Building trust in schools: A long game

source: pixabay @geralt

“Good schools are intrinsically social enterprises that depend heavily on cooperative endeavours among the varied participants who comprise the school community. Relational trust constitutes the connective tissue that binds these individuals together around advancing the welfare of children.”

Bryk & Schneider, 2002, p. 144

As the new school year begins in Australia, I have been reflecting on our staff days, on future professional learning and staff development, and on how the work we have done in this space has, over time, been shifting the culture of the school. In this post I describe some of the actions take over recent years towards a professional culture of growth, collaboration and trust.

As a school we have been clear in our goals for professional culture: that we are about growth and development, not deficit. We are about expecting and supporting our excellent staff to be better, not policing or fixing them. Each of us works to improve what we do, because no matter how good we are, we can always be better. Each member of our staff has the right and responsibility to develop professionally, and the school has the responsibility to support the development of our staff as professionals through ongoing professional learning. We know that teaching, and teacher professional learning done right, can improve student achievement. Our internal processes of professional learning and collaboration are important because we know that immersive, sustained and collaborative professional learning is more likely to have a positive, ongoing impact than one-off experiences.

Between 2012 and 2014, we researched, planned, piloted and refined a coaching model and trained all coaches and leaders in Cognitive Coaching. We used the Danielson Framework as a tool for teacher reflection on low-inference lesson data. In 2015 and 2016 we implemented and bedded down the coaching model across the school.

Since the implementation of the coaching model, we continue to work persistently on the underpinning philosophy, norms and protocols for professional conversations, shaping our organisation’s semantic space, or ‘how we talk around here’. We continue to iterate the ways in which professional learning happens within the school, in addition to supporting staff to pursue external professional development opportunities.

In 2017 I wrote a new professional learning policy and launched a refreshed professional learning application form in order to make clear the principles, practices, staff expectations and decision-making frame for professional learning for teaching staff. I worked to build a research culture. Coaching of teachers by trained coaches continued. Coaching and mentoring of leaders by senior leaders was trialed. A teacher mentor role was introduced that provides a more directed and consultative alternative to working with a coach. We have found our teacher mentors are appreciated by new graduates and by those staff wanting to work closely with an experienced, expert colleague on an element of their teaching practice. New leaders continued to be trained in Cognitive Coaching. Some leaders additionally completed Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability courses on having difficult or performance management conversations. We introduced a once-per-term leadership forum, an evening event during which all school leaders have the opportunity to come together around leadership. These forums have involved sharing the expertise of those leaders within our school and also external experts such as Dylan Wiliam, Pasi Sahlberg, Eric Sheninger, Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh and school principals.

In 2018 we made a few more changes in response to the needs of our staff. We introduced GROWTH coaching training for coaches and leaders, especially to facilitate goal-setting conversations between managers and direct reports. This has spilled over into staff coaching one another informally, and in teachers and pastoral leaders using GROWTH coaching for student goal setting in subject and pastoral arenas. We moved away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated internal professional learning processes and introduced negotiated internal professional learning pathways for teachers and for leaders. These allow for differentiation, voice and choice for our staff, acknowledging them as capable, self-reflective adult learners who know their own needs. This included the addition of professional learning groups around common areas of interest. It also included an internally designed and run leadership development program for new and aspirant leaders.

This year we are continuing to refine what we do for staff learning and culture, based on data. Senior leadership constantly seeks feedback—through both anonymous surveys and open conversations or focus groups—in order to iterate what we do to better serve the staff, students, and parents of the school.

Over these years as I have led the coaching model and professional learning at the school, I have noticed incremental shifts in culture. Coaching language and behaviours have seeped into daily conversations. Staff are increasingly willing to give honest and critical feedback, including to management, with a view that their views will be listened to, taken seriously and used to inform decision making. People have more tools for having tricky, sensitive or uncomfortable conversations. They are more often–gently and respectfully–holding their peers or their direct reports to account.

Collaboration and productive work doesn’t happen because we are a bunch of people in a room or a school together. We don’t do our best collaborative work when we are all getting along. High functioning organisational cultures have high levels of support for their people, but also high levels of challenge. They also have clear roles, expectations and norms. There is a sense of collegiality, shared purpose and shared identity, but also a willingness to work through honest feedback, respectful dissent and graceful disagreement. As I look back and look forward to the work we have done at my school, and continue to do, it is about incrementally moving the culture forward to one of increasing trust, productive collaboration, and a place of balance where all members of the community are at once respected, honoured, supported individuals, and an integrated, valued part of something bigger than themselves. Building trust in schools is a long game, and one in which the outcomes are slippery and hard to quantify. But it’s worthwhile and rewarding.


Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russel Sage.

6 thoughts on “Building trust in schools: A long game

  1. Pingback: Success indicators of a professional learning model | the édu flâneuse

  2. Pingback: How driving a husky team is like school leadership | the édu flâneuse

  3. Pingback: What matters in teaching and learning? | the édu flâneuse

  4. Pingback: Staff wellbeing: Time and money | the édu flâneuse

  5. Pingback: 2021 Year in Review | the édu flâneuse

  6. Pingback: Key concepts for leading professional learning | the édu flâneuse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s