Principal-teacher relationships: foregrounding the international importance of principals’ social relationships for school learning climates

Heather E. Price (Basis Policy Research, Milwaukee, WI, USA and University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA)
Nienke M. Moolenaar (Department of Education, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands and Department of Education Studies, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 2 February 2015



Price, H.E. and Moolenaar, N.M. (2015), "Principal-teacher relationships: foregrounding the international importance of principals’ social relationships for school learning climates", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 53 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Principal-teacher relationships: foregrounding the international importance of principals’ social relationships for school learning climates

Article Type: Editorial introduction From: Journal of Educational Administration, Volume 53, Issue 1

Building and sustaining a successful school learning climate has since long been regarded a pivotal task of educational leaders and a vital lever to improve student learning and achievement. How to build such learning-oriented climates pervades discussions on education around the globe, as evidenced by recent OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey reports (OECD, 2012a, b, 2014) and the Teaching Practices and Pedagogical Innovation report (Vieluf et al., 2012). Current trends in educational leadership and administration foreground the importance of principals’ social relationships in shaping such learning climates. Nearly half of US states are including school climate and principal-teacher relations in new principal evaluations (Connelly and Bartoletti, 2012), and interest in distributed leadership among principals and teachers can be noticed in both educational practice and research (e.g. Hulpia et al., 2011; Scribner et al., 2007; Spillane, 2006).

Literature has pointed to the importance of strong social relationships, among and between students and teachers, as critical components to develop and sustain successful classroom climates, (Mainhard et al., 2011; Spilt et al., 2011). In the last decade, research across the globe has expanded the scope of research beyond the student to investigate how educators’ relationships shape school climates, as evidenced by the growth of studies exploring relationships among district leaders, principals, and teachers (Bakkenes et al., 1999; Coburn and Russell, 2008; Daly and Finnigan, 2009, 2010; Hite et al., 2006; de Lima, 2007; Moolenaar et al., 2011; Penuel et al., 2009; Penuel et al., 2010; Pitts and Spillane, 2009; Price, 2011, 2012). This line of research suggests that social interactions among educators are vital to productive learning climates, both in terms of student learning and teachers’ professional development[1].

Despite the increased interest in social relationships among educators, there is less focused attention to the relationships between principals and teachers (Barnett and McCormick, 2004). Teachers, whether they are traditional classroom teachers, school management team members, or district colleagues, form an important part of the social context of schools within which principals administrate. Principals are greatly dependent on their teachers to reach school goals, as teachers form the bridge from administration to classroom. Indeed, research has time and again suggested that leadership affects student learning indirectly, through school conditions such as school structure, school culture, and teacher collaboration (Hallinger and Heck, 1998; Leithwood and Jantzi, 2000; Thoonen et al., 2012). However, while current work on educational leadership and its connection to capacity building and system-wide reform (Day, 2009; Finnigan et al., 2013; Harris, 2011) suggests the importance of this social context for successful leadership, there is limited understanding of the nature, quality, and importance of principal-teacher relationships for successful school learning climates. It is proposed that the principals’ influence on the students’ learning works through the principals’ influence on the teachers and the learning climate (Hallinger, 2003, 2005; Heck and Hallinger, 2010).

To better understand social relationships among principals and teachers, we have brought together several studies in this special issue that each highlight a different, yet related aspect of these relationships. The studies focus on how principals’ social relationships foster or constrain the quality of school learning climates in schools among a variety of school settings around the world. Like a prism, these studies were chosen to show the richness in theory and methodology with which the topic of principal-teacher relationships is currently being approached.

Research on social relationships in schools often involves complex theoretical development as it demands bringing together multiple, rich strands of research literature on principal leadership, teacher collaboration, professional development, school climate and culture, and school organization (e.g. Bryk et al., 2010; Daly, 2010; Price, 2012; Spillane, 2006; Warren-Little, 2010). By showcasing various theoretical frameworks underlying the study of principal relationships, such as leadership theories and social network theory, this special issue aims to contribute to our understanding of mechanisms that may explain productive principal-teacher relationships across various country contexts, school organizations (traditional and charter), and school levels (primary and secondary education). Together, these studies illustrate key characteristics of principals’ relationships that may foster or constrain school learning climates, focusing particularly on the development and maintenance of trust as a key ingredient of school climate.

We purposefully include in this special issue five research papers that scaffold a comprehensive framework of how principals’ social relationships affect school learning climates. Figure 1 illustrates the comprehensive and complementary design of the papers for this issue. Each paper examines nuanced portions of this framework, and together, the papers are intended to form an overall understanding of this important topic. The contributions draw on data from three countries, and employ rigorous, novel, and theoretically motivated methods in order to offer a comprehensive perspective on principal-teacher relationships in different settings, countries, and with different types of teacher professionals.

Figure 1. Principal-teacher relationships and school learning climates

The studies in this issue employ various methods to examine quantitative data on principal-teacher relationships, such as social network analysis, structural equation modeling, and multi-level modeling to measure and test the proposed social relationship processes. Using these techniques to test the key theoretical underpinnings regarding the centrality of the principal in shaping the school learning climate, we aim to contribute rigorous empirical work to support theory-building on fostering and sustaining productive professional social workspaces to benefit school learning climates.

The first article, “The Networked School Leader: Examining Principals’ Social Relationships and Transformational Leadership in School and District Networks” by Moolenaar and Sleegers (2014) focuses on principals’ relationships with teachers and colleague-principals in 46 schools in a single Dutch elementary school district. The authors explore the extent to which principals maintain similar relationships with their teachers and colleague-principals, following the hypothesis that principals who are central in the district’s social network may also be central in their school’s social network (and vice versa). To explain this relationship, they examine whether this similarity in being a “hub” in these networks, is related to their transformational leadership behavior and levels of trust in their school.

The second article, “Administrative Context and Novice Teacher-Mentor Interactions” by Pogondzinski focuses on the effects of principals on the effectiveness of novice teacher mentoring programmes in 11 districts under two different policy contexts. No matter the state policy, Pogondzinski finds that it is the principal who activates the success of the novice teacher mentor program through setting the school norms around mentoring. When the principal is an advocate for novice teacher mentoring, it succeeds. This brings to the forefront the indirect effect of the importance of principals’ social relationships on the school climate of successful teacher mentorship programming.

In “Faculty Trust in the Principal: An Essential Ingredient in High-Performing Schools”, Tschannen-Moran and Gareis report on a study in two large US school districts on the role of teachers’ trust in their principal with perceptions of collegial and instructional leadership behaviors. They find the trust develops in principal-teacher relationships at both the elementary and secondary schools at two levels: interpersonal and task. The effects of this trust generated in principal-teacher relationships influences teacher collegiality and professionalism as well as school climates of academic press and student engagement.

The fourth article, “Trust in School: A Pathway to Inhibit Teacher Burnout?” by Van Maele focuses on the effects of trust on teacher burnout in 58 elementary schools in Flanders (Belgium). In this study, perceptions of trusted social relationships between teachers and their principals, other teachers, and their students are tested in relation to three types of teacher burnout (emotional, depersonalization, and accomplishment burnout). Van Maele finds that principal-teacher relationships are especially good at combating the effects of emotional burnout of teachers. The influence of the school-level faculty trust is less impactful on burnout than the individual teacher perception.

The last empirical contribution, “Principals’ social interactions with teachers: How principal-teacher social relations correlate with teachers’ perceptions of student engagement” by Price returns readers to the US, set in non-traditional, but public, charter schools. It focuses on the role of principals’ relationships with teachers as a mediating effect on teachers’ perceptions of principals’ trust and support of the teaching staff. Her findings suggest that teachers’ perceptions shape a school learning climate that affects teacher engagement and ultimately their perceptions of student engagement. These findings support the theoretical proposition that principals influence students through their teachers.

Following the empirical articles are two commentaries from leading scholars in policy, research, and praxis of school leadership and school learning climates. In the first commentary, Daly (2015) too reflects on the research implications for theory on educational leadership and school learning climate. The second commentary by Seashore Louis (2014) discusses the praxis implications for schools, administration, and leadership, given the research presented in the special issue. Both commentaries suggest policy implications.

In sum, this collection of papers offers a strong and unique contribution to understanding the impact of principals’ social relationships by using multiple theoretical perspectives, drawing on a variety of data collection and analysis methods, studying these relationships in multiple educational settings and countries, and examining the impact of these relationships at both individual and organizational levels. Taken together, these papers provide a comprehensive understanding of principal-teacher relationships as they support the work of shaping school learning climates around the world.

Heather E. Price

Basis Policy Research, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA and University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

Nienke M. Moolenaar

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands and Education Studies, University of California, San Diego, California, USA


Indeed, American Journal of Education recently dedicated the November 2012 issue to better understand teacher collaboration. A recent edited volume, Interpersonal Relationships in Education (Wubbels et al., 2012), also focuses on multiple dimensions of student-student, student-teacher, and teacher-teacher interactions, and the edited book Social Networks and Educational Change (Daly, 2010) was completely dedicated to using social network analysis and theory to understand educator relationships.


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About the Guest Editors

Heather E. Price is a Senior Associate at Basis Policy Research where she focuses on aligning education research with questions relevant to education policy. Over five years of secondary-level teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools informs her research. Price has previously published in American Education Research Journal, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Policy, and Social Science Researcher. Heather also holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame where she is an Affiliate in the Center for Research on Educational Opportunities. Heather E. Price is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

Nienke M. Moolenaar is a Faculty Member at the Department of Education at the Utrecht University, The Netherlands. In her research, she continues to explore how educators’ social networks change during educational reform. Moolenaar has previously published in American Education Research Journal, Educational Administration Quarterly, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. Nienke holds a PhD from the University of Amsterdam and recently completed a post-doc at the University of California at San Diego.

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