Building professional community

Effective learning happens when the teachers responsible for it work together to share their knowledge and inquire into their practice.

Leadership attends to the conditions and practices that are needed for this to occur, enhancing a strong sense of an engaging, active, and achieving community that sees itself involved in ongoing learning, innovation and improvement for the benefit of each and all of its learners.

Educational leadership capability framework, Education Council, 2018

The full name of this capability is: Building and sustaining collective leadership and professional community

This page summarises some thinking and research related to this capability. It is not a comprehensive or definitive background to the capability.

This capability is about establishing the culture and structures that will build knowledge and leadership in your organisation, team or group. It involves drawing on collective strengths and providing meaningful opportunities to contribute. 

Professional community

Professional communities are "a set of social relationships that create a culture of shared responsibility for student learning" (Louis, 2006).

They are closely associated with ideas of organisational learning. This association has led to the term professional learning communities.

Dufour (2004) set out three big ideas of professional communities:

  • ensuring that students learn
  • a culture of collaboration
  • a focus on results.

In schools that are working as professional communities:

  • leaders are dedicated to growing the agency and efficacy of teachers
  • teachers are committed to being learners, innovators and contributors
  • leaders and teachers have a coordinated approach to responding to students when they experience difficulties.

Culture, trust and values

Louis (2006) argues:

  • Professional communities are cultures based on shared values. They can not be "implemented".
  • Setting aside time and setting out expectations is necessary but rarely sufficient to develop the culture and the trust needed for deep collaboration. 
  • Developing cultures and trust takes time and will "create conflict as well as success" along the way.

Teacher-teacher relationships are what drive the way teachers work to improve teaching. 

They make it possible for teachers to take on different roles with each other, such as mentor, mentee, coach, specialist, and so on. 

They make it possible for them to have open, reflective conversations about why they are doing what they are doing. 

Professional conversations

Focusing conversations on teachers' reasoning for doing something rather than the actions themselves is an important skill to develop in a professional community (Swanson, 2018). 

Careful attention to what enables group dialogue and activity helps to achieve this. 

Enablers of professional conversations – Helen Timperley  

Video courtesy of AITSL on Youtube

Enablers for professional conversations summary (PDF) – AITSL 

Collective leadership

Collective leadership refers to the extent of influence that school staff and community have in decisions in their schools.

Research shows that leadership practices that share power generate greater motivation, increased trust and risk taking, and build a sense of community and collective efficacy (Louis, 2008). 

Wahlstrom and Louis (2008), in their investigation into instructional behaviours, found that the presence of shared leadership and professional community together were highly associated with effective teacher practice.

The contribution of professional community varied across different instructional practices, but the contribution of shared leadership was a constantly strong factor across all. 

Their findings suggest that when teachers are involved in making decisions that affect them, they tend to strengthen their teaching practice. 

They suggest leaders should look at ways to expand shared decision making, as it is an important tool for improving instruction over the longer term.

Models of leadership

Bierly, Doyle and Smith (2016) believe that schools need leadership models that will help them to develop a group of “talented educators who have end-to-end responsibility for the development of the teachers on their teams”.

They suggest these five principles to achieve that goal:

Principle 1: Make a bet on a leadership model

Principle 2: Create and strengthen leadership capacity

Principle 3: Focus leaders on improving teaching and learning

Principle 4: Create teams with a shared mission

Principle 5: Empower leaders with the time and authority to lead

Features of shared leadership

Allison, Misra, and Perry (2018) report on a project to build shared leadership in non-government organisations.

“We came to understand shared leadership as encompassing a spectrum between models which focus on one leader and models which focus on the leadership of many.”

They found that organisations adopted different approaches to sharing leadership, but the approaches all had three characteristics:

  • Adaptability: knowing when a particular expression of leadership is appropriate, and being able to shift in the spectrum as needed.
  • Orientation: expanding the problem-solving capacity of an organisation without giving up the option of top-down approaches when necessary.
  • Culture of trust: developing the relationships needed to shift in the spectrum when necessary, without any negative impact or mistrust.

"Improving collective leadership and maintaining the right balance of decision influence among stakeholders and across decision zones have the potential to create a harmonious and high-functioning school environment."

(Ni, 2018)

How leaders share leadership

Shared leadership is built on top of existing sound management and leadership practices. It requires some trust, and then tends to increase trust.

The most successful participants in the pilot reported on by Allison, Misra, and Perry (2018) started with:

  • an explicit commitment by senior leadership to change
  • an up-front investment of time to educate and plan
  • fundamental management practices in place
  • engagement and accountability.

Helpful practices for building shared leadership include:

  • aligning values
  • clarifying accountability
  • explicitly supporting experimentation
  • consistently working toward clear communication.

(Allison, 2018)

Reflective questions

  • When do you involve others in making decisions for your school? What areas do you not? Why?
  • How are you building a culture where staff aren't depending on leaders but working collectively to lead? 
  • What area of your practice or leadership could you redesign to be more collaborative?

Related pages

Leading learning

Sharing leadership

Tū Rangatira: Māori-medium educational leadership

This capability features strongly in two whenu (key roles of leadership):

  • He kaimahi – the worker
  • He kaiako – the teacher and learner

Tū rangatira (English)

Tū rangatira (te reo Māori)


Allison, M. Misra, S. and Perry, E. (2011). Doing more with more: Putting shared leadership into practice. Nonprofit Quarterly. 

Bierly, C. Doyle, B. and Smith, A. (2016). Transforming schools: How distributed leadership can create more high-performing schools. Bain and Company. 

Louis, K.S. (2006). Changing the culture of schools: Professional community, organizational learning and trust. Accessed on ResearchGate. 

Ni, Y. Yan, R. Pounder, D. (2018).Collective leadership: Principals’ decision influence and the supportive or inhibiting decision influence of other stakeholders. Accessed on ResearchGate. 

Swanson, C. EarlRinehart, K. Mills, J. (2018). Focusing on teachers as learners in professional learning communities. Teachers and Curriculum, 18(1), 1-5.

Wahlstrom, K. Louis, K.S. (2008). How teachers perceive principal leadership. Accessed on ResearchGate. 

Wallace Foundation. (nd). Collective leadership effects on teachers and students.  

Image credit: by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

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