Building a Culture of Trust and Shared Leadership

Building a Culture of Trust and Shared Leadership

By Claire Bansberg


When reflecting on both mentoring and evaluating, trust rises to the surface as the essential defining quality of both practices. Such trust must be earned by building relationships based on active listening, careful observation, and teacher needs.  

While some teachers may feel strongly about mentors and mentees being paired according to subject area expertise, to my mind, a shared educational philosophy, set of values, or teaching style makes for the strongest mentorship. A new teacher’s responses to open-ended questions both in their written application and interview could be reflected upon by mentors and used as a launching point to inspire partnerships.  

Once such a partnership is formed, adequate time and consideration must be dedicated to cultivating it. Highly qualified and masterful veteran teachers tend to be the ones involved in multiple committees, initiatives, or extracurriculars. While the mantra of “if you want something to get done, ask a busy person” certainly holds true for educators, it is essential that volunteer mentor teachers make mentoring one of their main professional priorities. Proper resources also must be dedicated to the program. Resources and priorities naturally overlap, with the most important resource being compensated time either out of the classroom or beyond the school day to plan for the support of new teachers.  

Mentors must above all be trained on how to create a safe space in which mentees feel comfortable being open about their challenges and asking for help. To an extent, this ability to put conversational partners at ease can’t be taught and comes down to personality. However, it’s a skill that can be built if mentors are trained to guide conversations with open-ended questioning as opposed to dictating. This continual dialogue allows mentors to build their work around flexibility in meeting teacher’s needs as opposed to rigidity in following a program structure.  

Part of being flexible as a mentor means being comfortable admitting when you don’t know the answers or committing to seeking those answers or further information elsewhere. Mentors have the significant task of supporting new teachers in their adaptation or implementation of new initiatives and school-wide strategies, and they should thus be fully trained to do so. This can feel overwhelming, particularly in a district that circles through a revolving door of new programs. Instead of faking expertise, an honest promise should be made to reach out to another leader in the building for further support and then circle back with that knowledge in a timely manner. Mentors must acknowledge the importance of implementing programs with fidelity, but it’s equally important that they stress to new teachers that their instructional practices should feel authentic and focused on meeting the unique and evolving needs of their students. New teachers must be encouraged to put their own stamp on instruction, and they should be encouraged to share such ideas when they see successes in their classrooms. 

Finally, as the mentoring programs of Chicago, Durham, and Boston Public Schools have taught us, alignment between all invested parties is key to the success of a mentoring program. This translates to the aforementioned high quality teachers, alongside principal buy-in, and union and HR involvement. All parties must feel comfortable openly communicating with one another to ensure that they not only continue to work towards the same shared vision, but that they likewise challenge one another in adjusting or fine-tuning that vision as needed to respond to teacher needs. 

Such alignment is equally important in the realm of evaluation. When a joint committee is crafting their evaluation plan, the words of Susan Moore Johnson’s “Where Teachers Thrive” should be considered: “The true impact of education policies must be assessed not only in what the laws say, but also in how they are implemented” (129). A law such as PERA, for instance, can be viewed and treated like a mandate that “we’ll all get through together”, or, alternatively, it can be viewed as an invitation to have honest and open conversations about what student growth and appropriately challenging assessment look like.  

The evaluation plan should be considered a platform on which to build a constructive conversation about best practices. Such conversation must be open and ongoing, and dialogue should be based in visibility to the same extent as a mentorship. These conversations will be richer when a diverse array of evaluation methods are implemented. Traditional observations, while the capstone of evaluation, must be balanced by opportunities for teachers to provide a vast array of evidence of their strengths. Feedback must be timely and provide ample space for teacher reflection. The comprehensive detail of Danielson effectively models the ideal, but it can become not only ineffective but a source of anxiety when not carefully broken down and approached in a scaffolded manner. 

Ultimately, evaluation must be viewed and used as a tool to determine how we can best support our teachers. This support of course primarily applies to new teachers who are honing their craft, but it is equally important to support veteran teachers on their path to teacher leadership. When Danielson is used to identify teachers’ areas of expertise, those teachers can then take a leading role in guiding the work of their peers. Not only does this priority make for a more equal distribution of the important work of supporting new teachers, but it promotes a culture of deeper respect and rapport amongst staff. 

This final realization about the potential to tap into teacher leadership is what excites me most when thinking about my own path towards teacher leadership. In my district, educators take a relatively limited role in creating and running professional development programming. A select few coaches lead PD at times, but we’re only just beginning to experiment with PD that is authentically developed by teaching staff. On the occasion that teachers have taken this role, the entire dynamic of the PD session changes. The level of active listening and engagement is elevated out of respect for that teacher’s abilities and the effort that has been put into planning. No one appreciates more than a fellow teacher how full our plates are, so taking on the additional responsibility allows that teacher’s efforts to be all the more valued.  

Before our evaluator training session, it had never occurred to me to use the Danielson framework to encourage specific paths of teacher leadership based on proven success. When teachers have led previous PD sessions at my school, it has been exclusively in correspondence with their participation on a committee or task force. Basing these leadership roles on areas of distinguished practice on the rubric is a game changer, and it’s a shift that I feel excited about exploring. Climate and culture within a school are, above all, based on a feeling of mutual respect for one another’s work and a sense that we are all dedicated to achieving the same essential outcomes. Trusting teachers to lead the way in guiding the critical work of mentoring and evaluating takes courage, but such shared leadership is arguably the most powerful way to support the ongoing growth of all members of a school community. 

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