Leadership and teamwork in a new school: Developing a professional learning community

Research output: Types of ThesisPh.D. Thesis


This research project involves the collaboration of a critical friend and two
school leaders in one new compulsory school in an urban area in Iceland.
The main research questions were: a) What does leadership for learning
mean in the development of practice of one new school? and b) What
supports and encourages leadership for learning?
The planning for the school began in 2006 and the school itself started in
August 2009, at the same time as the research, which ended in December
2012. Prior to the research, the school had decided to use the tool ‘Positive
discipline’. Leaders had divided the staff into teaching teams involving
teachers and teacher aides. Students would work in learning areas under
the supervision of a teaching team.
I worked with the two school leaders, provided guidance and evaluated
process and practice. As leadership seems to be a strong driver for school
improvement I thought it necessary to understand what it involves. I strived
to understand concepts such as educational leadership and a professional
learning community (PLC), and what they meant for learning in the school.
I used action research as a method and my collaboration with the
leaders was guided by developing techniques and paths necessary for
improving learning. It was also guided by an awareness of the overall
importance of supporting leadership in new situations. Evaluation research
was used in order for us to follow developments.
The phases of the research have been described and discussed in four
papers. The main goal with the first paper was to understand and elicit the
attitude of the principal towards the leadership role, the issues which
needed to be addressed and what was uppermost in his mind when he
recruited teachers and a department head to work in the new school. The
main focus in the paper was on how the principal interpreted his own role.
This was complemented by the views of five teachers and the department
head, and information from school visits and interviews. Practical and
professional groundwork for the new school took much energy and time.
The emphasis was to develop a school policy that focused on learning,
teamwork and well-being. The principal‘s vision and expectations were
clear and he invited discussions with teachers and worked with them.
The focus in the second paper was on how differentiation was
understood, prepared for and acted on in the new school as a goal in a
PLC and when teaching teams organised new ways of learning. Teaching
teams and leaders figured out paths for working with differentiation in
cooperation with each and every student and his or her parents. Teachers
needed diverse support to work with differentiation, and there were signs
of conflict in the school between old views and new practices.
Paper three scrutinized how the school improved the teamwork as a tool
for collaboration and professional development in the school towards a
PLC. The study was carried out in the third and fourth year and drew mainly
on an evaluation approach through individual and group interviews with
diverse representatives. These included new teachers in the school,
teachers who had been there from the beginning, and participants from all
teaching teams, teachers as well as teacher aides and school leaders. The
interviews were followed up by observations and results from a PLC
questionnaire. This study showed an emerging collaborative structure in
the school with teams having three planned formal meetings a week with
an agenda concerning both students and adult learning and confidential
matters. The main conclusion was that feedback among teachers had to be
improved further.
The fourth paper highlights and evaluates the effect on students,
parents and paraprofessionals of the support given to the staff by the
school leaders. Data were acquired through interviews, observations,
reflections and questionnaires, as well as results from national
assessments. The results showed that there were signs of the involvement
of the stakeholders in the developing practice of the new school. Teachers
and leaders however dominated the community and did not give clear
enough messages about cooperation and reflection to others.
Paraprofessionals were stuck in a school culture where teachers did not
share responsibility and did not consult with others in the classroom, such
as teacher aides. However, clear signs of well-being and a good atmosphere
were evident in the school. The school should find a structure to involve the
school aides in the teams thus promoting team their diversity.
The findings are multilevel and complex and have both cognitive and
emotional implications. Significant lines of inquiry and processes in the
research showed that the school leaders had a strong commitment to their
role of leadership for learning, which was emphasized through paths of a
clear vision and goals, and academic structures and process, as well as
through teamwork. Stability, continuity and regular meetings with the
critical friend encouraged leading for learning, as did having someone who
was not in the everyday environment.
There was a tension between a fixed habit of mind and an eagerness to
participate in the research, as well as between the traditional work culture
and a professional willingness to change. There was also a lack of
consistency between what people said and how they acted.
Important findings are that the school tackled well the challenge
concerning ´learning to be´ as one of the main pillars of learning identified
by UNESCO and incorporated into the local educational policy. The leaders
in this research project managed with their manner to foster a good morale
in the school with a problem solving attitude, trust and respect, and time in
the schedule for teamwork and collaborative learning. Most stakeholders
seemed to have found their niche in the school. The leaders’ deep
commitment to differentiation served as a constant encouragement to
work with the approach of a PLC.
The most surprising finding was the inertia when faced with change. The
strength of the culture teachers brought with them into the school was
underestimated, not least in the case of early career teachers entering a
new school. The social capital in the school was developing, as well as the
human capital, with passion and moral commitment, but decisional capital
connected to taking decisions in difficult situations was still low. An aim for
the school might be to strike a balance across the three areas of capital for
developing high professional capacity.
A challenge for the new school is to find a path for improving leading,
learning, teamwork and growth for all members of the school;
paraprofessionals, teachers, leaders, students and parents. One such path is
to improve the use of feedback.
A key conclusion and contribution of the research is that the school has
created collaboration and support where the participants had time and
space to improve their profession in their working area within their
workday. Furthermore, we understand better the complexity of
constructing a new school as a building and as a professional community.
Two new and deep qualities of a PLC appeared in the new school; on the
one hand highly structured teamwork and on the other formal confidential
dialogues in team meetings.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Iceland
  • Macdonald, Marey Allyson, Supervisor
  • Frímannsson, Guðmundur Heiðar, Supervisor
Award date26 Mar 2015
Place of PublicationReykjavík
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015

Other keywords

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Schools
  • Professional learning community

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