Professional Growth
and Trajectories
of Development of Teachers
and School Leaders
in Contexts:
A Mixed-Method Study

>> back
Principal Investigator
Dr James Y. O. Ko
Associate Director of APCLC
& Associate Professor,
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor Allan Walker
Research Chair Professor
Co-Director of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong

Dr Qian Haiyan
Director of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong
Funding Source
General Research Fund
Project Duration


There is common neglect of contexts in research and policymaking, while the significance of contextual variations has become increasingly salient. Despite the accumulation of substantial and convincing findings in research, practitioners often find that these findings fail to form practical knowledge with immediate relevance to their schools because researchers strip away context specificity in their discourse. Similarly, a well-intended education policy, such as establishing new professional standards in Hong Kong for local practitioners, could be perceived negatively as accountability measures to force teachers and schools to improve. This study seeks to characterise how teachers and schools manage to tackle contextual challenges professionally by examining a novel theoretical model with nine propositions:

  1. Exceptional teachers and schools succeed in their approach to overcome contextual complexity.
  2. Quality leadership, teacher trust and commitment reduce goal conflicts in school governance and the uncertainty in professional learning.
  3. Teacher learning networks and distributed leadership promote collective capacities in enacting school policies and initiatives.
  4. When teachers and schools minimise risk aversions, they will exploit existing strengths and explore opportunities to innovate.
  5. Resilience fluctuates when teachers and the school have incompatible goal conflicts, but hybrid teacher leadership increases the chances of outstanding professional growth.
  6. Resilience is a collective professional quality of teachers in schools that succeeded in challenging contexts.
  7. Professional growth rises robustly if personal and organisational drivers are compatible.
  8. Gradual school changes rely on factors applicable to all schools, but profound and radical changes require charismatic figures and critical incidents to make things happen.
  9. Wiser individual and collective professional choices result in vigorous professional identities.

This study will employ a mixed-method, two-part design to understand professional growth and trajectories. General teacher/principal profiles will be developed first by latent class analysis from an online territory-wide survey of 400-500 teachers and 80-100 principals. Second, sixty case studies will be created from semi-structured interviews of teachers/principals purposively selected from the online survey, recipients of the annual Chief Executive Teaching Excellence Award, and recommendations of professional associations of practitioners.

Additional case studies of four schools with recognised exceptional professional capacities in overcoming adversities will be built on ethnographic observations and school-stakeholder interviews. Data mining strategies, content analysis, and social network analysis will be employed to triangulate mixed data. The narratives and profiles of teachers and schools succeeded to manage contextual constraints and grow professionally will provide knowledge applicable to teacher and school development and enrich policy discourses on professional standards of Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Expected outcomes and Impact of the Project

The Project has three target groups of beneficiaries: academics, professional associations, and think tanks; preservice and in-service teachers, and policymakers. The research team intends to generate impacts on these beneficiaries in short, middle, and long-term plans.

Short-term impact

For this reconceptualisation, the research team has included specific constructs in Day and Gu (2014) and Hallinger, Lee and Ko (2014) and a new specific targeted system policy, namely, the T-standard or Professional Standards for Teachers (PST) and Professional Standards for Principals (PSP) of Hong Kong (Committee on Professional Development of Teachers and Principals [COTAP], 2018a, b)). By adopting previously validated constructs and scales, this project is thus regarded as extending various projects funded by the RGC: Dr Ko’s work in Prof Philip Hallinger’s project, Assessing the Contribution of Distributed Leadership to School Improvement (2011-2013), Prof Walker’s ESRC-RGC project, Reshaping Educational Practice for Improvement in Hong Kong and England: How Schools Mediate Government Reforms (2012-2014) and GRF project of The Missing Link – School Leadership and Student Outcomes in Hong Kong Secondary Schools (2009-11).

Accordingly, we intend to present a conference paper at the annual WERA Focal Meeting in 2022 and submit a full theoretical article to the journal International Journal of Educational Management in the 1st quarter of 2023. Apart from presenting the results in conferences and journals, the research team will enhance research visibility through the website of our affiliated university research centre, academic exchanges and collaborations with international researchers through the research networks, publications of thematic reports and monographs and specifically designed seminars or webinars organised for international academics, think-tanks and non-government organisations.

As the research team will collaborate with the local professional associations of teachers and principals in the recruitment of participants, they are naturally our priority target beneficiaries. Since we seek to investigate connections between the context and the teacher/school leader, our findings should provide knowledge with practical implications for professional development and organisational capacities for school improvement that can be disseminated in regular meetings of these professional associations.

Mid-term impact
The research team has been connecting theories in different disciplines (education vs organisation theory) and evidence from other regions (Hong Kong vs China/England/Finland) and using mixed methods in projects. This project proposal is initiated to address the theoretical and methodological paradoxes in school leadership and management research. On the one hand, the pursuit of theoretical parsimoniousness has driven quantitative studies to focus on a narrow set of constructs in conceptualising and testing models at the price of ignoring or avoiding what qualitative research often calls for, namely, the complexity of contexts and individual interpretations of social phenomena. On the other hand, practitioners and policymakers are increasingly expecting researchers to provide practical and feasible advice that is valid and meaningful for a broad range of school contexts, varying in school sponsoring bodies, values in mission and vision, traditions, and stages of school development. Therefore, the unit of analysis of this proposed study is the connection between the context and the teacher/school leader, comparable to “the contract governing the relationship between the principal and the agent” in agency theory in organisational theory (Eisenhardt, 1989, p.58).

Drawing theories from other disciplines can bring in concepts and insights to educational research. The expected results should provide immediate insights on the agency structure applicable in a variety of settings, ranging from micro-level dyad phenomena between individual teachers with their colleagues and school principals to macro-level regulatory policy, such as the professional standards for teachers and principals. Since the unit of analysis of the study is the connection between the context and the teacher/school leader, the project will provide theoretical links with agency theory in organisational theory and its related themes (Eisenhardt, 1989). For example, while self-interest, silo mentality, bounded rationality and risk aversion are recurrent themes in agency theory studies, they are rarely discussed in educational research. We expect these themes will emerge when the research focus is shifted to contexts and agency structure. Accordingly, the research team will submit empirical papers on latent class profiles of teachers and principals and individual case studies of teachers and principals in 2023 to the journals Educational Management and Leadership and Journal of Educational Administration, respectively.

The research team will also organise professional development workshops and expand dissemination channels through school reports for participating schools and online access to research briefs. The PI will continue what he has done to apply case studies in the project as course study materials in our taught courses to help preservice teachers understand the significance of using empirical knowledge in their future workplaces. To develop mid-term influences on experienced in-service practitioners, the research team will continue to expand research findings in existing full courses (e.g. Problem-based Approaches to School Improvement) and update existing professional development programmes. For example, the PI would engage in-service teachers in discussions of shifting notions of teacher professionalism, support them to establish enquiry-based practices in professional-based problem finding and problem-solving, and develop skills on a reflective evaluation of their proposed changes.

Long-term impact
In the long run, the research team considers the proposed project should provide integrative knowledge. The new findings on leadership and organisational learning will shed light on more specific changes in practice and policy. For example, the integrated knowledge should specifically support teachers to meet the PST standards. For achieving “committed role models of professionalism”, teachers should pursue continuing professional development and participate in sharing and collaboration in the school and professional communities (COTAP, 2018a). As the co-developer of the current official training programme framework for the aspiring principals in Hong Kong, Prof Allan Walker will turn the project results into a new framework that can transform teacher professional development and policy discourse with empirical evidence to help principals become “visionary edupreneurs” and “versatile architects” and thus, meet the PSP standards (COTAP, 2018b).

For illustrating these proposed updates, we will discuss specific experiences of the case study schools in a journal article for the journal School Leadership and Management. It is a long-term business for academics to accumulate evidence for policymaking and draw insights on comparing practices between two regions. Though the proposed project is not a comparative study, the expected results will highlight the indigenous characteristics or contextual differences that can function as facilitators or deterrents as well as the universal properties of professionalisation and professional development across cultures. Prof Walker and Dr Qian will critically evaluate these issues in a journal paper to the journal Journal of Educational Change. Finally, the research team will explore the development of new courses and programmes to advance academic development at our university and maintain dialogues with local and overseas professional associations and policymakers on strategies to promote long-term training and support for practitioners. We will tailor the leadership development programmes at our affiliated research centre to enhance the professional capacities of middle leaders to become edupreneurs.