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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT:
WHAT EDUCATORS NEED AND WANT

Towards the end of last year, we took a random sample of 250 participants from NESLI School Leadership Programs across Australia and New Zealand and gathered their qualitative responses to key questions put to them at the beginning of their course. 

The first questions framed were about what school leaders (existing and aspiring) felt their greatest needs were when viewed through the lens of 'key professional challenges. Meanwhile, the second set of questions delved into their hopes and expectations in taking part in a leadership program.

The qualitative responses were evaluated and then sorted into categories and tallied. Some results were reasonably predictable but others were quite interesting. The nature of the programs themselves, being fully online, suggests there is also something to be said for the when, where and how (alongside the needed and hoped for whats) of leadership development programs.                                          

KEY PROFESSIONAL CHALLENGES

The top three professional challenges identified across the sample were:

1. Communicating, driving and eliciting support for change and innovation within the school
2. Handling structural or operational issues such as state curriculum requirements, national standardised tests, staff turnover, or changes in student demographics
3. Time management and balancing various roles and responsibilities.
 

One subset of the sample, identified by role and experience, was head teachers and HODs. This group nominated 'motivating unwilling staff' as their key professional challenge. By way of contrast, for educators who were already principals, 'developing a strategic vision', 'keeping staff on the same page and conflict' and 'feedback and managing difficult conversations' were high on their list of challenges. 

The results get a slightly different spin when sorted by gender. For male participants, 'strategic vision' was often one of the strongest challenges, while for females it was all about 'driving and communicating change' alongside 'time management' and 'balancing of roles and responsibilities'. 

HOPES AND EXPECTATIONS FOR A LEADERSHIP PROGRAM

In terms of what participants expressed as their key hope for the programs they had enrolled in, the most common responses were:

1. The sharing of experiences and learning from (and networking with) other school professionals
2. Developing overall 'leadership skills'
3. The ability to motivate, empower and develop staff. 

The first two responses here were particularly high in frequency across all the role and experience-based subsets (principals, deputy principals, head teachers and teachers). 

Sorting based on gender revealed that, for men, becoming more self-aware around strengths and weaknesses was a strong priority. Meanwhile, more women expressed a desire to increase their confidence and assertiveness.

THE SURGE IN DEMAND FOR ONLINE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

NESLI's growth trend across 2011-2016 shows a very obvious demand for online learning for developing and aspiring school leaders.

From 2011-2013 enrolment rates in NESLI's Australasian face-to-face School Leadership Colloquiums surged by more than 200 per cent. This grew as the program went online as a public offering in 2014, spreading beyond Australia to New Zealand.

So far in 2015-16, with the growth of NESLI's online program into the Global Schools Leadership Alliance across Asia Pacific and North America (and subsequent recruitment of highly experienced local faculty across three continents), those numbers have exploded by another 500 per cent and look set to climb even higher in the next quarter.

It seems that at least across Australasia, Asia Pacific and North America, online leadership programs are, if not the way to go, certainly of very high appeal to an ever growing number of educators.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP PROGRAMS

Overall, the responses suggest leadership programs for educators need to provide a clear focus on the more vertical notions of innovation and change, while maintaining some focus on the managerial aspects of operations (in a sector beset by policy-driven flux, demographic shifts and staff attrition) and taking into account that teachers are busier than ever, juggling more balls of multiple size and colour.

There is also a clear preference for programs that allow educators to maximise their opportunities to connect with and learn from each other. Certainly, there needs to be some priority on providing skills-based exposure, application and learning (the 'horizontal' elements of development). However, if there is not a clear focus on creating and growing inclusive communities of leadership inquiry and practice, it is likely a program would fall far short of educators' expectations.

Interestingly, instructional leadership was rarely if ever explicitly mentioned in participant responses. While a staple in university-provided educational leadership programs in particular, as a unique and almost discrete area of focus, the contributions from educators in this sample suggest it is a leadership issue embedded in a variety of other issues and priorities rather than an overtly front and centre leadership concern in the minds of participants.

From a gender perspective, the sample responses suggest women in schools in particular might benefit from targeted programs such as the Advanced Leadership Program that take into account their particular challenges. For some female educators, this can be the need for more explicit attention to be given to developing confidence, assertiveness, resilience, and time and role management skills.

The flexible nature of an online program, with both self-paced asynchronous media and spaced high quality live video conferencing workshops, slotted neatly into late afternoons or early evenings (with the kids all gone, but with time to get home at a civil time to family and dinner), is evidently a 'just right' fit for busy educators around the world in professional contexts with limited time and PD budgets.

Educators are assuredly early adopters in the online leadership development front, and look set to lead the (online) way. If NESLI's growth is anything to go by, the educational leadership program limited to physical face-to-face contexts is already well and truly running late for the bell.

Jason Renshaw is Chief Learning Innovation Officer at NESLI. Jason has close to 20 years of experience in leadership management and learning innovation across three continents in fields as diverse as education, business, community services, health, engineering, finance, medicine and law.

 

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National Excellence in School Leadership Initiative, NESLI
Level 3, 607 Bourke Street
Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia

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Email: info@NESLI.org
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