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Successful Leadership Practices to support the teaching and learning of English language learners.

Successful Leadership Practices to support the teaching and learning of English language learners.


Why is leadership important?

There is a growing interest and support from research to show the link between leadership, teaching and student learning. Research in many diverse contexts has shown that leadership has a strong influence on student learning. In an international study, Leithwood, Harris and Hopkins (2008, p.28) found successful “school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning”.


Another important factor to consider about leadership is that we often become preoccupied with the idea of a single leader. However, Fullan (2002) points out that in complex multi-layered educational settings, good leadership is more than one individual. He stresses that we need leaders and leadership at many levels across the school.


Furthermore, as the numbers of English language learners (ELLs) continue to grow in New Zealand schools, the importance of good leadership increases as we try to meet the needs of ethnically and linguistically changing and challenging classrooms. According to Ministry of Education statistics, there were students from 158 different countries, speaking 116 different languages in New Zealand schools in 2012.


Literature and research on effective leadership practices

There is a vast array of often complex classifications and approaches to educational leadership in the literature in this field. To simplify, I have summarised a variety of studies from a number of countries such as the UK, USA, New Zealand and Australia, and also from primary, secondary and tertiary contexts (Day & Leithwood, 2007; MacBeath & Dempster, 2009; Robinson, Hohepa & Lloyd, 2009). From these studies a number of effective leadership practices emerge. These include clear goals, building vision, understanding and developing people, designing the organisation, managing teaching and learning, fostering collaborative teaching and learning environments, and having a safe and orderly environment.

In the TESOL field there is very little literature and research and most of this comes from the USA. The literature in this area attempts to raise the profile of leadership of ELLs and identifies challenges to leadership of ESOL. Often the research is related to contexts where ELLs are in the majority in the classroom - which is often not the case in New Zealand schools.


The Research Project

Below is a brief discussion of some successful leadership practices which emerged from our research project in two primary schools. In one school around 10% of students were from non-English speaking backgrounds and in the other school around 30%. However, these numbers were not always representative of those who received ESOL funding or who had ESOL support at the schools. The data was analysed in an iterative process moving between the data and literature on leadership, and the findings showed that the successful practices were often closely interconnected.


Findings about successful leadership practices supporting ELLs


  • Establishing clear ESOL goals and direction to make it an integral part of the whole school focus

Having a clear focus and vision for ESOL teaching and learning throughout the school was an important leadership practice. Teachers needed to know the requirements, objectives and expectations for their ELLs and this needed to be communicated clearly.


  • Leaders should be role models and have credibility through their knowledge of ESOL in the school

Having ESOL knowledge by all those in leadership positions was important (not only the ESOL lead teacher or ESOL TAs). This included knowledge of the ESOL curriculum, pedagogy and assessments and the different ELLs cultures. This led to those in leadership position being seen as competent practioners and having credibility.


  • Providing ESOL professional learning for all teachers and for those in leadership positions

Maintaining a focus on ESOL professional learning for everyone in the school was a significant factor for successful leadership to ensure all educators have the resources to meet ELLs needs. This included teachers, TAs and all those in leadership positions (including the principal) being involved in the professional learning, which also promoted a culture of learning.


  • Creating the conditions, opportunities and structures in a school to support ESOL

Managing the teaching and learning environment to support ESOL in the school was important. For example, creating systems and structures such as assessments, planning opportunities, ensuring teacher were familiar with the ELLPs, shared data bases and resources, awareness of specific ESOL support systems and creating collaborative teams.       



Some challenges

Interestingly the research also highlighted a number of challenges to successful leadership of ESOL in school contexts where ELLs are in the minority. This included a business as usual approach and the marginalisation of ESOL.   In a business as usual approach ELLs have to fit into existing school systems – such as assessments and reporting structures. The marginalisation of ESOL seems to occur when those in leadership, teachers and other educators don’t see the area of ESOL as their responsibility and so ESOL becomes marginalised to a small team or individuals.





Day, C., & Leithwood, K. (2007). Successful principal leadership in times of change: An international   perspective. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer


Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 16-20

Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2008). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organisation, 28(1), 27-42  

MacBeath, J., & Dempster, N. (2009). Connecting leading and learning: Principles for practice. New York:



Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works

and why. Best evidence synthesis. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.


Kia ora colleagues,

I have been invited to write a guest post around the subject of leadership of English language learners. This is a much neglected aspect of the ESOL field – despite research which shows the importance of leadership and growth in numbers and diversity of English language learners in New Zealand and worldwide.

 I thought it would be good to start with a very brief introduction about my experiences in ESOL. I have been teaching at Massey University on the BED(TESOL) and Masters in TESOL leadership programmes since 2009 and have been teaching and leading in the ESOL field since the 1980’s in UK, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand. This has involved teaching English language learners from primary to university level and from a vast array of countries and cultures.

 Attached is a brief summary of some relevant literature in the leadership field and my findings from a research project in two primary schools about Successful leadership practices which support the teaching and learning of English language learners. The research project was conducted by myself and two colleagues from Massey University. These findings are from interviews with teachers, those in leadership positions and those who work in the ESOL area – including TAs. Some interesting challenges to leadership of ELLs also emerged.

 I am happy to discuss these findings.


Ngā Mihi




Dr Alyson McGee

Senior Lecturer: TESOL Leadership

Massey University

Institute of Education,