…enhances opportunities for the organisation to benefit from the capacities of more of its members to capitalise on the range of their individual strengths, and develops among organisational members a fuller appreciation of interdependence and how one’s behaviour affects the organisation as a whole. (p. 2)

While losing good quality teachers from the profession can be framed as an educational problem, it has more far reaching economic and social implications that threaten Australia’s international competitiveness in an increasingly global economic system. This is a particular concern given that high quality teachers are an essential social and economic asset in developing Australia’s human capital (Rudd & Gillard, 2008), yet international research suggests that the attrition rates for high quality teachers resemble those for less successful teachers (TNTP, 2012). Despite the presence of more focussed processes to attract and select high quality teachers, and better designed and implemented induction and mentoring programs (Simons, Daly, & Johnson, 2012), too many ‘irreplaceable’ teachers leave the profession – those who have been ‘so successful that they are nearly impossible to replace’ (TNTP, 2012, p. 2).


As schooling systems search for new ways to address this problem, recent research suggests that past ‘solutions’ based on macro-level financial inducements and scholarships to attract high quality teachers may be misdirected. For example, DeAngelis and Presley (2010) found that variation in school-level attrition is substantially greater within school type than across school type, suggesting that practices, processes, and events at the school level have a greater influence on teachers’ decisions to stay or leave, than the location and socio-economic level of the school. These and other findings focus attention on schools as sites for action on the problem of teacher attrition (Johnson, 2012).

Given this re-direction of interest towards schools, it follows that the role of school leaders in shaping the conditions that affect early career teacher retention should now be the focal point of greater scrutiny and applied research (Johnson, Down, Le Cornu, Peters, Sullivan, Pearce, Hunter, 2013-forthcoming). The literature on school leadership is extensive and provides a valuable insight into the wide and complex range of tasks and roles that are involved with leading modern schools. However, critiques of leadership studies, and the wide range of leadership theories that have been developed by the field, frequently raise concerns about over-investing in studies of ‘heroic’ and ‘transformational’ individual leaders, rather than seeking to understand the dynamic and complex processes that characterise shared and collective leadership activity in more pluralistic and ‘democratic’ organisations (Gunter, 2001; O’Brien, Murphy, & Draper, 2008). Consequently, many contemporary studies of school leadership recognise the value of examining more closely how leaders in designated leadership positions work with other school personnel in complex human systems where the dynamics of relationships are interdependent, intricate and long term (Gronn, 2003). The focus in those studies was on formal and informal interactions, the establishment of relationships, alliances and coalitions, and the exercise of power and influence. The most common term used to unite approaches to school leadership that embrace notions of shared and collaborative leadership is ‘distributed leadership’. Leithwood, Mascall, and Strauss (2009) argue that distributed leadership

Despite its current popularity, not as a model, but ‘as a conceptual or analytical lens for investigating school leadership’ (Spillane & Diamond, 2007, p. 1), distributed leadership fails to recognise the inherently political nature of schools in which power relationships, conflict, and compromise are commonplace. As Flessa (2009) notes,

The study of politics within the school – micropolitics – is sometimes understood as the study of how things really work, not how an organisational chart or principal’s plan would like them to work. (p. 331)

As Johnson (2004) reflected, ‘micropolitics’ is generally viewed as a relatively new field of study and its conceptual boundaries and distinctive features are elusive and contested. However, Blase (1991) provides a useful working definition:

Micropolitics refers to the use of formal and informal power by individuals and groups to achieve their goals in organizations. In large part, political actions result from perceived differences between individuals and groups, coupled with the motivation to use power to influence and/or protect. Although such actions are consciously motivated, any, consciously or unconsciously motivated, may have political ‘significance’ in a given situation. Both cooperative and conflictive actions and processes are of the realm of micropolitics. Moreover, macro- and micropolitical factors frequently interact. (p. 11)

Morgan (1986) suggests that schools are ‘intrinsically political in that ways must be found to create order and direction among people with potentially diverse and conflicting interests’ (p. 142). For example, studies of policy enactment (e.g., Ball, Maguire, & Braun, 2012, p. 49) have established that political bargaining is common as ‘policy actors’ select, interpret, advocate, defend, oppose, and selectively support features of local change initiatives that become the focus of highly contested ‘policy work’. Similarly, studies of curriculum innovation (e.g., Johnson, 2005) have documented the struggles between entrenched coalitions who defend their pedagogic autonomy against other groups of teachers and school leaders who seek greater teaching consistency. 

There are several perspectives on the micropolitics of schools in the professional literature, yet most focus on how individuals and groups influence others to further their objectives. Importantly, some studies have focussed on the micropolitics of cooperation (that is, collaborative, collegial, consensual, and democratic interactions), as well as the more frequently studied conflictual forms of interaction in school settings (Blase, 1991). As Johnson (2004) points out, the use of distributed forms of school leadership can be seen to be a micropolitical strategy that school leaders use to select key staff to join committees and teams, and to set the tone of their operation. According to Hoyle (1982, p. 88), micropolitics ‘is characterised more by coalitions than by departments, by strategies rather that enacted rules, by influence rather than by power, and by knowledge rather than by status’.

By adopting a micropolitical perspective in this proposed study of leaders’ work with early career teachers, we will be able to investigate the ways leaders resolve issues and question like:

  • What goals, interests, preferences or purposes are pursued by individuals and groups?
  • What decisions, actions, events and activities do individuals and groups undertake to pursue their interests?
  • Who decides these issues? Who decides who decides?
  • Who benefits from these decisions and actions? How and in what ways? Who decides who will benefit?
  • Who misses out? Who is marginalised or ignored by these decisions? How and in what ways?
  • How intentional, calculated, and strategic are these actions?
  • How subtle and covert are these actions or related non-actions?

This project is innovative in three related ways. First, its focus on the politics of school life as it impacts on the well-being of graduate teachers will offer new insights into the thinking and strategising of school leaders as they consider how best to support graduate teachers to make the transition to the profession. Consequently, this study will fill a gap in our knowledge about which leader-initiated micropolitical activities are most effective in nurturing early career teachers and promoting their professional growth. Second, the study will actively construct school leaders as inquirers into their own practice. By positioning leaders as co-researchers, the study will utilise the skills, knowledge and unique insider perspectives of the most influential actors in schools. The knowledge they co-produce will have considerable veracity, credibility, and professional impact at a time when promoting quality teacher retention is a major educational and economic issue. Third, the project will pay particular attention to ‘knowledge mobilisation’ – ‘getting the right information to the right people in the right format at the right time, so as to influence decision-making’ (Levin, 2008, p. 8). This will be achieved by using Principals Australia Institute’s (PAI) sophisticated Palnet and Pal2Pal networking and conferencing facilities. In this way, the project is likely to have a major impact across Australia on the ways that school leaders think about their roles as the orchestrators of the ‘micropolitics of cooperation’ in their schools.

There are two significant aspects to this project. First, it recognises the fundamentally important role that good quality teachers play in developing a nation’s ‘human capital’ and promoting its civility. Governments are now recognising this and are investing in initiatives designed to improve the quality of the teaching profession. This study focusses on a small but important aspect of this policy imperative – retaining ‘the best’ graduate teachers in our schools. Second, the project recognises, celebrates, and promotes the significant micropolitical role of school leaders in shaping the conditions that affect teacher quality. By making more explicit and expanding the repertoire of micropolitical strategies used by school leaders to keep ‘the best’ teachers in their schools, the study will have a practical impact on school leadership practices nationally.

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