Professional Development

Hayo Reinders: Teacher leadership, where we are and how we got here

Hayo Reinders

Dr. Hayo Reinders is a TESOL Professor at Anaheim University, California, and is the Director of their doctoral programme. He is also Head of Education at Unitec and Editor of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching. Hayo’s interests are in CALL, autonomy, and out-of-class learning, which are topics he explores at In this blog post, Hayo discusses teacher leadership and how this can be developed.

There is a lot of talk about leadership these days. We are all somehow expected to be leaders, innovators, change agents, and an inspiration to our colleagues and our students. But what leadership is and how we are to develop it, let alone how we are to find the time to do so, is often left unspecified.

This is particularly true in education. In some fields, like business, leadership is taught from undergraduate courses onwards and a great many resources are available for ongoing professional development. However, for teachers very few opportunities exist to develop the necessary skills. And so, authority is given to people on the basis of seniority, on a supposedly fair, rotating basis. Or it is assumed by those who volunteer for managerial roles (sometimes with altruistic motives, sometimes perhaps less so). Insufficient time is then commonly given to carry out these new roles and little or no support is made available to further improve.

It is remarkable how far sheer will power and a good heart can take us. But the costs, both to the individual and in the form of untapped potential, can be significant. In a future blog post I will discuss the concept of Educational Sustainability (as distinct from education for sustainability), how it relates to the human costs such practices incur and options for improvement, but here I want to take a step further back and look at some of the origins of the situation we find ourselves in.

Defining leadership and management

One significant contributing factor is the lack of a clear distinction we make in our field between the concepts of leadership and management. To quote from Drucker (1974), ‘Leaders do the right thing; managers do things right’, and from Kotter (1990), ‘Managers cope with complexity; leaders cope with change’. These pithy statements point to the perceived qualitative difference between having and encouraging a ‘grand vision’ on the one hand and the day-to-day implementation of that vision on the other.

Research in recent decades has somewhat rejected such a clear division and there is now a broad recognition that the two concepts operate on a continuum, with leader-managers moving between them as needed. Nonetheless, clear differences do exist and require different skillsets, operate differently depending on the context, and appeal to people with different personality traits.

In education, however, the two have often been lumped together. From this perspective, leadership equals management, so the person at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy is the leader. There are several problems with this:

The desire for leadership without management

Firstly, few teachers aspire to be managers, with administration quickly overwhelming pedagogy.

Yet, when management is disentangled from leadership, many teachers do recognise in themselves the desire to become teacher leaders with the skills and opportunity to inspire their learners, to encourage new developments within the school, to support new teachers, and so on.

In other words, when given a chance, many teachers can see the considerable value of leadership and share a desire to assume it. Yet in practice often this does not happen. This is one of the reasons why non-authoritarian approaches, such as distributed leadership and the notion of ‘leading from behind’ resonate much more with many teachers that more traditional approaches, such as authoritarian forms of leadership.

Increased bureaucracy

Furthermore, many teachers have experienced an eroding of their autonomy and the ability to exert leadership over self and others. On the one hand this is because of a lack of time and on the other because of the increasing bureaucratisation of education.

Many teachers have become more detached from shaping their environment and the agency that this brings in recent years. This process has been well-documented, with some offering gloomy predictions. Specifically related to the tertiary sector, Donoghue writes ‘The corporate influences, always present, will become increasingly explicit; 50 years from now it will be the rule, not the exception, to think of a university as a company rather than a social institution’ (2018, p. 83). So from teachers’ perspectives leadership has been conflated with management, and management with (imposed) bureaucracy and a loss of control.

Developing teacher leadership

These factors combined make it unsurprising that few teachers are lining up to assume greater responsibility. To openly express a desire to become a leader is, at best, considered eccentric, and at worst, as a source of suspicion.

The solution is very simple and not at all easy. It requires a long-term commitment on the part of communities (say for example within a school) to developing its own people. The good news is that, as ‘our ability to grow as a leader is based on our ability to grow as a person’ (Cashman 2017, p. 15), an investment in ourselves and our colleagues is an investment in our ability to lead. This is not an overnight process but it can and has been done; in the many well-documented cases where teacher agency has been increased, the results speak for themselves. Teachers are more inspired, report greater job satisfaction and a much more positive environment is created. In other words, although it’s a lot of work, it’s both valuable and extremely rewarding work.

In my next blog post I will look at what I believe to be a foundational process of working towards greater sustainability within education that can kickstart this process.

For now, consider your own role in developing leadership, both within yourself and in your wider community. What opportunities and support exist in your context and what constraints are holding you back?

Cashman, K. (2017). Leadership from the inside out: Becoming a leader for life. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Donoghue, F. (2018). The last professors: The corporate university and the fate of the humanities. Fordham Univ Press.


For more techniques from Hayo, read about Learning analytics for language teachers


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