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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 11: Formal and informal leadership

District leadership - The Case of Ontario: Moving from isolated teacher practice to collective teacher practice

by Dr. Jenni Donohoo, Research and Program Evaluation Consultant with the Greater Essex County District School Board, and is contacted half-time with Literacy GAINs (Growing Accessible and Interactive Networks)

The Ontario school system is one of the best in the world (McKinsey & Company, 2010). Ontario’s students are among the world’s best readers (PISA) and Ontario is a world leader in its sustained strategy of professionally-driven reform of its education system (OECD, 2010). What can districts across the world learn from this? Can the case of Ontario offer guidance to districts in low-income contexts?

How has this happened?

  • Focus on collaborative practice: Ontario has focused on teachers and school leaders working together to develop effective instructional practices. This has involved identifying what actually works in classrooms and doing so with rigorous attention to detail and a commitment to not only improving one’s own practice but that of others as well. Focus, consistency of practice, and collective capacity are the strengths of this whole system reform approach (Fullan, 2013).
  • Invest in employees and transformed professional development structures: Over the past few years, models of professional development offered in Ontario have improved significantly. Rather than devoting personnel and money to system-wide top-down TPD, school teams are engaging in collaborative inquiry driven by an identified common student learning need. Structures have been put into place to connect peers to peers and enable within school and across school networking. As professional development is becoming more relevant and contextual, teachers are placing greater value on the time and opportunity to learn from and with each other.

What remains to be done?

While powerful designs for professional learning are in place, some teams are only beginning to touch the surface when it comes to developing a common understanding of the cognitive needs of their students and how to best support student learning. In addition, those who find themselves in the role of instructional leader are looking for guidance in how to “intentionally interrupt” (Katz & Dack, 2013) and overcome barriers that get in the way of adult learning.

What steps can districts across the globe take? 

  • Ensure a careful balance between autonomy and dependence. By affording schools greater autonomy in determining where, when, and how to allocate human and financial resources for professional learning, teacher leaders will emerge. This is reliant on teachers being provided with the opportunity to learn and grow with their peers.
  • Maintain strong connections between district leaders and school-based leaders. In terms of dependence, this does not mean a heavy reliance on outsiders as experts, but rather trusting relationships between central office staff and school based leaders. Learning communities often require the assistance of an outsider who may be in a position to push teams to a deeper level of learning (Levin, 2008). In addition, an outsider can support school based leaders by assisting them in developing their leadership practice. How the outsider carries this work out is of utmost importance.

  • Invest in building relationships with and between all stakeholders. District leaders need to consider how to foster trusting relationships between consultants and administrators. In addition, central office personnel responsible for supporting those who lead the work in the schools need to constantly examine and reflect on their practices. Superintendents, consultants, and staff development coordinators would benefit from identifying, examining, and reflecting on their own problems of practice. Networking with others in similar roles while considering how to enact their practice skillfully will further assist in launching Ontario to the next level of performance.


  • Fullan, M. (2013). Great to Excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda.
  • Levin, B. (2008). How to change 5000 schools: A practical and positive approach for leading change at every level. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Katz, S., & Dack, L. (2013). Intentional interruption: Breaking down learning barriers to transform professional practice. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  • Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. London: McKinsey and Company.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2010). Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States. Available:


Jenni holds a doctorate in education from the University of Windsor, Brock University, and Lakehead University’s Joint Educational Studies PhD Program. Her classroom teaching experiences include elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education. Jenni is the Past President of Learning Forward Ontario. She recently published, Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide to School Improvement.


Click to read more about the Teacher Professional Development in Crisis series.