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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Leadership aspirations in schools

Dr Kathy Lacey

Dr Lacey is the author of the report Understanding Principal Class Leadership Aspirations: Policy and Planning Implications, prepared for the Department of Education & Training School Leadership Development Unit, Victoria


Principals play a critical part in creating and sustaining high performing schools. The quality and numbers of potential leaders available to fill leadership positions in schools is therefore an urgent issue, especially considering Australia's ageing population and particularly the ageing of the teaching profession.

In Victoria, for example, the average age of teachers was 39.3 in 1991, 41.2 in 1995 and had reached 42.9 by March 2002. The average age of the principal class had risen to 49.6 in 2002. These trends reflect retirement and resignation patterns that will produce a shortage of experienced personnel within the next 5 years - a trend which will also affect all Australian states and which is already occurring internationally.

Although there are adequate numbers of teaching personnel to meet current demand for assistant principal and principal positions, international, national and local anecdotal evidence suggests that the number and quality of applicants for principal class positions is of concern.

If effective principals are seen as the key to effective schools, then a shortage of quality applicants for principal positions will have a significant impact on the ability of schools to achieve the required educational outcomes.

In order to address these issues and ensure high quality principal level leadership of government schools, the Victorian Department of Education and Training commissioned a research project in 2000 to investigate leadership aspirations of Victorian government school teachers, factors that impact on leadership aspirations and the policy and planning implications suggested by these factors.

The research tested the hypothesis that work motivation, career and personal life planning, and values alignment are key factors that influence teachers in choosing to apply for principal class leadership roles. Data was collected and analysed based on a survey of 2000 teachers in government schools, followed by a series of focus group interviews. The gender and age profiles reflected the total teacher population and included both country and metropolitan participants.

Leadership aspirations

Traditionally, 'career aspiration' has been conceived as an individual's intention to move up a hierarchy of positions. An individual not wishing to move up a hierarchy has been traditionally described as lacking aspiration.

For the purposes of this research, a more comprehensive definition focusing on the quality of principal class work and its relationship to life outside work was adopted. 'Career aspiration' has therefore been defined as the level and type of position which teachers ultimately hope to attain. The research compared teachers' current career aspiration with what they stated were their aspirations at the commencement of their career.

The research showed that males and females had different attitudes to leadership, with more females than males wanting to remain in the classroom. More females aspired to the assistant principal role rather than the principal role, whereas more males aspired to the principal role.

Aspiration to the assistant principal role increased over time for both males and females.

The length of teaching experience appeared to affect career aspirations, as teachers with less than 5 years experience were more likely to aspire to the principal class, while those with more than 10 years experience more likely to aspire to remain in the classroom.

In relation to age, significantly fewer teachers under 30 intended to remain a classroom teacher, while significantly more in this age group aspired to leave education and work elsewhere.

Although there was a significant increase over time in the number of teachers aspiring to the assistant principal position, 50% of younger teachers who had aspired to the principal position at the beginning of their careers no longer did so.

It is interesting to note that more primary teachers aspired to principal class than secondary teachers, and that there was no significant difference in current career aspirations between teachers in metropolitan and country regions.

Factors impacting on leadership aspirations

Principals' Views on their Job Satisfaction

Although the research demonstrated that principal class leadership roles provided a significant source of job satisfaction, there were significant differences between the job satisfaction of principals and assistant principals. Assistant principals had the highest overall level of job satisfaction and ranked the highest level of satisfaction on eleven of the eighteen individual items.

Sources of principal satisfaction and dissatisfaction varied significantly, with some factors being a strong source of satisfaction and others equally strong sources of dissatisfaction.

Principals indicated high levels of satisfaction from the following factors:

  • a sense of achievement through work
  • the work itself
  • interaction with students
  • school policies and practices
  • physical working conditions
The strongest sources of dissatisfaction for principals were:

  • effect of job on personal life
  • supervision of work
  • adequacy of administrative support
  • intensity of work

Teachers' Perceptions of Principals' Job Satisfaction

Teachers made judgements on the appeal or otherwise of leadership positions from their perception of the visible roles played by principals and assistant principals. The research found that teachers did not see principals as having high levels of job satisfaction, and this had a negative impact on their own leadership aspirations.

Challenge as a Motivator

The study found evidence that seeking a job that provided personal challenge was a motivating factor for some people. The principal role was seen as a job that provided enormous challenge, although at times this challenge was overwhelming and resulted in high levels of stress.

There was also evidence to suggest that some individuals may not wish to remain in this sort of challenging role for lengthy periods of time. Younger teachers also indicated that although motivated by challenge, they were eager for this challenge to be provided early in their careers.

Impact on Personal Life

Teachers generally identified the effect of the principal role on family as a strong disincentive to seeking promotion. Females identified this negative effect more strongly than males. Family responsibilities clearly impacted on the development and timing of women's leadership aspirations.

There was also strong evidence that the organisation's succession planning processes influenced teachers' leadership aspirations.

Career Planning

Participants considered the identification of potential leaders to be ad hoc, and saw selection processes as a strong disincentive to seeking promotion, particularly by women. There was also a perception that selection processes did not recognise multiple career paths to leadership, further disadvantaging women.

Policy and planning implications

In conclusion, the research report identified four areas where action is required:

(i) Succession Planning

In order to influence the career aspirations of teachers, a deliberate and systematic effort to recruit, develop and retain individuals capable of implementing current and future organisational goals is needed. This implies developing and implementing a succession plan for school leadership.

(ii) Attracting Applicants

In order to attract applicants, principal class positions need to be perceived as providing job satisfaction, and incentives to seek promotion need to be increased and disincentives reduced. As many teachers, particularly women, do not consider leadership roles until it is suggested to them by someone else, the identification and development of potential leaders need to be formalised, rather than being left to chance. Principals need to articulate and display a sense of job satisfaction, and their work needs to be demystified. Flexible work options at all leadership levels should be promoted, including piloting a range of shared leadership positions. Furthermore, developmental programs for aspiring leaders should also include developing the skill of integrating external values into the leader's own value system and vision for the school.

(iii) Selection Processes

Selection processes need to be structured to encourage and support both the application and selection of highly qualified and appropriate applicants. These processes should be simplified to reduce the time required and the stress involved. Enhanced professional development programs could address the skill development required for selection. Research is needed on the impact and implementation of merit and equity principles on the targeted development of school leaders. Members of selection panels should receive training in merit and equity principles including the valuing of non-traditional career paths.

(iv) Career Development

Career development of current and potential leaders is an essential element of succession planning. From the organisation's perspective, career development ensures a match between the career plans, interests and capabilities of individual employees and specific organisational needs.

Development opportunities need to be provided to allow potential leaders to develop their leadership capabilities and for current leaders to enhance their skills and knowledge. Young teachers need to be provided with early leadership experiences and opportunities should be expanded for staff at all levels to act in leadership roles.

Subject Headings

School principals
Teachers' employment