Cynicism and distrust amongst the teaching body in a school can negatively influence a school’s culture. When dealing with the cynics and the doubters, trying to establish their reasons for acting this way is a good place to start.

Teachers who may lack confidence in their school leaders may do so from their own insecurity in being able to meet the demands of what their leader(s) expect of them. Moreover, it is likely distrust in a school leader comes from a teacher’s point of view that considers the leader to be inept at their job and they are asking staff to carry out tasks without the necessary support required with no avenue for discussion about what is being expected and whether the goals can be met. A lack of open and safe communication exists in a school environment that lacks trust.

Cynicism develops from distrust. Many teachers have become cynical as a result of seeing too many change efforts fail, leaders falling short on promises and a scattergun approach being used for school improvement. Even worse, leaders who ask their staff to do things that they would not do themselves create such toxic environments the staff room becomes a haven of complaint and distress.

Rather than focus on how this issue can be so draining, in fact, just talking about it for several minutes can leave one feeling deflated. Let’s focus on what leaders can do to begin to eliminate the cynicism, build trust and a positive staff morale. Good leaders do the following:

  • Under-promise and over deliver. They ensure that they keep their promises first and foremost without using the legalities of language to avoid being called out on a promise that they did not keep.
  • Back their staff. They trust their staff to use initiative, get on with a project without interference, support them when the pressure is on. Yet staff know at the same time that while they are supported, they will be accountable – it’s only fair.
  • Take responsibility. They will take the blame where necessary and not hide when things are not smooth sailing. Furthermore, good leader model self-reflection in front of their staff and seek feedback from them, good or bad.
  • Make it about others and not them. They show humility by staying out of the limelight and thanking others for their contribution to the school’s successes.
  • Do as they say – especially with rules and policy. They will not have expectations of staff and students that they do not fulfil and display themselves. Good leaders are true role models to follow.
  • Embrace the collective. In staff meetings, leaders will use “we” when describing the work that lies ahead. They show that they are part of the improvement effort through their contribution and avoid an “Us” and “Them” conflict at all costs.
  • Seek to know who their colleagues are as human beings. They take an interest in their colleagues beyond their life at work. They recognise the interest of their staff and the families that they are part of.
  • Know what they want the school to be and how to get there. They take the time to describe the school, it’s history and where it needs to go, whilst having a plan of how to get there. Notably, they remind staff of this regularly.
  • Learn on their own and with their colleagues. They take time to be part of professional development with their colleagues and also model and share their own professional learning.

While we can work at all the above to improve school climate, it is important to realise that regardless of how trustworthy you may have been in your last school, it starts all over when you take on a leadership role in a new school, as the staff may have just gone through a bad experience that is fresh in their minds. Similarly, when new staff join your current school they may bring cynicism and distrust from their previous experiences that having nothing to do with you but it becomes your responsibility to grow their support. Remember, there will always be doubters and cynics but we can do a lot to turn their energy consumption into energy production.

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