The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Is your school safe and happy?

Schools need to be a safe space for staff and students to thrive. John Dabell discusses the positive outcomes of good collaboration, safety and trust.

Leaders must safeguard their school population, but discussions are typically geared towards students and their wellbeing. But what about the adults? 

Psychological safety must be lived and experienced throughout a school, and keeping adults safe and secure ensures they are supported too. 

When students perceive their school to be highly emotionally supportive, they are more likely to seek help from their teachers and peers. This applies to staff too.

To be on the safe side 

Psychological safety is necessary to promote an inclusive and productive learning environment for everyone.

Coe et al (2022) note that supportive working relationships are key, providing that safety is not deemed as tolerance for low performance. They found that willingness to show vulnerability allows others to provide adequate support, makes innovation and risk-taking more likely and enables learning from mistakes. 

Emotional safety is inextricably tied to the school culture and climate. It's paramount for school connectedness, for taking interpersonal risks and critical to the engagement and wellbeing of the school community. 

Interpersonal risk behaviours in school include:

  • learning behaviour
  • speaking-up behaviour
  • giving and seeking feedback
  • error-seeking behaviour
  • extra-role behaviour
  • implementation of new practices. 

A psychologically safe school encourages staff to speak openly without fear of negative consequences, such as embarrassment, marginalisation, or punishment. It is when staff are free to speak up and are treated fairly and compassionately when discussing concerns, errors, or identifying problems. 

To be psychologically safe in a school is where staff feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo. 

For more on schools as safe spaces for students, come to the Leading Safeguarding conference and hear Kay Hamilton, Partnerships Lead at Thrive, talk about creating a safe whole-school culture. 

It is a critical driver of: 

  • healthy team dynamics
  • interpersonal relationships
  • ethical conduct
  • high-quality decision-making and 
  • greater innovation.

Effective leaders know that high-quality conversations between people foster psychological safety.

They make it their business to foster a belief that speaking up with ideas or concerns is expected and feasible. Edmondson and Besieux (2021) go further and say that influential leaders foster the right kind of voice and the right kind of silence.

Collaboration is king 

Within a collaborative culture, staff feel safe to step outside their comfort zones, ensuring ownership and self-accountability.

According to Gruenert and Whitaker (2015), the theoretical nirvana of school cultures is the collaborative school culture. 

It is the collective manifestation of shared beliefs, behaviours, and thoughts, where teachers share strong educational values, work together to pursue professional development, and are committed to improvement.

This collaborative 'no blame' culture is shorthand for all the good things a school should be doing. Help, support, trust, openness, collective reflection, and collective efficacy are at its heart. It operates like a family. 

When a school lacks this collaborative spirit and personality, leaders must work hard to change the nature of relationships and patterns of relating to create psychological safety. 

However, developing a collaborative culture is a skill that needs teaching rather than a value that needs cultivating. It is multi-faceted and requires a multi-faceted approach to change. 

Schools can benefit from training focused on facilitating inclusive spaces to promote access and voice. 

According to Gino (2019), this involves six types of training techniques used so that staff can learn how to: 

  1. listen, not talk 
  2. practice empathy 
  3. be comfortable giving and receiving feedback 
  4. lead and follow 
  5. speak with clarity and avoid abstractions 
  6. have win-win interactions.

Therefore, promoting a psychologically safe ethos should focus on being person-centred and listening and learning organisations.

Trusted gatekeepers within a school can champion collaboration and facilitate increasing confidence in speaking up. 

Emotional safety is born out of collaboration, where cohesiveness and trust are highly valued, and staff feel supported and cared about. 

Taken on trust 

When staff are given opportunities to collaborate, this builds the relational trust of respect, personal regard, competence in core responsibilities and personal integrity (Bryk and Schneider, 2004). Trust is the key. 

Tschannen-Moran and Hoy (1998) identified five key components to measure trustworthiness. 

  1. Benevolence - those working together have each other's best interests at heart and will protect those interests. 
  2. Reliability - those working together can depend upon each other to come through. 
  3. Competence - those working together believe in one another's ability to perform the tasks required by their positions. 
  4. Honesty - those working together can be counted on to represent situations fairly and with integrity. 
  5. Openness - those working together freely share information with each other. 

A listening and learning school will ensure that staff voices are heard and feel safe to discuss ideas for improvements and errors and contribute to failure-based learning.

Being part of a high-trust culture nurtures collaboration, creativity and builds learning agility (Stomski and Jensen, 2021). It creates a strong sense of camaraderie, staff are proud of 'their' school, and discretionary effort is commonplace. 

Growing and developing other people and fuelling their self-improvement can be achieved by creating alignment between organisational and personal objectives.

Within a collaborative culture, staff feel safe to step outside their comfort zones, ensuring ownership and self-accountability. With growth comes an increased sense of belonging and safety.

And finally... 

Ensuring that all staff can be their authentic selves without fear of judgment, exclusion, or mistreatment remains an important priority for school leaders. 

Every school should be working towards making emotional safety part of the everyday culture because it is the number one predictor of wellbeing and a catalyst for schoolwide improvement. Creating a psychologically safe culture directly benefits staff and students by influencing proactive behaviours such as asking questions, reporting errors and open communication. 

Schools could benefit from professional development that brings together fellow leaders to describe their needs for fostering psychological safety and encourage productive dialogues about emotionally intelligent schools. 

Staff Wellbeing Award

Support and improve physical, emotional and mental health for all staff, with the Staff Wellbeing Award.

Find out more.


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