Building Trust and Developing Teacher Leadership

  • On 2014-05-06
  • teacher leadership, trust

When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb.”

Patanjali, Ancient Yoga Master

 When I first began as an educational consultant I thought that my core business would be working with teachers and schools supporting them to plan rich, authentic learning for students that really engaged the students and had them be more involved in driving the learning. And that’s what I did. However, the more that I worked with teachers and schools the more that I began to recognize that there were other underlying facets that also needed to be addressed for the great authentic learning to take place. In the past year I have found myself working more and more with schools on creating empowered professional learning environments.

Schools are relational organisations. In other words, relationships are at the operational core of schools. Whilst this is fabulous for creating the necessary safe learning environment for students it does has its problems.

I often ask teachers, as part of a Trust Workshop I run, “In your relationships with students, what are some of the key elements you have found has made the difference to their performance?”

 Naturally I get answers such as:

  • They believe in me
  • They believe in themselves – and we build their confidence
  • Value them and their opinions / respect
  • Sharing of life experiences – sharing stories
  • Taking time to know the person – their stories – the individual
  • Connectedness – relatedness – connecting as equals
  • Constructive feedback
  • Challenging them and them knowing our expectations – creating attainable challenges and setting attainable goals
  • Openness
  • Going beyond the minimum with them
  • Positivity
  • Honesty – Trust – Listening – Patience
  • Sense of Fairness
  • OK to make mistakes
  • Humour

When I then ask them, “If this is what builds a relationship with students to perform, and we know it would work with your colleagues, what hinders you to do the same with your colleagues?”

What I then find are a range of reasons such as:

  • Competition
  • Time Restraints
  • What one is bringing to work from elsewhere
  • Past experiences
  • Fear of lack of confidentiality
  • Lack of openness
  • Judgmental – close mindedness
  • The culture within the school does not involve much professional feedback so feedback is seen as threatening
  • Collapse between professional and personal conversations in the mind of staff (people take feedback as a criticism personally so avoid ‘professional’ conversations)
  • Perception that teachers are ‘experts’ – like expertise is a fixed thing and should not be challenged
  • Differences in personalities, culture, humour, attitude
  • Fear and perception of potential conflict

Fundamental to all of this is that schools and staff don’t expend the same effort to build and maintain their professional relationships as they do with building and maintaining their relationships with students. Yet if a school wants a high performing learning environment then a high trust professional learning culture is a core requirement. An interesting outcome of a high trust professional environment is that more teachers step up to leadership and desiring to drive the school vision and mission.

Sometimes I think we go about things the wrong way in schools – we work hard to encourage teacher leadership before we create the environment for leadership to arise. In a school with high levels of trust and support – staff leadership is natural. As trust grows people want to share and collaborate with one another professionally, they forgive miscommunications, they see mistakes as learning opportunities, systems and structures become aligned for high performance learning, and there is an energy and vitality to the school.

If you are interested in building a sharing professional community Karen Dymke (former Director of Learning at Luther College Croydon and now teaching and learning coach at Upper Yarra SC) has come on board with us. Karen has distilled the practicalities of creating an empowering learning observation approach for schools from her application of the Harvard Project Zero approach at Luther College. If you want to find out more about Karen and her work or what we do with empowering schools to build trust and empower teacher-leadership then feel free to contact me at

In the meantime here are some useful relevant articles!

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