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Trust: The revolution in schools

Written by: Jeanie Davies and Georgina Newton
|Figure 1 shows The Trust Revolution in schools as a model including outcomes
5 min read
Jeanie Davies, Head of Learning and Organisational Development, Oasis Community Learning, UK; Co-Founder, Schoolgenie, UK
Georgina Newton, Associate Professor, Centre for Teacher Education, University of Warwick, UK; Co-Founder, Schoolgenie, UK

Imagine a school day with no fear and anxiety, where staff are enabled and empowered to take risks, learn, feed back and grow, where everyone is performing at their best and for the best of all. This is the kind of environment that arises when trust is the bedrock of a culture. Research from Harvard business school calls this a ‘psychologically safe’ workplace (Nembhard and Edmondson, 2011).

In 2020, the DfE recommended that wellbeing be ‘designed-in’ to schools (Gibb, 2020). Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the extreme levels of pressure felt by teachers and leaders, it’s now a matter of national recovery that teachers are enabled to flourish.

A psychologically safe working environment in schools results in open, curious thinking spaces. Colleagues trust one another so that they can gain perspective from different angles, curiously reframing and gaining insight, order, clarity and direction. For effective professional learning to take place, there has to be a trusting culture.

In our research, we found correlations between trust-based cultures and personal and professional growth in schools. Where trust was not present, themes of fear repeatedly arose. Every teacher had a story of the results of a fear-based dynamic in their staffroom, speaking of toxic cultures, sick leave, moving schools or exiting the profession altogether. A culture that includes a dynamic of fear results in anxiety for individuals, succumbing regularly to the primal reactions of fight (passive aggression, stubbornness, militancy), freeze (becoming dependent, losing agency, loss of confidence) or flight (high levels of sick leave or exiting the profession altogether).

However, through the embedding of trust-based principles in 30+ schools over six years, a model has emerged that provides a roadmap, even in places where fear and anxiety are rife. Asking how we can ensure that teachers flourish within schools, the Trust Revolution Model (Davies, 2020) combines elements of psychology, spirituality and neuroscience to present a solution.

Figure 1: The Trust Revolution in schools

Figure 1: The Trust Revolution in schools
Image reproduced with permission from Routledge.

The model (Figure 1) is read from the top down. It works by digging below each level, looking at what underpins each layer. The preconditions for trust, and the catalyst models that generate these, are described in the remainder of this article.

The ability to speak openly

If staff are unable to speak openly, voice issues and present challenges, they become locked inside themselves. The information or feeling they need to share becomes trapped and often leaks out in other, highly unproductive ways (passive aggression, spitefulness, sulking or anger), resulting in fear. In truth, it is a vicious circle. Fear leads to an inability to speak openly, which leads to distrust and more fear. A powerlessness to candidly share knowledge, understanding and point of view limits the amount of publicly available information. This leads to observations, interpretations and actions being generated without having a full picture. Due to our evolutionary negativity bias (Rosling, 2018), our isolated, disconnected conclusions often lead to an assumption of the worst in others, generating yet more fear.

When people can speak openly, all points of view are heard and can be harnessed to enable good decision-making. No longer protecting themselves and their thinking, people can express themselves openly to prompt collaboration and compassion. The catalyst of the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD) (Bowman, 1995) teaches us how to become comfortably uncomfortable in this arena.

The ability to be adult

Clearly, in schools we need each person to take responsibility for their job. They need to be proactive, accountable and solutions-focused in the area for which they are paid. We want staff who can question and be questioned, engage in productive debate and decisively put in place the actions that bring about improvement.

Establishing agency is a prerequisite for trust, and this catalyst is drawn from the psychology of transactional analysis (TA) (Berne, 2011). If we infantilise one another or look to others in a quasi-parent role, fear is present. In school, leaders don’t want staff queuing at their door, waiting to be instructed on every detail. Staff, too, want to feel empowered in their role – to have agency. TA provides us with a deeper understanding of our own roles and workplace communication, catalysing trust.

Seeing failure as an opportunity to learn

When failure is seen as an opportunity to learn rather than a frightening, summative statement of one’s ability, trust can be built. If staff in a school do not believe that their skills and talents are malleable, then failure takes on a particularly sinister role.

Not just about how we perceive ourselves, this pertains also to the way in which we approach others. If we believe that others do not have the capacity to learn and change their skillset, we stunt their ability, clamping down on their freedoms to be able to fail, learn and progress. With a fixed mindset we don’t believe that change is possible for ourselves or others (Dweck, 1986). A growth mindset, however, opens new possibilities, establishing the third catalyst for a trusting culture.

Giving and receiving robust, curious feedback

Schools that treat feedback as a judgement-based process of telling people what to change, without genuine dialogue automatically generate fear.

However, to achieve the best for one another and our students, we should value the ability to be honest about what we see, conducting our conversations with robust kindness. Feedback itself is just the flow of information and can become something that people crave rather than fear.

Conclusion

In the schools that have participated in the Trust Revolution so far, there has been a significant impact on culture and staff retention. School improvement has been achieved through better staff stability. In one school, retention statistics rose from 50 per cent to 100 per cent. Staff cultures have been transformed from toxicity to trust, creating individual agency.

Having established this model, a programme has been designed to investigate its replicability across multiple schools simultaneously. The authors have co-founded a community interest company (CIC), Schoolgenie, which supports schools in their development of a culture of trust so that all staff can flourish. Schoolgenie will test the hypothesis that trust can be designed into a school through the implementation of the preconditions described above. If you would like your school or MAT to get involved, feel free to email us.

Jeanie Davies and Georgina Newton, info@schoolgenie.co.uk

References

Berne E (2011) Games People Play. Tantor eBooks.

Bowman C (1995) Strategy workshops and top-team commitment to strategic change. Journal of Managerial Psychology 10(8): 4–12.

Davies J (2020) The Trust Revolution in Schools. Abingdon: Routledge.

Dweck C (1986) Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist 41(10): 1040.

Gibb N (2020) Improving the wellbeing of staff in schools and colleges (letter). Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/890547/Nick_Gibb_letter_to_EAG.pdf (accessed 3 July 2021).

Nembhard I and Edmondson A (2011) Psychological safety: A foundation for speaking up, collaboration and experimentation in organisations. In: Spreitzer GM and Cameron KS (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship.  Rosling R (2018) Factfulness: Why Things Are Better Than You Think. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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