 12 and 19 release periods to use according to their duties and judgments. Crucial here, an incalculable flow of leader work and contribution is leveraged out of these increments. More variable scheduling (not all classes meet with the same frequency) and openness to team-teaching assists incremental reductions.

Applicant pools include internal and external candidates and are usually competitive. In the schools studied, nearly half the middle and senior leaders came to their positions from a different local authority. The job market is made fluid by the number of positions and by nationalized pay schemes.5 Finalists submit evidence of effective teaching and leadership. Principals and senior leaders make selections; final approval rests with a governing board (which includes teachers). When asked if they saw hiring processes and decisions as professional and defensible if not always likeable, participants from the eight schools replied affirmatively, with two exceptions observed in prior schools where some appointments were perceived as political.

Middle leaders are held accountable through informal interactions with senior leaders and through monthly and quarterly meetings and reports. They are evaluated under performance management systems assessing their teaching, their students outcomes, their performance of specified duties, and their progress with specific individual, unit, and school goals. Evaluation ratings involve formal and informal feedback from students and senior leaders but are assigned by principals.


Organizational theory predicts that roles specialize as they multiply, but remarkably broad and loosely bound roles are the norm. Position postings list duties across teaching, curriculum, assessment, professional development, quality assurance, program improvement, information management, budgeting, and strategic planning.6 They list complex competencies: highly effective classroom practitioner, effective team leader, able to interrogate data and ensure appropriate interventions for students, can enable faculty development through consultation, and can formulate strategies to advance goals and reach targets. Shared one senior leader, Broad roles and postings are better for getting the right candidates; they allow you to test for more skills and attitudes and they help you screen out people (Deputy Head, S2).

Expansive expectations were not unlike those found in U.S. principal postings and in teacher-leader literatures (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2010). They were different from actual teacher-leader positions that take pains to establish defined conceptions and zones of action to ease fears of intrusion and judgment.

In the overlap of official descriptions and incumbent self-descriptions, responsibilities and accountabilities involved five functions: 1) teaching, 2) quality assurance, 3) developing teachers and teams, 4) consulting, and 5) managing. Junior roles reflected narrow, targeted dimensions of just a few of these functions, while senior roles included more vertically and horizontally complex dimensions.

Teaching remained the predominant responsibility of most all. Middle leaders were expected to deliver quality instruction and strong student learning outcomes and to model new instructional practices. During the study, formative assessment and personalized learning were pushes in several schools; middle leaders were expected to learn and lead jointly.

Roles involved inquiry and quality assurance routines. These tasks were more distinct from U.S. teacher-leader roles. Department heads commonly followed a timetable of data reviews and progress checks synthesized into quarterly reports. Senior leaders facilitated inquiry teams (including middle-leaders and teachers) examining targeted issues (examples observed included a team examining math instruction across grades, another analyzing student feedback on ICT courses). Attention to student voice was part of this function also. Leaders collected student feedback on courses and learning experiences, engaged students as members of inquiry teams, and assisted their participation in school improvement initiatives and planning.

Middle and senior leaders were expected to support and develop teachers and teams and did so in multiple ways. Many adopted servant leader orientations. They maintained permeable doorways and schedules, absorbed crises, took in unruly students, covered a class to afford a colleague an opportunity, fielded parent complaints, and generally went the extra step. More developmentally, they acted as peer coaches, observed and mentored new teaches, facilitated collaborative learning and problem solving, and championed ideas. Advanced skills teachers coached instructional strategies and skills. Senior leaders supported learning exchanges across units.

Consulting captured the advising and problem solving of leadership and life in schools: smoothing interpersonal tensions, framing new ideas, nudging change, managing hurdles and unintended consequences, meeting with parents. As everywhere, interviewed leaders voiced a perennial struggle to get out from under short-term demands to tackle underlying challenges and to explore new ideas.

Lastly, all leaders shouldered management tasks: ordering, scheduling, budgeting, and internal and external reporting.

The result was a large network of organizational members charged with directly appreciating what was occurring in classrooms, how teachers and students were thinking, what problems were arising, and where things stood in relation to priorities and goals.

The roles are complex and defy clean description. One U.K. study described middle leaders as equal parts agent, implementer, staff manager, liaison and leader (Briggs, 2007). Singular, prescriptive definitions of middle leader roles or orientations have not emerged from research and were not evident in study data. Many forms of leader behavior were described. For example, leader reflections on how best to motivate people and get things done ranged over laissez-faire (They motivate each other), transactional (You ask what they need and help them), and transformational (You try to create a space for people to rethink how we do things) orientations (Avolio, 2010). Some leaders worked in a hub-and-spoke fashion, emphasizing individualized transactions, while others emphasized overlapping, collective work. Some valued consistency and continuity (I try to observe some of the same routines and expectations for everyone), while others emphasized personalized interactions (It all depends on what a teacher needs or asks for). Some spoke as exploiters, seeking to maximize existing capacities (Its human to coast. My job is to help us avoid that), others as explorers looking for larger shifts in practice (We have to figure out how to help students lead their own learning).

Certain orientations reflected school contexts and principals. The new principal of one of the Church schools saw it as complacent and coasting. Descriptions from middle leaders there often spoke of fostering effort, engagement, and accountability. In one of the academies, a single inclusive leadership team emphasized collaborative work and consistency in how team members carried out core tasks. Several interviews linked middle leader purposes to achieving collective impact. One of the comprehensives had very strong traditions of participatory democracy; it valued new ideas and experimentation. Several middle leaders at this school underscored their role as innovation activators.

Amid individual and organizational variations, certain shared fundamentals persisted over the sample. The most significant was the stable existence of roles and thus the de-legitimization of centralized leadership systems (Kelman, 2001).

Middle leader roles had developed similar profiles of core functions and tasks and common tools and routines. Many purposes and behaviors were shaped by reform and policy environments and by defining professional values and norms, for example respect for teachers work and light-touch management, over any command and control orientations. Across cases, leaders voiced and exercised professional judgment but made few significant decisions unilaterally.


Role confusion and tensions are signature themes in middle manager and teacher-leader literatures (Mangin & Dunsmore, 2013; Thomas & Linstead, 2002). Tensions between unity and diversity and between sub-units and the organization often surface. An ambiguity raised in U.S. literatures is whether teacher-leader roles should be purposed more around expertise and responsibility or more around consultation and responsiveness. The first suggests proactive, line management tasks driven by school-level goals and a stress on student learning outcomes. The later suggests more lateral relationships and interactions shaped by individual teacher interests. Both raise the question of who and what teacher-leaders work for.

In the studied schools, structured tasks, routines, and review processes reduced some forms of ambiguity, but either of these conceptions might still be followed. Data from this study did not, however, indicate a clear pattern or emphasis in either direction, perhaps echoing the more blended and continuous nature of the model overall. Indeed, these queries were what drew references to the all of it. Participants across the sampled schools recognized and experienced role tensions, but most shrugged off either/or choices or approaches:

Its the all of it . . . Like, we need to improve our students [math exams]. My teachers have views on what they want and need for that. Ah, Im a pretty good math teacher with our kids and I have views on it. Its getting us to come together and actually do something about it. Its the doing part, not the talking or leading part, that matters. (Math Dept. Head, S4)

Well, its no good consulting if you dont feel some expertise. &.It depends too. If it's a new teacher, Im the responsible expert. If its an oldie like me, Im more the thinker-consultant I guess. . . . And sure, there are definitely times when what teachers want and what [my principal] wants are not the same. Ive gotta figure out how to get some of both& and to do that, Ive gotta figure out what works with different teachers. Thats sorta the job. (Asst. Deputy Head, S4)

There are tensions, but I dont try to resolve them. . . . the work is to engage in both. How you do it just depends on people and circumstances and its always a bit different. (AST, S2)

Middle and senior leaders described a broad and fluid mix of duties as more demanding but also more realistic and advantageous. Few were interested in leaner, more specialized roles:

Some might say we are specializedI teach and work mostly in one discipline. Its all relative. But, if youre in a box, you dont see much. The more you do, the more you hear and see; youre forced to think and learn far more. (Dept. Head, S3)

I dont think having a talent and being a leader are the same. Leaders locate talent and put it to use. . . . And, in the end, moving up is not about chucking stuff off; its about taking stuff on. (Subject Leader, S4)

Successive incumbencies had seemingly reframed some role ambiguity as role latitude and opportunity. Many leaders encouraged and negotiated both-and thinking and tolerances. They described themselves as teachers and leaders, learners and coaches, professionals and paperwork hacks. They described their role as working for teachers and the school, as monitoring and collaborating, as maintaining and disrupting. Extended experience and, perhaps too, the flatter relational norms of modernity, allowed otherness and sameness to co-exist without threat and frustration. These dualisms were challenging but perceived as unavoidable. Leaders consistently described a broad range of tasks as matched to the realities of secondary schools:

Well, sooner or later you are going to end up dealing with that many things anyway. I mean, try not to. It all ends up connected. . . . If you dont have latitude, you cant deal with things very effectively. You cant be creative either. (Asst. Deputy, S2)

All struggled with time limitations and strongly emphasized that their accomplishments were a fraction of those suggested by idealized position descriptions and our compacted interviews. A few were open to narrowing some roles, but most were not, feeling that doing so would constrain their ability to problem solve and limit their professional growth. As a safety net, it was also clear that if and when matters did languish in ambiguity, conflict, or indecision, senior leaders and principals arbitrated and decided.


Data on the design and enactment of middle and senior leader roles display task combinations that would be difficult without formalization and the persistent space it affords. Leader roles were defined, shaped by organizational units, and situated within established operating procedures and routines (team meetings, inquiry cycles, managerial sequences). They were codified through established tools (observation schemes, data reports) and guided by specific performance agreements and metrics. No two organizations or leaders are ever the same, but roles were commonly understood and enacted across the schools. They persisted across different contexts, changes in principals and governing boards, national reform movements, and policy swings.

At the same time, leaders moved fluidly across social, technical, and administrative processes, and role boundaries were fuzzy and overlapping, with cross-role elements blurring lines between tasks, expertise, and authority. Hence, the proposition arises that structured elements designated and tracked portions of what leaders were expected to do, while diverse tasks and boundary-spanning facilitated important knowledge exchanges. In participants narratives, the mix of loose-tight arrangements, or structure and flexibility, facilitated reliable operational supports and adaptive problem solving.


In the United States, teacher-leader initiatives have struggled for legitimacy in the internal environments of their peers (Mangin & Stoelinga, 2008; Neumerski, 2013; Smylie, 1995). Teachers voice uncertainty over who new teacher-leaders are, how they earned their position, what they actually do, and whether they benefit their own work lives. This uncertainty poses barriers to the relational systems of trust and collaboration associated with teacher engagement and has ended many initiatives.

In the studied schools, the legitimacy of formal roles was not challenged, in part because they were a recognized category of professional practice and organizational structure. Among peers, however, legitimacy must still be earned, and the study sought to understand what conditions fostered the legitimacy of multiple (and ranked) roles.

Proximity came firstphysical, social, and professional. Proximity is a leading source of legitimacy (Suchman, 1995), making both the large number and the school-embedded nature of roles centrally significant. Leaders worked with and among peers, not apart from them. They shared the same students and the same physical and cultural spaces. Proximity afforded interactions in planned and unplanned contexts and assisted personal relationships. Similarly, leaders were visible, their performance as teachers on display and review. Middle and senior leaders were seen consulting, monitoring playgrounds, mucking with data, managing reports, meeting parents, and staying late. Their visibility was also fluid and adaptablenew (or struggling) teachers saw middle or senior leaders often, high performing veterans less so and in different contexts.

Laddered roles allowed legitimacy to be earned incrementally. Knowledge, skill, and readiness for leader actions were reality-tested in stages, with individuals assuming larger, more consequential profiles of leader action and authority based on time and relevant track records. Moreover, the perceived difficulty of roles in relation to added responsibilities and remuneration was significant (Tyler, 2006). Teachers often feel that anyone released from classroom teaching has been lifted out of the true and truly hard work of schooling. Visible, blended roles have no separation or release; teaching remained primary, and enhanced authority and pay were gained through added demands and the complexity of managing multiple forms of work and relationships:

My [department] head works really hardshe earns her pay double. I dont know if every head works that hard, but I think most of them do. . . . I think people do it because they have knowledge to share or are ready for new things. I mean . . . everyone else [outside of education] gets to move up and take on new responsibilities. Why would we not want that for ourselves? (Teacher, S4)

I dont think you gain legitimacy as a leader by only doing one thing or a few things. People need to see you dealing with as many things, more things, as theyre having to deal with. (Asst. Deputy Head, S5)

[Do I feel teachers resent me?] No, they get the last laugh when they leave for home and see us working late or meeting with a difficult family or other [aggravations] we assume for them. Not everyone wants the job; it can be really stressful. . . . so yeah, we get paid a bit more, but you can't last for the pay. You hafta want to do something with it. (Department Head, S2)

Roles were further legitimated through strong connections between role, authority, and relevant knowledgethe signature dilemma of secondary school leadership. Teachers interacted with middle and senior leaders who shared subject matter knowledge and identities and were tested by the same policies and working conditions. More continuous interactions around big and small matters distinguished leader-teacher interactions from top-down or outside-in relationships:

If I have to have someone watching my teaching or asking me to do things, I would rather it be [the department] head or the AST, who know a lot about my subject and my kids. They just know more about what I am doing and how well. Or, like, this term I have this really, really hard to teach kid. Well, my deputy has him too; I mean, were both round the twist with him. (Teacher, S4)

Further assists to legitimacy were practical preferences for the location of direction and oversight. Participants described multiple leader roles as a means of diversifying and delegating leadership to those with the most relevant knowledge. Moreover, embedded leader roles were seen as an effective line of buffering and adaptation to a policy environment fomenting teacher ire and frustration. Peer oversight was legitimate in comparison with unpredictable external controls.

More broadly, legitimacy was assisted by the fact that roles were in use in all types of schools, from elite and award-winning to those placed on special measures. This framed roles as essential supports to effective schools, quite distinct from coaching models intimidating deficit narratives on teachers and schools.

Last, for better or worse, self-interest nourished legitimacy. Varied roles meant a richer profile of professional opportunities that attracted, motivated, and reportedly retained many teachers.


In the United States, many have pinned the value of teacher-leader roles to their influence on student learning outcomes. What teachers want from these roles is less settled. For teachers in these English schools, the criterion of value for middle and senior leader roles were their contributions to: working conditions, day-to-day teaching, relations with students, and their general sense of efficacy. Significantly, teachers described values and benefits that were self-referencing. That is, leader roles were not described as abstractly positive or helpful to other teachers while largely irrelevant to them personallythemes in U.S. literatures. Nor were they described negatively. (Note too that teachers could describe what colleagues in these roles did.)

Contributing to Professional Working Conditions

The contributions of broadly tasked roles and proximity were much evident in teachers reflections on value. Cross cutting tasks drove interactions across different dimensions of teachers work and proximity assisted a sense of reliability. Embedded roles leveraged meaningful practical and psychological benefits for teachers:

Being here is just different than being somewhere. Maybe its a psychological thing. Sure, . . . I ask colleagues for things all the time, we all do. Its still different. Its, ah, more a confirmation that things happen and that good teaching really requires support . . . that we shouldnt be always distracted from teaching or have to wait till next week for a response. . . . They are sort of like superiorsthe seniors arebut you do feel that they are also working for you.

I think [middle leaders] are there because none of us have all the answers and [teachers] cannot do all this alone, theres just too flippin much to do. . . . Their job is to help and uhm, make things actually happen. . . . I see my [department] head as someone in my corner who really cares about doing the best we can for kids. (Teacher, S2)

Teachers saw themselves as benefiting from a network of colleagues who assumed more outreach and communication duties, carried heavier administrative workloads, saw to the quality and readiness of their teaching spaces, and buffered their teaching energies and attentions:

I see my [department] head as someone who is there to help me, not control me. If I have a question or need advice, I go to himthats what hes there for. I do not see how it would be some sort of negative thing. I would not want to do all the stuff he has to do . . . I get saved from a lot of work to concentrate on my teaching. (Teacher, S7)

Middle leaders could also take administrative actions that helped solve logistical needs or hiccups:

Mostly [teachers] just go to each other [for day-to-day help] but certain things they help with. Like, to move a student to a different section. Or, if you want to pull a group out for something special, or join up two groups. Or, to figure out how youre going to teach a kid whos home with two broken legs, all that sort of stuff, they help you do it . . . . I like not feeling like Im not begging for favors all the time. (Teacher, S8)

Teachers shared many small examples of collegial help and backup that aided day-to-day life in classrooms: leaders joining a special lesson or adopting a student in meltdown for an hour, getting assessment data organized, and so on. Teachers perceived these streams of technical, logistical help as forms of professional support and respect that reduced frustration and disengagement. They were not only working for others; they also felt they had people working for them.

Reciprocity was a significant and related theme. Reciprocity is a motivating quality in working relations that many U.S. teacher-leader positions make difficult to achieve. In the studied schools, a distinct form of obligation shaped relationships between teachers and middle leaders, more embedded and shared than a transaction but different from a personal or professional favor. Teachers felt they could make demands upon middle and senior leaders, that hard work and helpfulness were expected both ways:

On one side, they are the ones bringing this stuff to us and asking for more and more. But they also have to deal with it themselves, so they know what its like; they understand it in a personal way. They cant pretend its easy; they cant just dump it on you and you know, then walk away. (Teacher, S2)

Reciprocity shaped communication and information flows. Middle and senior leaders had managerial reporting routines that required boundary-crossing relationships. Yet teachers generally perceived them as advocates who carried their ideas and concerns upward to influence decision-making. Explained one, I really respect my [department] head; I know that she is going to represent our concerns upwards in larger decisions and help them make better decisions too. And I trust her to fill us in on how senior leadership is thinking.

Providing Material Help and Support for Teaching

Leaders supported the quality of day-to-day instruction by securing necessary instructional materials, organizing data, and supporting joint work among teachers:

We like tracking student outcomes in our courses. Our [department] head gets that data for us, cause she looks at it too. . . She does not tell us what to do. She might ask a question like, ah . . . Why are more kids on target here? . . . Getting that stuff organized for us is huge. (Teacher, S4)

Teachers felt supported by middle leader abilities to bring front line information into administrative arrangements bearing on their teaching. Strong leaders worked to jigger schedules, carve out joint work opportunities, and create special learning opportunities. They could consider special needs and allocate small bumps in time or resources to help with time sensitive efforts:

Heres an example: [The middle leaders] do a lot of scheduling. NIGHTMARE! But it can really matter. We have a new biology curriculum; it matters that we can work together. The department and deputy head know that, so they did what they could this term to schedule more shared planning hours and times when we can team-teach or watch students and lessons. Its just lots and lots of stuff like that, that makes you feel that they take your work seriously, and that helps you do things well. (Teacher, S3)

[The AST] and I were working after school on these lessons, but then, you know, we wanted to watch each other try them in Year 9 and we just had bad timetables for it. But Mr. J [a deputy] teaches my subject, and so, a few months back, he came and covered a few classes for me so we could do it. (Teacher, S8)

Some teachers remarked on the contributions of student voice to their teaching. Some appreciations reflected the small, day-to-day acts of help noted above. Leader obligations to collect regular feedback from students and to engage them in reviews, projects, and school and community leadership also cultivated extensive knowledge of many students among leaders. Notably, sharing student feedback (on lessons, recent projects, their sense of engagement) engaged leaders and teachers in particular types of teaching conversations and questions:

I like it most when we think from the view of the kids. I think it's the most helpful thing we do. (Teacher, S1)

We care about [student voice], but, you know, its like, another thing and its easy to not do it. But when we look at feedback or talk about how to involve the kids more, its often what pushes us, or gets us to try something different. (Teacher, S7)

The value of embedded knowledge was clear. Studies of teacher learning note that colleagues become meaningful sources of problem solving and learning when they are able to engage in specific and detailed exchanges (Levine & Marcus, 2010; Little, 2003). This illuminates why teachers comments often linked instructional helpfulness with local knowledge and shared work contexts. Teachers felt able to discuss concerns at a satisfying level of detail and saw most, if not all, middle and senior leaders as meaningful sources of insight and support:

Its about who can actually help you. Right now, theyre encouraging us to learn these high engagement strategies. [My principal] is fantastic, dont get me wrong, but she taught when we didnt do this stuff. We have teachers, but also ASTs and department heads whove worked to get good at them, so is one of the deputies. So, theyre not just saying, Do this. Theyre doing it with us . . .  I can say, Could ya come watch me try this for 20 minutes? Its not easy, theyre super busy, but one of them will come. (Teacher, S3)

You can just get to the issue straightaway. If I talk to [my principal] I have to fill him in on sorts of thingsthat's not a criticism, its just how it is, it's a big place. With my department head or deputy, I just get to it and they know exactly what Im on about. I can see them 5 minutes in the hall and get something done. (Teacher, S1)

Coaching actions were indicated within larger patterns of observation. New teachers spoke to the assigned support and coaching of department heads. Observation and feedback were often a part of inquiry cycles or implementation efforts, as in the above example of learning new engagement strategies. Observation and coaching frequently crossed unit boundaries, with ASTs and particular middle or senior leaders helping according to their strengths or connection to persons. Leaders created opportunities for peer coaching, as when several heads in one school supported teachers to cross departments to learn technology use in mixed subject triads. We have folk in and out of our rooms for one thing or another all the time, for all sorts of reasons. It doesnt mean something is wrong, shared one teacher. A deputy argued that having many leaders created favorable coaching conditions:

If someone shows up to look at your work, who feels to you an outsider, it doesnt work. . . .  It has to be part of local knowledge, the regular work of the school, for teachers to use it. Well, weve lots of people here who can help, coach if you like, not one: the ASTs, strong teachers, department heads, the deputies. I see someone struggling, off the mark, I ask, Who do you want to help you? Make your choice. (Deputy, S7)

Facilitating Learning and Improvement

Teachers often described middle and senior leaders as facilitators who elbowed time and space for learning and collaboration into full schedules. Middle and senior leader description of their role often echoed this:

You cannot expect [new practice] just to happen. You think about ways to get started. You help make them open to trying. . . . You offer some materials or an example, you ask the AST and other teachers to take a lead, to try things with them. Something; you have some sort of plan. Otherwise everyones time [at workshops or PD] is just completely wasted. (Deputy, S3)

Some teachers appreciated basic leadership and management skills that allowed groups to work more effectively:

[Our department head is] good at keeping us from getting bogged down in endless small stuff and focus on what matters. In our group, thats very helpful, as we have some, let me say, strong personalities. Shell say, okay, What might that look like or how could we do that? So we dont just debate without end.

Teachers understood middle and senior leaders as mediating the flood of ideas, technologies, programs, and policies into their work environment. They valued the influence of leaders disciplinary knowledge and their understandings of group dynamics when brokering faculty responses and learning strategies:

We decide things as a group, but [the middle leaders] understand what the seniors and the [principal] are looking to see happen. Theyre negotiating our ideas with whats expected school-wide . . . . Sometimes its from a [quarterly] review. Sometimes its just something we want to do with a course or our department, and they basically leave us to it unless we ask for something. Sometimes it's a bunch of them working with us. (Teacher, S5)

[Facilitation] will be different by department . . . . Heres how [learning formative assessment] will go. I have 4 teachers that always work together, and 2 of them already know a good bit; they will lead. I have 2 that will want to do it alone to start but then will join in. And I have one, hes a fantastic teacher but hell drag his feet until I get on him. Eventually, well start to share our work; I focus on trying and sharing, trying-sharing, trying-sharing. If people try, well figure it out. . . . Another department may do it differently. The question is, are people trying and learning from it? (Department Head, S4)

A significant subtext across reflections framed middle leaders as a resource permitting professional knowledge and judgment to prevail over blanket method or technocratic rule making. Middle and senior leaders facilitated some fixed process and routines, but their collective resources and obligations (as a large group) provided space, monitoring, and accountability for variations in ideas and practices:

We're doing a new GSCE [exam] this year. Were not gonna have the same space for other things as other folks might. Were not going to be on the same timetable for, say, these digital projects some teachers are doing. Its never gonna to be that everyone can be in the same place. . . . But, you know, the [senior leaders] need to see problems solved and outcomes going up. Our numbers have to be strong. Good middle leaders push us to improve but no single way. (Assistant Deputy, S2)

In its best balance, a strong band of middle leaders was perceived to dampen the use of uniform methods and timelines while still presenting pressure for action. Teachers credited pressures for improvement but wanted meaningful contributions along with it: ideas, strategy, practical collaboration on pacing, scaffolding, and assessing or time allocations fitted to particular needs.

I guess its just being stuck in things with us. Like, we want better outcomes for our kids and dont know how to change things for some of them. And my [department] head is honest to not have some simple answer; the same with our AST. They have to deal with it with us. They cant just judge. They have to help and be part of it. (Teacher, S6)


Leader routines generated vertical and horizontal channels of communication and information gathering, including the boundary-spanning insights of students. They served as critical node connectors (Leana, 2010). Teacher reflections underscored how these actions stimulated helpful relationships and information flows, which in turn boosted their efforts and commitments.

Scholars have illuminated how networks of support make significant contributions to teachers individual and collective efficacy. At base, middle and senior leader actions boosted individual efficacy by reducing disruptions and providing support and continuity to teachers day-to-day work routines. Leaders who effectively assisted collaboration and lent professional knowledge and consulting to new challenges contributed to collective efficacy (Printy & Marks, 2006). Efficacy was also enhanced when teachers observed leaders successfully managing demands, while caring about the thoughts and experiences of those around them. (Levitt & March, 1988).

Teachers spoke also of feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the number of demands coming their way. Striking in the data, however, were teacher appreciations for the complexity of middle leader work and the efforts, skill, and value of their colleagues.


Continuous leadership models can go awry. They avail principals of long reach hiring, promotion, and team-building opportunities. Favoritism and other abuses are possible (as they are in traditional arrangements). Middle leaders, like middle managers, can be sources of complacency or sabotage.

Not every teacher liked all of the leaders they worked with or viewed them as high performing. Some had colleagues they disagreed with or saw as distracted or burnt out. These cases peppered principally appreciative narratives. Bad cases existed because they do in any system. Many felt that growing professional pressures and oversights were curbing unprofessional behavior generally:

I just think theres way too much pressure on schools now to hire your friends or hire what is comfortable for everyone . . . I think they feel watched and judged by much more professional ideas of the job. (Asst. Deputy, S3)

If the seniors hire a department head that none of us respect or like, well, theyve lost the slot, havent they? Its not going to work, is it? If they decide to pressure us, cause the head thinks were all laggards or whatnot, well, then they have to think this person can  . . . help us do different. They have to think it through. . . . Sometimes theres a bad hire, its not perfect, but whats perfect? (Teacher, S1)

Participants were asked to reflect on unintended consequences, starting with reduced voice and influence. Ranked roles might segment teachers into formally (versus informally) arranged knowledge and influence groups, creating power imbalances and eroding collaboration. Pointedly asked, teachers did not feel sidelined or disempowered by formal leaders, often describing reciprocal relations and partnership. Nor did formal leader systems erase informal systems of influence. Several participants reflected that the model helped balance their own competing interests between buffered teaching and organizational influence:

Held back how? If I have ideas I can voice them. If I want to lead something, its supported. I do not get to decide everything, but no one does . . . I feel more represented because of the middle leaders, not less. (Teacher, S7)

Theres just way too much to do; were happy for people to lead and work on things themselves; were happy to hand anything over. I am not saying its perfect or that people never jockey for things. But not pushed off. Youre making it out to be, uhm . . . fraught. Its really not. (Department Head, S6)

Resentment is a cited risk. Ranked roles might drive wedges between organizational members and reduce initiative; it might invite teachers to withhold any extra effort unless they too are titled or compensated. Comments to this effect did not surface and brought more puzzled faces:

I would resent them if they were full of themselves and made our lives hell, yeah. . . . Our [principal] listens to us and makes pretty good choices. He shifted a head who was a problem a few years back. If they are not helping, hell do something about it. Its not an easy job; I mean, am I gonna resent someone writing data reviews after school? I don't think so. (Teacher, S3)

Management studies argue that resentments often stem from sharp asymmetries in role and reward arrangements (Sharma, 1997). Blended, laddered roles eschew strong asymmetries for small, staged differentiations anchored to teaching and other core demands. Leader duties stretched from visible acts of humble service (monitoring playgrounds) to the hardest challenges of professional practice. Added degrees of difficulty were visible daily and perceived as proportional to remuneration.

Fractured Collaboration and Community

Since early teacher-leader efforts, teachers professional orientations have shifted to emphasize collaboration and community; with privacy, autonomy, and strict egalitarianism arguably losing some of their former centrality (Smylie, 1995). This was evident in U.K. leader training and development programs that emphasized process consulting (Schein, 1990), humility in leadership (Yanow, 2007) and collaborative team building (National College, 2008). Leaders described their role as driving awareness and supporting effort; never as telling, pressuring, or controlling:

Its not my job to solve the problems in my portfolio. Its my job to know that there is a problem and to see what we might do about it. But I dont do that by myself. I cant point a finger and fix things; I have to get people interested in working on it. (Dept. Head, S3)

The work is not to tell people things. Its to help them ask questions about what is and is not working. (Deputy Head, S1)

I think of the work as looking to help. . . . Figuring out how best to help is actually hard; it sort of amazes me how complicated it can be. The same thing does not help all teachers, or it helps teachers but not the students, or this group of students but not the rest. But that is how I think of what Im supposed to do. (Department Head, S6)

Competition among teachers has been cited as a concern of formalization; teachers vying for leader roles may shirk risks or hoard success. In the studied schools, most saw striving for new opportunities positively: Why shouldnt we have the same opportunity to advance like everyone else? But corruptive competition was also socially suppressed by professional norms for collegial help and sharing. Reward systems underscoring support to others as much as personal achievement also regulated what promotion seeking involved. Here too, participants were nonplussed by questions of negative consequences:

I am judged by how well I teach and how much I help my department and our goals. . . I am rewarded for making others better, not holding them back. If people look for a promotion, a good hiring team is going to look at how they improved others, not how easy they made life for themselves. (Asst. Deputy, S3)

You mean, do people from a department compete for the same opening? Sure. But, well then, you try again; you look for that job down the road. . . . I dont know what to say to that. You are saying you dont have leader jobs in the U.S. in case people have hurt feelings? (Teacher, S2)

Teachers were more concerned that new pieces in their performance management systems were demoralizing teachers. Leaders were agents of those policies, but teachers held distinctions: the policies posed a threat to collective effort, not the middle leaders who moderated them.

Last, accountability pressures might drive a devolution of formal leader roles into monitoring and control regimes. Monitoring was an assigned dimension of leader roles; leaders also actively looked for within-school variations in student outcomes (Reynolds, 2014). Teachers subjected these actions to tests of professional codes and usability: was it respectful, was it aligned to core values (student welfare, opportunity to learn), was it carried out by knowledgeable peers, was it thoughtful and adaptable, was it linked to help and support. Some comments on monitoring suggested it preferable to drive-by judgments based on weak knowing and understanding.

These views suggested shifting ideas about teacher autonomy. To be sure, many older teachers missed when we were just left alone and teachers were desperate to shake off rigid target setting policies. But they recognized the complex reality of data gathering routines and purposes:

No one likes being compared. Id say my Head does it in a way that we are comfortable with. . . . Her main thing is to see if someone is having really good outcomes, especially you know, with kids below target. . . . We trust that she knows the difference between a bad class and consistently bad teaching. Or, like right now [colleague] wants to try some new things; his exams might go up or down. But she knows hes trying something new for his students for the right reasons . . . Were used to it and don't think of it as a big deal. (Teacher, S1)

I guess I cannot imagine a school where no one is checking to see how things are going. So, no, I dont think of them as . . . oppressors or something. We are pressured on outcomes, yeah, were asked to deal with new things, but I dont feel were pressured to teach all the same. . . . I actually dont know if I would want to work at a school where no one knew or appreciated what I was doing. (Teacher, S6)

All teachers felt pressure for positive outcomes. But teachers distinguished accountability pressures that endlessly measure us from the purposes and consequences of middle and senior leaders.

Long experience with diverse leader roles has undoubtedly smoothed rough edges and rendered negotiated enactments. Troubled leader networks do occur, but teachers saw their causes are more knotty than some inherent risk in have them. In all, participants did not associate formal or ranked roles with marginalization, collegial decay, a competitive ethos or control over classrooms. Facing severe, national austerity measures at the time of this study, none of the participants said they would vote to save money by eliminating these roles.


Description and value reflections on formally blended leader roles echo leadership literatures at large. Middle and senior leaders were valued when they modeled high teaching standards (Leithwood & Louis, 2012) shared knowledge and experience (Mangin & Stoelinga, 2008; Spillane & Diamond, 2007) and lead with a spirit of helpfulness and service (Sergiovanni, 2007). They assisted in buffering and brokering working conditions and relationships (Thompson, 1967). They facilitated collaborations and partnerships (Bryk et al., 2010; Printy & Marks, 2006). They fostered intellectual stimulation and individual consideration (Avolio, 2010) and worked as both technical and adaptive problem solvers (Heifetz & Linsky, 2014). U.S. teachers often take such actions without formal roles. But the contexts in which they do so carry different assumptions and render different organizational conditions and capabilities.


Assumptions and diagnoses motivating particular approaches to expanded leadership shape and direct their contributions. Some of these are charted in Table 5. In the continuous leader model studied, the lead problem to address is the overwhelmed condition of teaching and school organizations, and the logic of improvement is to reliably embed more professional resources into day-to-day work and teaching to leverage leadership density. As many factors affect the qualities of day-to-day work and teaching, there are varied roles, and roles are broadly tasked across clerical, managerial, instructional, and relational matters, including relations with students. Positioned this way, middle and senior leaders make a steady stream of direct deposits to teachers day-to-day work lives that are experienced as meaningful forms of support and respect. By reliably providing support that adapts to particular teacher or group needs and circumstances, leaders in formalized roles contributed to teachers individual and collective sense of efficacy. As well, research argues that motivating teachers to take risks, to learn and to work hard for others, requires confidence that those around them will do the same (Bryk & Schneider, 2002), as when leaders remain rooted to classrooms and confront the same working conditions and challenges. Leaders make withdrawals also: they monitor, collect data, and prod teachers to collaborate, learn, and improve. But the balance in teachers descriptions leans to the deposit side. This goes some way in illuminating why these roles are much more legitimated and valued than many teacher-leader or coaching roles in the United States.

Table 5. Logics to Enhanced School Leadership


Alternatively, if the lead problem is weak teaching and the instructional core (Elmore, 2004), then it is logical to create roles that curate a laser focus on instructional effectiveness in the classroom. This logic underlies new coaching roles but may hinder the development of legitimacy and value. Teacher-leaders can serve the needs of some teachers, but not teachers as a group. The approach is more thin than dense; they are too few in number to meaningfully affect working conditions or to be sources of day-to-day help and support. Visibility and reciprocity are limited. They are not present for logistical support and troubleshooting and are seldom in a position to manipulate time and opportunities for collaborative work and learning. Some may work with students as part of improving instruction, but this is not common or written about. Hence, teachers interactions with teacher-leaders may skew more toward insignificant interactions or perceived withdrawalsdemands for alignment, change, and improvementthan significant or meaningful deposits.


Natural networks of distributed leadership may be a logical basis of improvement if a lead problem is top-down reform and marginalized teachers. But the ability of informal networks to significantly alter the overwhelmed condition of teaching and school organizations (even were top-down reforms to go away) is limited. Networks of informal leaders may render the supports and behaviors described, but evidence that they do so is scarce. Teachers social-normative resources are critical, but leveraging their knowledge and experience requires reliable supports. Evidence here suggests that formal leader networks may be an effective and rewarding system of support.

In England, formalization allowed roles to evolve into broadly tasked assignments that balanced fixed purposes and routines with fluid and adaptive forms of help, support, and adaptation. The resources and stability of formalization also assisted schools to manage policy mandates and other demands and pressures with fewer one-size-fits-all responses at the school level, which was much valued by teachers. Similarly, while everyone in the studied school worked in a highly bureaucratic national education system, a network of formal leader roles was not perceived to add to this bureaucracy. It was more perceived as humanizing and moderating it.

A network of formal leader roles offered a large and reliable web of buffering, brokering, partnering, and support for teachers that would be difficult to replicate in an informal system. It also provided much more coordination and follow-through of teachers best efforts. Significantly, formal roles were unanimously perceived to contribute to school-level talent retention and stronger leadership pipelines, which teachers also valued.


Englands system offers an existence proof for the proposition that formal, even ranked, teacher-leader roles can support teachers and teaching without eroding teacher voice, collaboration, and influence. Formal roles pass tests of goodness and value for teachers when they directly contribute to teachers day-to-day work and success, as when they elevate working conditions, bring disciplinary knowledge and up-close understandings of individual and group problem solving, and contribute to individual and collective efficacy.

Risks associated with formalization, such as diminished influence, competitive maneuvering that degrades collaboration, or excessive monitoring, can be minimized by rigorous hiring processes, the continued centrality of teaching within roles, norms emphasizing help and reciprocity, and reward systems that incentivize help to others.

A continuous leader model assumes a larger talent pool but also does much more to develop and reality test leadership in stages of growth and challenge.


Approaches to leadership are not mutually exclusive; co-existence can be embraced. As more teacher-leader initiatives develop, they can review assumptions and explore bolder options. Englands system reflects its own traditions, but analogs and building blocks for U.S. middle and high schools are at hand. National Board-certified teachers and graduates of teacher leader and coaching programs can be more formally deployed while continuing as teachers. The role of department chairs can be significantly enriched and empowered. The number of persons in coordinating, assistant principal, and other roles might multiply by blending teaching and leadership. Moreover, U.S. developments can enhance teacher-leader roles and networks by bringing theory and research on teacher learning and school improvement to the design and purpose of new roles. A system of formal leader roles could, for example, explicitly assist and support collaborative inquiry and continuous improvement cycles. But it should not be forgotten that positive teacher perceptions likely hinge on their visible and tangible contribution to improving the conditions of day-to-day teaching.

Schools can accommodate new roles by seeing themselves less as fixed bureaucracies (or egalitarian communes) and more as evolving hybrids able to integrate formal and informal roles into soft hierarchies and fluid action spaces. They can develop role and work structures that resource helpful routines with adaptable sensemaking, learning, and problem-solving processes. Much of this has begun.

Teachers can shape new role formations by being more central to their design and adoption. They can participate in how they are defined, how individuals are selected and assessed, and how they better the conditions of teaching and professional learning.

There are costs to expanded leadership systems, but substantial redistributive options moderate them. Stipends used to fund many ad-hoc teacher-leader stints could be shifted, as might some monies dedicated to performance pay or to district leader resources. Moving from two full-time assistant principals to four who blend teaching and leadership has modest cost implications but opens up new leader pathways. Norms that routinely pay high school teachers to coach track, baseball, and football might finally pay teachers to lead English, math, and science.

If history is a lesson, the prime engine (or barrier) to new leadership designs is teachers themselves. They must decide the merits of redesigned role and career structures and whether investing in a system of formal, blended roles is more professionally empowering and rewarding than traditional arrangements, informal networks, or targeted coaching roles.


1. English secondary schools serve grades 7-11.  

2. English schools also have a pastoral track  of blended roles; these are not discussed or displayed in this paper.

3. The exception here was one of the academies, which participated in a fast track Future Leaders program and had deputies with 3-5 years experience.

4. Readers can learn more at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-professional-qualification-for- middle-leadership-npqml

5. Readers can see sample salary and pay differentials at http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/careers/payandpensions

6. For sample position postings visit the Time Educational Supplement at http://www.tes.co.uk/jobs/


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 3, 2019, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22569, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:38:13 AM

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About the Author
  • BetsAnn Smith
    Michigan State University
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    BETSANN SMITH is Associate Professor of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on leadership and school improvement, including leader system designs, leadership learning, and how teachers and students can collaborate as improvement partners. Her most recent article, with S. M. Printy, is Developing Leadership Knowledge Through Collaborative Group Dissertations (2018), published in Impacting Education: Journal on Transforming Professional Practice.
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