We all know that we need to be lifelong learners in early childhood education (ECE), and for most of us, this is part of the joy of teaching. As a leader in ECE, one of the traits I look for in great teachers is enthusiasm for professional learning. So what kind of leadership environment helps nurture teachers as learners?
I think that the best environment for growing teachers is one where all teachers are seen as leaders. Teachers have so much responsibility and influence in their role that teacher leadership is a given whether it’s acknowledged or not. Distributed leadership, to a certain extent, happens naturally in ECE settings because there is most often a group of teachers working together with the same group of children in the same space. However, the positional leader (the manager, supervisor or head teacher) has a critical role in how effectively distributed leadership happens. The positional leader can foster distributed leadership or thwart it, depending on their perspective and their leadership practices. And if you are a positional leader yourself you’ll know that, even if you aim for a distributed leadership approach, it isn’t always easy to lead a group of leaders!
My recent research (Denee, 2017) looked at effective leadership practices and the relationship between distributed leadership and professional learning. I carried out a survey of early childhood teachers and leaders about these ideas, and then I interviewed the teachers and leaders from three identified high-quality ECE services to find out more about what practices help to grow teachers’ leadership and professional learning within ECE teams. Through this research, I discovered some important ideas and developed the following framework of effective leadership practice:
On the left-hand side, the three segments contain three key ideas about teachers’ professional learning when leadership is genuinely distributed. The right-hand side presents three key ideas about what the positional leader can do to foster this kind of leadership and learning environment. In the coming series, I’ll be unpacking what each of these segments means for early childhood leaders and teams, and what realistic kinds of practices you might implement in your setting. In this introductory post I’m going to explain a little more about the two concepts I am bringing together: distributed leadership and professional learning. What do these concepts mean? Where do they intersect? And why are they so important for raising quality in ECE?
Distributed leadership is about everyone in the team having the opportunity to enact leadership, being supported to take on responsibility in areas that are meaningful to them. Distributed leadership is sometimes described as a web stretched over the whole learning community, where leadership occurs in the interactions between leaders, followers and their situation (Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001). The image of stretchy spider-web threads connecting everyone in an organisation is one that has stuck with me over the years.
An important note: distributed leadership is not delegation! Delegation masquerading as distributed leadership involves the positional leader assigning tasks and handing out responsibilities like candies. Those candies are not always yummy.
Distributed leadership can be incredibly motivating and empowering! This means that teachers can become more loyal, engaged and energised, and are given the opportunity to contribute their best. Ultimately that is a really good thing for children, and a really good thing for positional leaders too.
Professional learning happens throughout our careers. Like distributed leadership, to a certain extent, it happens naturally in ECE teams because we are always learning from one another and from our teaching experiences over the years. But, also like distributed leadership, professional learning can be fostered or thwarted by the person who has that position of leadership. The positional leader has the power and responsibility to implement leadership practices which grow a rich and self-sustaining professional learning environment.
There has been a shift away from the term ‘professional development.’ Just like with young children’s learning, it’s now common to talk about adults’ learning as socially constructed, so the word ‘development’ can be seen to imply a more old-fashioned and linear view of learning. Hence the term ‘professional learning’ has become more appropriate.
Professional learning can happen both formally and informally, for example going away to a course or staying within your work context. Professional learning happens over time through chains of connected learning experiences, and I would argue that to see learning as isolated within one workshop or lesson is a naïve and narrow view. A huge proportion of our professional learning happens through various experiences and conversations in our work contexts, building up over time. Even our own childhood and upbringing has a big impact on how we are as teachers and what we do with new professional learning. Being aware of this helps us to make the most of our ‘funds of knowledge’ (Hedges, 2012) but also to be wary of when we are making assumptions or falling back on old habits of thinking.
In my research, the concept of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) was important. This is an approach to professional learning which happens in a group over an extended period of time. PLCs tend to include certain important elements: distributed leadership, collaborative learning, a shared vision, talking about practice, and supportive structures (Hord, 2009). The PLC approach empowers each member of the learning community to contribute to leading learning, with a shared focus on improving teaching practice for improved learning outcomes for children.
My research looked into the intersection between distributed leadership and professional learning in ECE. There are many elements of the two concepts which overlap, particularly when looking through a PLC lens: teachers have agency and responsibility for their own and others’ learning, teachers all have the potential to develop and grow, and teachers bring unique strengths which add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Some people describe professional learning as an outcome of distributed leadership, some people describe distributed leadership as an aspect of professional learning, and others simply acknowledge that there is a powerful symbiotic relationship between the two concepts which deserves our attention. Whatever way you look at it, there is something worth considering here.
Why are these ideas so important for ECE teams?
Through my own research and from the literature, I have come to the conclusion that these are really important ideas for ECE positional leaders and teams to explore. There are some amazing benefits to paying attention to distributed leadership and professional learning, as evidenced by the exceptional teams I studied. When teachers have opportunities to lead, they engage in meaningful inquiry to improve practice and they contribute to each other’s learning through collaboration and dialogue. Positional leaders can develop teacher leadership by fostering strong relational trust, providing oversight through shared vision and organisational structures, and also by taking a mentoring and coaching approach to teacher development. In the coming series of posts, I will unpack these ideas in more depth to develop a clear picture of effective leadership practices for ECE.
Rachel Denee has been working in teaching, leadership and research roles in early childhood education since 2000. She is currently a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, studying ECE visual arts and professional learning. Rachel is also a co-owner and pedagogical leader at Daisies Early Education and Care Centre in Wellington.
Denee, R. (2017). Distributed leadership for professional learning: Effective leadership practices in early childhood education. (Master’s thesis), Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.
Hedges, H. (2012). Teachers’ funds of knowledge: A challenge to evidence-based practice. Teachers and Teaching, 18(1), 7-24.
Hord, S. (2009). Professional learning communities. Journal of Staff Development, 30(1), 40-43.
Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. B. (2001). Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational researcher, 30(3), 23-28.