School leadership is tough. It can feel lonely and sometimes pressurised. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s possible for school leaders to come together into communities of practice that help everyone – leaders, teachers, pupils – to thrive. Sounds good? It is, let us tell you more...
School leadership in many schools can make you feel like you are in it on your own, an individual leader in an individual role, which can make for a lonely and stressful experience. It can get so that performativity, as in things like examinations, Ofsted inspections, Board or Local Authority expectations, and competition for pupil numbers or resources, create pressure and undermine the possibility of collaboration and exchange with other school leaders.
In many ways, our pupil assessment system is set up to create and re-create this underlying leadership narrative. With a normal distribution curve for exam results, there is currently an inevitability that some pupils will not pass their exams. Therefore, not all schools can be above average - not all school leaders can succeed.
While recognising this challenge for school leadership, along with the fact that individual effectiveness in leadership is crucial; there is scope to collaborate with other school leaders to bring about better outcomes for all. For example you can work together to develop teacher excellence, provide opportunities for your team to flourish and see pupil outcomes rise. Through the Covid pandemic, we have seen multiple spontaneously catalysed networks erupt through need – no one school has been an expert – all school leaders had experience to offer for the greater good.
“ School leadership can feel isolating. The responsibilities can weigh heavy. School leaders quite often deflect the challenges of running a school from their staff. Being part of a community of practice offers school leaders a space to share experiences, expertise and ideas with others who understand completely what the role requires for a school to operate effectively. ”
Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Professor of Education and Provost of Marjon University Cornwall
So, how can you take this community feeling for school leadership forward? Leadership development is at its most effective when school leaders are able to journey together, shape one another’s thinking and refine practice through implementing the evidence together. There are very few effective leaders who flourish in their roles without clear networks, relationships, and that sense that one is part of a bigger story through connectedness. As leaders, we flourish together not alone.
Communities of practice are an excellent way for leaders to work together collaboratively; to find solutions to issues and answers to questions that would have been much harder to tackle alone.
Communities of practice are a great way of bringing leaders together. In essence, as defined by Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, they are: “Groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis".
Communities of practice for school leadership have the potential to sustain and nourish you as a leader. They are a community, a collection of individual school leaders, working together for a common purpose.
There is an emphasis on the social aspect of learning, with a focus on three important characteristics:
1. Domain - this is the topic or theme to be addressed and advanced e.g. a leadership question.
2. Community - the members are motivated by a mutual interest in the domain e.g. school leadership.
3. Practice - the ideas, tools, expertise, knowledge, and shared resources that serve to move the field of inquiry forward e.g. national professional qualification (NQP) resources on leadership.
Becoming part of a community of practice will support you in developing yourself and your school and so fuels school improvement, which is at the heart of school leadership. The experiential knowledge that you have developed as a leader over time, from teacher, to middle leader, to senior leader is incredibly useful to your school and is likely to be just as useful to other leaders in developing their own schools.
Embedding a community of practice in your leadership development journey will enable you to develop new ideas and strategies; it can be transformational. Andy Wolfe, Executive Director of Education, Church of England explains why: “Communities of practice have great potential to sustain leaders, through building their sense of connection and shared journey. They require clear ownership and clarity of thematic focus, expert facilitation, clear logistics and a longer-term commitment to one another’s development. Members of such communities come asking not simply ‘what can I gain?’ but crucially, ‘what can I give?'. They blend instructional and transformational approaches to leadership development, through a sustainable methodology of learning and flourishing together.”
Belonging to a community of practice creates space to stop the bad stuff and get on with the good. For example, they help you to engage with values dissonance, that’s when you find your time going into things you do not highly value. Other leaders can (supportively) challenge how you think about things, enabling you to see them in other, potentially better ways. This challenging of your thinking potentially opens the way for new practices to emerge and for creativity to flourish. As you know, thinking differently is often a good thing in leadership, but it can feel risky if you are doing it on your own. By working together in your community of practice, the benefits of collaboration and innovation can flow.
Your need to be part of a community of practice, or to form one, will emerge from the potential in a current situation.
Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) set out five stages of communities of practice development and these are useful to know when considering how to put together communities of practice for school leadership:
1. Potential - The basic elements exist: a social network, an important topic (leadership), perceived value from developing the network (sharing expertise), and the sharing of knowledge (professional learning through peers).
2. Coalescing - Energy is generated to develop the community, build trust among its members (shared experience on the programme), and identify what knowledge should be shared.
3. Maturing – The focus, role, and boundaries are clarified and gaps in knowledge may become more apparent as it expands.
4. Stewardship - The focus is on action and maintaining momentum, sometimes by adding new members and/or by working to keep the community's practice on the cutting edge.
5. Transformation - Communities of practice depend on the commitment and passion of their members, so a point may arrive where a community's work is done. It may rest and revive when a new issue emerges to stimulate participation, such as policy change requiring a collective response. It may split into new communities or merge with others (such as a community of practice for school leaders within a MAT, Local Authority or region).
The National Professional Qualifications in Leadership (NPQL) can act as a foundation for all these stages. These are Department of Education accredited qualifications for aspiring and serving Headteachers and Chief Executive Officers of multi-academy trusts. They are designed to support professional development to help school leaders and teachers become more effective.
“By embedding communities of practice in all of our Church of England NPQ programmes, participants are not simply gaining knowledge and completing the courses – rather they are being grounded, encouraged, supported and challenged by these sustainable communities, characterised by robust peer challenge and debate and with the potential to enhance wellbeing and resilience long after the completion of the programme itself.”
Andy Wolfe, Executive Director of Education, Church of England
As a school leader you would engage with your community of practice to improve your school leadership potential. Together you’ll develop your learning together through a range of activities that include:
Communities of practices are a useful mechanism within formal leadership programmes, such as the NPQs, to advance leadership development. They can also be informal groupings of school leaders too.
Our flourishing as leaders need not be an individual pursuit, but should rather be a journey we take together, even when on a formal leadership development programme. School leaders get stronger when they seek out and develop communities of practice, this ensures that your lived reality is one of flourishing with others, not standing alone.