Trust, suspicion and professional development: two stories, two outcomes


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Author: Joan Woodhouse

I have just returned from a 10-day visit to the UAE. My colleague Phil Wood and I worked with those responsible for CPD in seven states to develop national strategic plans for Professional Development.  As a part of the programme, we visited a technical school in Sharjah. Facilities, results and professional development arrangements were impressive, but what struck me the most was that the Principal repeated countless times that she trusted her teachers, who, she said, were well-qualified, well-trained and committed. She had, she said, no need to interfere in their work.

This recognition of the importance of trusting staff resonated strongly with a key finding emerging from a recent, BELMAS-funded study. We followed a group of early career teachers (ECTs) through the first few years of teaching, seeking their perceptions and experiences of leadership development in schools. We interviewed the teachers annually, tracking their experiences over a three-year period and gaining insights into some of the factors framing and influencing their experiences of leadership development and their aspirations to leadership.

Their leadership dispositions and aspirations seemed to be formed within and in response to what they perceived to be the leadership cultures of their schools. Some teachers perceived their schools to be characterized by caring, supportive, enabling cultures in which they enjoyed formal and informal opportunities to take on leadership responsibilities, and the space and flexibility to take the initiative and try out new ideas. Trust and support were key features of these landscapes, enabling teachers to gather significant developmental experience of leadership during the first few years of their careers.  These teachers were developing positive leadership identities and had high career aspirations. In other cases, schools were perceived as characterized by suspicion and coercive, unsupportive cultures, in which the teachers experienced alienation, demotivation and stress, and were less likely to aspire to leadership.

Two stories from our research illustrate this dichotomy. The first is that of Tina (pseudonym). Tina was effectively leading from the start of her career, initially as acting head of department during her line manager’s maternity leave. Each year, she gathered more and more leadership responsibilities, within and beyond the department. The enabling school context in which she worked created space in which she could develop.  Risk-taking was encouraged.  Tina felt trusted and empowered to act, to use her initiative and to innovate.  Support was available if she needed it. For her, the context offered the perfect balance of autonomy and support.  Tina was thus developing a very positive identity as a leader, which translated into high aspirations, including to headship.

The second story is that of Rob, who related negative experiences of working within what he perceived to be a high-accountability, data-driven culture of coercion and blame, which did little to nurture his leadership skills, dispositions and identity. He talked about his concerns about having to attend a meeting with the Vice Principal, during which he would have to go over spreadsheets of data relating to his pupils, and to account for their results. He had been forewarned by his Head of Faculty to be prepared for the meeting, as there would be little tolerance of any less than adequate understanding of pupil data. Rob experienced this as an enormous pressure. He felt alienated.  Whilst he felt he had a vocation to teaching and to headship, he knew he would not want to be a headteacher within such a culture.  He rejected the values that he perceived to underpin the data-driven priorities of the school, and what he saw as the intimidatory tactics adopted by some of the middle and senior leaders he encountered.  He aspired instead to lead a school characterized by the personal values he espoused, driven by a commitment to holistic education and education as empowerment. Conflicts therefore clouded his reflections on his future career trajectory, causing him to think he may never be able to be a headteacher.

Whilst Tina’s testimony is encouraging, it is concerning that Rob’s story tells of how an aspirant to headship was discouraged by a culture of targets, accountability and suspicion. It would seem that the accountability culture has effected a shift in some of our schools to blame and suspicion instead of trust and support. There is urgent need to arrest this trend and to return to viewing teachers as professionals, who, if appropriately supported, can be justifiably trusted to carry out their work. 

Joan Woodhouse is Lecturer in Education at the University of Leicester and is currently the Postgraduate Tutor with responsibility for the EdD (Doctorate of Education), a part-time, professional doctorate programme designed for full-time teachers.
If you have an interest in leadership development, please consider joining the BELMAS Leadership Preparation and Development Research Interest Group (RIG). To join the RIGs, become a BELMAS member or click the box alongside the relevant RIG groups on your 'My Details' page. Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
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