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Creating a culture of trust in your primary school

January 16, 2022, 17:36 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Rae Snape believes kindness, a sense of community and a ready smile will be repaid many times over
Creating a culture of trust in your primary school

I applied for my second headship in June 2019.

The interview process was a two-day affair – a grueling endurance course of tasks and activities designed to test the spirit and mettle of even the most hardened school leader. 

After the preliminary bouts, candidates were free to tour the school, to meet the children and staff. It was lunchtime and so I wandered into the dining room.

One of the supervisors, Nazimah, said to me: “What this school needs is this!” and as she spoke, she drew her hands together to form a perfect circle with her fingers.

What she meant what this school needed everyone to come together as a community or team. Overnight, and before the second day of interview I reflected on her words, and adapted my PowerPoint presentation accordingly. 

I cannot be sure that it was Nazimah’s words that secured my new position, but her words certainly chimed with my own view that in a school teamwork and community is everything.


Recently I was at a Whole Education conference listening to James Pope, founder of HeadsupforHts, talking about team work.

He reminded us that teamwork is not simple and cannot be boiled down to pithy aphorisms such as “Team Work Makes the Dream Work” or “There’s No ‘I’ in Team.” Creating a strong committed team with shared ambitions and goals takes thought, time and effort. 

A book that influenced my thinking and practice in this area is by Professor Amy C Edmondson: “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy”, where she talks about psychological safety, which is the enabling condition for cohesion, teamwork and team learning.

Only if everyone in a team feels genuinely safe and confident enough to share ideas and have challenging conversations can a school create a culture where everyone collaborates, is willing to take risks, to innovate and effectively move towards the schools shared goals. 

So how do we do this? How do we as leaders create a culture of psychological safety and trust? 

Be visible

The word bureaucracy comes from the word bureau – office desk. There may be much to do that requires us to be in our offices, but we are not bureaucrats, and we should not be office tied for we are educators and we should do what we do best; communicate and connect with our learning community.

So, leave your office at regular times during the day, and walk the corridors, go onto the playground, visit classrooms, support your colleagues, sit with the pupils, connect with your community -and be visible


The second thing to do is to smile. Or if you already smile – smile more!

It is contagious, a powerful way to build connection and trust. Charles Darwin was one of the first people to suggest facial expressions may intensify feelings. You may notice that even if you are not feeling particularly chipper putting on a happy face can instantly lift your spirits.

Fake it till you make it! Your colleagues, seeing your sunny disposition will then, due to the power of mirror neurons, be inclined to smile back at you and in that instance you will have created a moment of limbic connection. 

Smiling reduces stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Not only is smiling good for your health and longevity, but leaders who smile are seen as more trustworthy

Check-in regularly

My next suggestion is to regularly check in with colleagues. This should be more than a perfunctory “How are you today?” but a moment of authentic connection and deep listening.

Finding out about your colleagues, their likes and dislikes, interests and pastimes as well as home circumstances, takes a few minutes of your time but gives a very powerful indication that you care about them and not just as co-workers. 

Ask supportive questions to show that you are there for them and want your colleagues to be happy and fulfilled in their work. “Is there anything I can do to help you today?” “Do you have everything you need to be successful?”

Once you have built up trust and psychological safety, you can then ask more searching questions: “Is there anything that made your day difficult today?” “Are there things we could be doing better?”

When checking-in, make sure you include everyone, the site manager, the midday supervisors, the office team. Do not miss anyone out. Everyone in the school community needs to feel valued, appreciated and seen. 

Be kind

Humour, joy, playfulness and a lightness of touch lowers cortisol, makes people relax around you and will make you appear approachable.

If your colleagues see that you are prepared to share amusing anecdotes about your life, they will feel safe to reciprocate.

This foundation of open, trusting communication is the bedrock that encourages colleagues to come forward and share their experiences when things are going well and also to talk with you when things are going badly. 

Our colleagues are going through a lot right now, on top of 20 relentless months of working through a pandemic there are all sorts of unseen stresses and strains that are part of the human condition.

Births, marriages, illnesses, divorces, financial insecurity, deaths. As Plato (allegedly) said, “Be kind for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”

Feedback for breakfast

In order to build a positive staff culture based on trusting respectful relationships, it is necessary to make time for feedback and to celebrate success. 

As Ken Blanchard, author, business consultant and speaker, famously said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” 

Being an educator at the present time is very challenging, with relentless demands. But it is also hugely rewarding.

Generally, every person you meet today in your organisation is there because they want to do a good job and to make a positive difference to the lives of young people. Assume the best of people and they will show you what is possible. 

Creating a culture where everyone, including you, is open to feedback supports individual professional growth as well as the development of the whole school. 

If we look for it we will see that feedback is all around us and is there all the time. Just as we would do with pupils, as leaders our privilege is, in the words of Bill Rogers, behaviour management consultant and author, “to catch our colleagues doing good.” 

“I really value the way…” 

“Thank you for taking time to…” 

“I noticed that you…” 

Feedback builds trust and strengthens relationships, it is a way to encourage and motivate others, it improves performance and is a vital tool for creating a learning community. 

Celebrating success

In addition to individual feedback, also make time to celebrate team success. Many head teachers find ways to acknowledge the work of their team through treats in pigeon holes or a plate of cakes on a Friday afternoon.

I have taken to making doing is having made an attractive arrangement of sweet treats and fruit I go around the school to hand deliver them to each member of the team and as I do so I take a moment to acknowledge their contribution and to specifically thank them for their work.

This takes place in classrooms, in the dining hall, in the office and in front of the children. 

Not only are the children seeing that the grown-ups are valued, but they are getting a vital lesson in understanding that we should appreciate the efforts and talents of those around us and not take them for granted. 

Top Tips

  • Be Visible
  • Smile
  • Check-in
  • Build rapport
  • Feedback frequently

Rae Snape, headteacher of Milton Road Primary School, Cambridge, National Leader of Education and author of “The Headteacher’s Handbook” published by Bloomsbury Education