Is there trust in your school?


Low trust between teachers and school leaders can lead to toxic cultures in our schools. David Weston discusses possible solutions to this dangerous situation

On my recent trip to the USA, I was struck by how, both there and here, we sometimes need to find solutions to “toxic” school cultures.

While over there, I had the opportunity to listen to a large number of American teachers in Michigan talking about the issues facing them over their professional development. What struck me was how, despite very different systems, the resulting issues are similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

In particular, it felt like I struck a chord when I talked about the barrier of cultures of low trust: where senior leaders feel they are making the effort to improve the school, but don’t trust that teachers are on board; and where teachers feel they are working hard but don’t trust that senior leaders are acting in the best interests of the school, staff and students.

In particular, an American teacher asked me this: “What do I do if, hypothetically, I’m stuck in a school where the central leadership and administration team see teachers as a barrier to improvement and are trying to force change on them? What if leaders’ view of effective professional development therefore precludes trusting teachers to take any responsibility for their own professional development, and they focus on lectures of what they want to see in the school, backed up with punitive accountability through observations and test scores?”

There was a certain amount of laughter about her using the word “hypothetically”, but this was accompanied by a large number of sympathetic nods around the room. 

We also discussed the opposite viewpoint, how senior leaders were frustrated by teachers who they felt resisted and rejected every proposed change, who thwarted efforts to engage staff more, who failed to engage with the urgency of change, and seemed unwilling to accept the need for it.

These two views tend to occur together. Toxic cultures grow where an “us-vs-them” norm takes root and there are dwindling efforts to address the problem, other than through blunt attempts to wield/gain power or negative, behind the scenes counter-briefing.

As I spoke with these teachers, I was reminded of a talk I heard at the excellent ResearchED conference in New York, where top US researcher and writer Karin Chenoweth relayed her findings on what exceptional school principals do that makes their schools outperform the rest. 

A key finding was that they work hard to build personal relationships with each member of staff and achieve buy-in to their plans, they dispassionately use evidence and, crucially, don’t take anything personally.

Karin illustrated this principle by describing an exceptional school leader who observed a colleague and discovered instructional practice that she really wasn’t comfortable with. Staying true to her values, the school leader had a discussion with this teacher and noted that this teacher’s test data were always very strong and that students reacted well to her teaching. 

The principal reported back to Karin that while she as the school’s leader had publicly advocated different teaching models, she accepted the evidence that this teacher was achieving success with a “non-compliant” model and refused to take it personally. She accepted that this teacher should continue doing something different as her approach was clearly working – ego didn’t (and shouldn’t) come in to it.

Back in Michigan, we discussed how it is hard for people – whether teachers or leaders – to shift their views when things have become so entrenched in this toxic environment. We discussed possible solutions:

  • Senior leaders publicly taking teaching risks in front of staff and asking for honest feedback.

  • Changing performance management policies to make it clear that their main focus is developmental, aimed at improving student outcomes (rather than obsessing about specific “performance”) – and that their implementation reflects the atmosphere of professional trust and respect that the school aspires to.

  • Concerted efforts across a school to remove any sense of “ego”, adopting instead a problem-solving approach which uses data and evidence borne of open questions.

  • Teachers and senior leaders visiting schools with similar intakes and contexts but very different culture and working practices around leadership and professional development, in order to open their eyes to new possibilities, regain optimism, and re-open themselves to thinking in new ways.

  • Opportunities to genuinely listen to one another (possibly facilitated by a trusted third party) to help everyone understand each other’s pressures, concerns and values.

  • Consistent congruency between what leaders say and do around professional development, performance management and trust.

  • Adopting and reinforcing non-judgemental coaching approaches and dispositions among senior leaders, and then more widely among all staff.

This is all much easier said than done, of course. To be honest, senior leaders hold most of the cards here and therefore unfortunately have to shoulder much of the burden of change, even where trust has disintegrated. 

However, there are ideas that everyone can use to try and deal with the issues. Through our National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), we conduct a detailed audit of schools’ professional development processes, gathering both senior leaders’ perceptions and plans and then contrasting these with the reality of an anonymous whole staff survey. This has helped us to identify actions that have built trust.

One example is how headteacher John Tomsett, at Huntington School in York, placed himself in a deliberately vulnerable position by videoing a section of a lesson that he taught and playing this at a whole-staff meeting for others to discuss and offer feedback to him. He didn’t try to share an example of a “perfect lesson” – it was a lesson like any other, with perfectly normal everyday flaws.

In schools where leaders are modelling effective professional learning, such as this, or particularly where headteachers continue to teach and take part in the school’s CPD alongside all staff, such as at Aylsham High School or Dereham Neatherd High School, the “us-vs-them” culture is automatically reduced and a shared vision of school values is much more likely to flourish.

Clear signals that leaders are willing to put themselves on a professional even footing with the staff in a school are powerful. As leading thinker and academic Philippa Cordingley would put it, reciprocal vulnerability builds trust.

Another example can be seen in Blatchington Mill School and Sixth Form, where they instituted a radical change to their performance management procedures. Senior leaders introduced an approach whereby one of the performance targets was deliberately extraordinarily challenging (albeit aspirational for the individual teacher) – accompanied by the expectation that a significant proportion of teachers may never realistically meet it. 

The aim was that each member of staff would be carefully supported in their efforts to achieve a valued “stretch goal” and held responsible for working hard at it – but that the atmosphere of professional respect was such that it was clearly understood that falling short of these aspirational targets was acceptable, as long as efforts were made in a collegiate way.

In each of these cases a developmental culture was created through action from senior leaders that demonstrated, both in word and in deed, how they respected the professionalism, drive and experience of their colleagues. Leaders modelled the approach of being a professional learner, willing to take risks in front of peers, showing that it was okay to try hard and, if necessary, fail in the process. 

In exceptional leadership which feeds through to successful schools, ego is not a factor – there is instead a concerted effort to support cross-school consensus, trust and belief.

  • David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges. Visit

Further information
For more on the NTEN, visit
Photo: iStock



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