Understanding “Teacher Leadership” through a Multi-National Research Collaboration

Dr. Charles Webber served for 16 years as a classroom teacher, curriculum consultant, and principal in urban and rural schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada before moving into postsecondary education. Prior to his current appointment, Charlie was Dean of Continuing Education and Extension at Mount Royal University. He also served as Dean of Human, Social, and Educational Development at Thompson Rivers University, and as Professor and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. He has been a Guest Professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Mérida, Yucatán, México, and at the Fujian Normal University in Fujian Province, P.R. China. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, Thailand, and at the Aga Khan University Institute of Educational Development, Eastern Africa, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He also has held an appointment as Adjunct Senior Fellow in the School of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Charlie currently holds an honorary appointment as Buitengewone Professor (Extraordinary Professor) at North West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. 

Over the past twenty years, the concept of teacher leadership gained a lot of traction in Western countries, such as Canada, Australia, Britain, and the U.S., and spread to other countries around the world. While there is no general consensus about the definition of teacher leadership, the idea is that classroom teachers, when empowered and consulted, can have a positive impact on children’s experience and learning in school, and can exercise leadership in their communities in significant ways. Leadership does not have to pertain to a single person but can be shared among the school staff

The research has demonstrated that policy makers across cultures are using teacher leadership criteria to design frameworks for their teacher evaluations, professional development programs, and school reforms (Schott et al., 2020). However, in some contexts, this approach has been ineffective due to a hierarchical leadership structure ingrained within the school system and broader culture. I had heard from collaborators in countries around the world that this shortfall generates guilt among educational leaders and teachers who question what they are doing wrong and believe that there should be space to make sense of teacher leadership locally, without the pressure to apply the concept as it is understood in other cultures. As a result of this disconnection across contexts, there has been a need for a comprehensive study of teacher leadership that includes non-Western contexts (Nguyen at al., 2019), and shares cross-cultural understandings of teacher leadership.

Current literature links teacher leadership to the four broad areas of formal and informal leadership, school culture, professional development, and school improvement. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Concepts related to teacher leadership (Webber, in press)

Within the four broad topic areas, several attributes and indicators of teacher leadership appear. Interestingly, the attributes and indicators in Table 1 align closely with the Alberta Education (2018) Teaching Quality Standard. That is, teachers in Alberta, Canada, are expected to provide inclusive learning environments, work closely with colleagues, apply foundational knowledge of Indigenous community members, and demonstrate consistent professionalism. They are held accountable for engaging in career-long learning, applying meaningful student assessment and evaluation practices, responding to change, and inviting community members and cultural advisors into schools and classrooms. These teaching quality standards are similar in form and focus to the Australian Professional Standards (2011), and those of the Department of Education (2011) in England and still others identified by the South African Council for Educators (2018). It is apparent that researchers’ understandings of teacher leadership and policy makers standards for teaching quality have strong reciprocal connections.

Table 1

Attributes and Indicators of Teacher Leadership

AccountabilityTake responsibility for outcomesEvaluation and progress monitoring provide focusBone, 2015Owens, 2015Webber & Scott, 2012
AdvocacyStudent learning needs provide focusTeacher leadership has an activist dimensionBauman, 2015Conway, 2015Lambert, 2003
Cultural responsivenessCurricula and pedagogy should include students whose identities have been insufficiently consideredNieto, 2015 
CollaborationTeachers should be part of decision makingCareer stage considerations are importantBauman, 2014Pangan & Lupton, 2015Steffy, Wolfe, Pasch, & Enz, 2000
Openness to changeGo beyond enculturation to build capacity for transformationPangan & Lupton, 2015
ProfessionalismTeaching is always an ethical activityTeachers are the single largest influence on students’ academic achievementDavis, et al., 2015Lambert, 2003Nieto, 2015
ReflectionReflective practice should be ongoingCarr, 2015
Risk-takingSafety and trust are importantLambert, 2003
Shared visionAlignment of goals and mission are valuedBond, 2015Bone, 2015
StabilityPractices should be sustainableConway, 2015
TeamworkProfessional learning communities provide a venue for collaborationConway, 2015Jackson, Burrus, Bassett, & Roberts, 2010

To respond to the need for cross-cultural analyses of teacher leadership, I formed a team of researchers from 10 countries around the world to work on the “International Study of Teacher Leadership”, which seeks to contribute to the wider understanding of teacher leadership and of how professional and university programs might contribute to teacher leadership knowledge and skill development. 

The group initially came together for an educational conference at the Guangxi Normal University in Guilin, China in 2018. I had collaborated productively with many of the researchers in the group previously through other partnerships abroad and cross-national studies in South Africa, South Africa, Tanzania, Colombia, Mexico, and many other countries. Many of my co-researchers had pursued graduate studies or Fulbright research fellowships in the U.S. so they understood North American concepts, reasoning, and assumptions, but they also had a rich understanding of their local contexts. 

We set up a multi-stage design for the research. The first stage was to look at ourselves. Two of our members, Dr. Catherine Arden and Dr. Janet Okoko, took on the task of mapping our diverse understandings of teacher leadership by interviewing research team members to explore how we relate and ascribe meaning to the construct of teacher leadership.

Figure 2. Referential and structural components (Arden & Okoko, in press)

The second stage was the document analysis that was designed to understand how teacher leadership is described in each of our settings by educational stakeholders. We reviewed key documents in different cultural contexts, including school policies, accreditation requirements, standards documents, position descriptions, department of education policies, teacher education curricula, union position statements, and government and organizational web materials. We used the following lenses for our analysis: conceptualizations of teacher leadership, values, beliefs, commonalities, contradictions, guiding principles, and accountabilities. The third stage involved interviews and questionnaires with stakeholders, including teachers, parents, principals, ministry officials, etc., to juxtapose with our document analyses. Our fourth step, which has been on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is to use ethnographic strategies to do case studies in schools to observe what happens in the context of the schools, while keeping in mind what we learned through the document analyses, interviews, and questionnaires. Finally, the fifth stage is about reflection. We have been interviewing and conducting oral histories with retired teacher leaders or mid-to-late career teacher leaders who have had a big impact on their communities in order to understand their views about leadership.

Reflecting on the work we have done so far, I have started to wonder if there might actually be no single definition of “teacher leadership,” but perhaps the utility of the concept is that it is a malleable term that can be used within various settings to involve teachers in processes and decision making in schools. 

The need for flexibility and adaptability of teachers and schools has been heightened by recent social and political events that have triggered significant levels of general anxiety and stress in many countries. For example, the large number of children and their families who have migrated internationally to seek refuge from violence, political turmoil, and economic uncertainty underscores the key role that ongoing improvements to teaching and learning have in the development and sustenance of functioning democracies. Teacher leaders are needed now more than ever before.

We are interested in the implications of our study for teacher and principal preparation. A big challenge is that a lot of principals around the world struggle to understand and support shared governance, which makes it difficult to facilitate collaboration. Philip Haillinger from Mahidol University has written some great articles on the role of context in leadership. Through our research, we have observed that context is indeed everything; teacher leadership in Bogota should not look the same as it does Calgary or Dar es Salaam.  

Research team members have presented early reports of research findings at conferences in Canada, Turkey, Morocco, Kenya, China, Mexico, and South Africa. The presentations led to a forthcoming special issue of Research in Educational Administration and Leadership (REAL) that will include international reports of the first two stages of the ISTL, the phenomenographic and document analysis components. 

Finally, the research team’s proposal for an edited book called Teacher Leadership in International Contexts is under review by a major international publisher with potential publication in 2021. Additional cross-national reports are in progress and will be submitted in 2021 to various academic journals for review and possible publication. Meanwhile, interviews and oral histories continue online, and case studies will be conducted when pandemic restrictions allow. 

Please see the study website for more information or contact me at cfwebber@mtroyal.ca.


Alberta Education (2018). Teaching Quality Standardhttps://education.alberta.ca/media/3739620/standardsdoc-tqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf

Arden, C., & Okoko, J. (in press). Exploring cross-cultural perspectives of teacher leadership among the members of an international research team: A phenomenographic study. Research in Educational Administration and Leadership.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2011). Australian professional standards for teachers. https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/national-policy-framework/2020/final-australian-professional-standards-for-teachers-(web).pdf?sfvrsn=816d53c_2

Bauman, C. (2014) An Exploration of the Interconnectedness between elementary teacher job satisfaction, school culture and student achievement: A study in two Canadian elementary schools (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland.

Bauman, C. (2015). A refreshing perspective on teacher leadership: How teacher leaders effectively combine the use of autonomy and collaboration to enhance school improvement. Leading and Managing, 21(2), 46-59.

Bond, N. (2015). Teacher leaders as professional developers. In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 57-69). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Bone, S.C. (2015). Teacher leaders as school reformers. In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 105-119). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Carr, M.L. (2015). Teacher leaders and the art of self-mentoring.   In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (31-42). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Conway, J.M. (2015). Sustainable leadership for sustainable school outcomes: Focusing on the capacity building of school leadership. Leading and Managing, 21(2), 29-45.

Davis, B.H., Gilles, C., McGlamery, S., Shillingstad, S.L., Cearley-Key, T., Wang, Y., Smith, J., & Stegall, J. (2015). Mentors as teacher leaders in school/university induction   In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 70-81). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Department for Education. (2011). Teachers’ standards: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/665520/Teachers__Standards.pdf

Hallinger, P. (2018). Bringing context out of the shadows of leadership. Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 46(1), 5-24. 

Jackson, T., Burrus, J., Bassett, K., & Roberts, R.D. (2010). Teacher leadership: An assessment framework for an emerging area of professional practice. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Services

Lambert, L. (2003). Leadership capacity for lasting school improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Nguyen, D., Harris, A., & Ng, D. (2020). A review of the empirical research on teacher leadership (2003-2017). Research in Educational Administration, 58(1), 60-80.

Nieto, S. (2015). Leading as a moral imperative.  In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 183-195). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Owens, E. (2015). Teacher leaders internationally.   In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 145-155). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Pangan, C.H., & Lupton, A.  (2015). First-year teachers: New and ready to lead! In N. Bond (Ed.), The power of teacher leaders: Their roles, influence, and impact (pp. 120-131). New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Routledge.

Schott, C., van Roekel, H., & Tummers, L. (2020). Teacher leadership: A systematic review, methodological quality assessment and conceptual framework. Educational Research Review. (forthcoming).

South African Council for Educators. (2018). SACE draft professional teaching standards. https://www.sace.org.za/assets/documents/uploads/sace_36738-2019-03-06-SACE%20Draft%20PTS%20for%20Gazette%2028082018%20(00000003).pdf

Steffy, B. E., Wolfe, M. P., Pasch, S. H., & Enz, B. J. (2000), The model and its application, in Steffy, B.E., Wolfe, M.P., Pasch, S.H., & Enz, B.J. (Eds), Life cycle of the career teacher (pp. 1-25), Kappa Delta Pi and Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks CA.

Webber, C.F. (in press). The need for cross-cultural exploration of teacher leadershipResearch in Educational Administration and Leadership.

Webber, C.F, & Scott, S. (2012). Student assessment in a Canadian civil society. Journal of Management Development, 31(1), 34-47.

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