Status anxiety: narratives of trust, accountability and professional autonomy

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    Abstract

    The need to establish and support high-trust professional relationships in schools has been re-affirmed frequently over the past twenty years, not least because the discourses of distributed leadership, professional capital and professional collaboration have generally positioned trust as a key element within these school improvement models. However, despite the range of different voices promoting the concept of high-trust relationships in schools, the length of time that these ideas have been circulating, and the generally uncontested status of trust as a positive concept, it is apparently still necessary to formulate the case in favour of promoting trust for school improvement. This paper explores the reasons why, in the midst of so much positive scaffolding, trust is still being viewed as a precious and scarce resource within maintained schools.

    The paper explores the interview responses of twelve secondary teachers across Wales, using a model of narrative inquiry to examine their individual stories of trust, accountability and professional autonomy. Each story is analysed to investigate the ways in which the participants experience the three associated phenomena, paying particular attention to the points of emphasis, the areas of dislocation and the silences within the narratives.

    In these accounts, the participants narrate anxieties about professional worth and validation. The stories themselves coalesce around a range of key themes, which include:
    •Momentary lapses in positive validation are accorded increased significance;
    •Teachers look to strong school-based structures, processes and systems to safeguard feelings of professional worth;
    •Professional autonomy is viewed with suspicion, as it opens up a space for criticism from peers and management, and thus leaves teachers’ perceptions of professional self-worth in a vulnerable position;
    •Teachers worry about the assumption that they have complete control over the results of their pupils;
    •Undifferentiated monitoring procedures are interpreted as an ever-present threat to the security of the professional self;
    •Teachers prefer to view accountability pressures as the reflex of a depersonalised ‘system’, rather than as the specific, chosen practices of their management team, since this reduces the perceived risk of these pressures undermining their own professional status;
    •Suspicions about the capabilities of others proliferate, as teachers look to reassure themselves that others are more at risk, in terms of safeguarding the professional self, than they are.

    The findings suggest that trust is indeed a scarce commodity within schools, and that this perceived scarcity leads teachers to engage in three, protracted domains of self-interrogation. ‘In a low-trust environment’, they ask themselves, ‘how will my professional worth be valued by others?’ ‘Will I have to work harder to demonstrate my professional worth?’ ‘How will I gain promotion, or even maintain my professional position?’

    Taken as a unit, the narratives suggest that accountability and monitoring pressures are exerting a downward pressure on levels of trust within the sampled schools, and are, effectively, normalising mistrust. In response, teachers are constructing new ways of accommodating these pressures, outlined above, to try to maintain positive perceptions of professional self-worth. The study concludes that, given the state of professional anxiety in the sample, continued calls for research into trust in schools, and exhortations for leadership teams to attempt to institute practices that sustain trust, are entirely justified. In terms of the latter, this study makes a contribution through its detailed depiction of the varying ways trust is perceived and represented by teachers.


    Key words:

    Trust; accountability; professional autonomy; narrative; self-concept; anxiety.


    Key references:

    Bryk, A. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. American Sociological Association.

    Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014) Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools. San Francisco: Jossey – Bass.

    Uslaner, E. (2002) The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 12 Sep 2018
    EventBERA 2018 - Northumbria University, Newcastle, United Kingdom
    Duration: 11 Sep 201813 Sep 2018

    Conference

    ConferenceBERA 2018
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    CityNewcastle
    Period11/09/1813/09/18

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