Why Trust in Schools is Everyone’s Business

I didnt know what I didn’t know: or did I?

It wasn’t until recently that I really started to investigate and appreciate the importance of trust in educational settings. Like most people, I recognise and enjoy the benefits of feeling trusted as well as extending trust. I equally fear the sting of betrayal and being caught in a toxic culture of fear, suspicion and mistrust personally or professionally. Becoming more cognisant of the impacts of trust on school relationships  (between colleagues, in leadership, with students) and even to the extent of outcomes, prompted me to write this piece. It is not designed to provide concrete answers or clues about how to engineer healthy levels of trust. Moreover, this piece aims to evoke reflection in any interested reader by raising questions (at the end of each section) about something which I feel should not be taken for granted.

Blair (1986) states “we notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted’. Working in a place where trust is something that is highly valued, I cannot speak strongly enough of its importance. Schools, and particularly school leaders I would argue, should seek to understand it better, for trust can be the key to unlocking significant gains in the school community, but can also be the eroding agent that undoes so much good work.

In my recent WELS15 reflection I identified 4 takeaways which I intend to think more deeply about, and act more clearly upon. Underpinning two of them, I would argue, is trust. I feel they go hand-in-glove and should figure strongly in autonomy over teacher professional growth. These takeaways were:

  • Teachers, schools, don’t immunise yourself against innovation. Explore what’s best for learning and growth (staff and students) for YOUR context (Tony Wagner and Simon Breakspear).
  • Teachers don’t need surveillance, they need support, encouragement and to feel trusted in order to grow and enjoy their important work (Pasi Sahlberg)

Initial reflection questions: Can you recall a time in your professional teaching career where trust was high? What typified it? How did it feel? What processes supported the growth of trust?

How do we know when trust is absent?

Education is riddled with processes and practices which might suggest to us that trust is absent. At WELS 2015, Yong Zhao stated that schools are notoriously conservative and staff need to be released from a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ of compliance. He also suggested teachers should be empowered to conduct research and development to improve and also innovate practice to elevate the outcomes of all students. I couldn’t agree more. The key ingredient is professional and relational trust, this thing that some might say is invisible and a socially constructed phenomena. Trust is a core tenet of improvement and innovation according to Sergiovanni (2005):

Sergiovanni - Trust

We all know what trust FEELS like. We know that sensation of being oneself and being vulnerable without fear or suspicion of being betrayed or mocked subversively. Trust is being able to wholeheartedly believe in and be believed in by someone or a team, especially leadership. When trusted, we feel valued, we can take risks and do not have to necessarily control situations or people. One of the conversations I rarely hear explicitly is how a culture of mistrust in schools impacts students. The focus tends to be on the feelings of colleagues, teams, parents and the community and all the aligned business of reconciliation. When trust is absent, do we assume (without evidence) we understand the impact on students? After all, students just like adults sense mistrust and feel betrayal. Tschannen-Moran (2014) asserts that

 Classrooms are inherently social contexts, and thus teaching and learning in them involve risk, vulnerability, and interpersonal engagement on the part of teachers and students. Much of what inspires children to invest the effort required for learning happens in those interpersonal spaces. Because trust is central to making those spaces generative of learning, trust is critical to the central enterprise of schools. When teachers and students trust each other and work together cooperatively, learning follows from the climate of safety and warmth prevails.

It is important for teachers to feel trusted as professionals, rather than as Sahlberg stated at WELS 2015, under pressure through stifling accountability processes. How can students fully trust their teachers, if teachers constantly feel on edge, judged, scrutinised, unable to innovate, research, and reflect on their practice? We know some colleagues and schools who work hard to see this happen, but there are some system-wide pressures which push schools and leaders to ‘dance to a tune’ (e.g. focus on standardised testing, performance management, curriculum change etc.) which possibly erode trust and culture-building practices.

Reflection Questions: What instances have you witnessed that lowered trust? What happened to people’s level of commitment and openness? How did they lower trust levels and impact teacher effectiveness? Did these incidents damage trust with students?

Trust and building capacity for innovation

It is my belief that schools can and should innovate with professional practice to achieve enhanced outcomes for students, teachers and the community. If trust-engendering practices are enacted by leaders, value-adding practice and learning should occur. Teachers should not have to suffer debilitating micro-management or system-level scrutiny and leaders are likely to spend less time on surveillance, accountability and form-filling, and more on transformational elements of leading schools.

Schools who apply a narrow range of teaching and learning approaches may do so because they rely on what evidence suggests is effective in delivering solid outcomes. If this occurs year after year, why would we alter anything? Are we not satisfying what is expected of us? However, do the school, community and system expectations and pressures to deliver inoculate us against innovation? I wonder how many other promising practices and ‘sleeper’ teachers would emerge and thrive in environments and cultures that encourage R&D, extend autonomy over professional learning and engender trust-building practices not based on accountability, but responsibility. As Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) suggest (thanks to Chris Munro for the image):

Hargreaves and Fullan

Reflection questions: Have you been part of a vibrant and innovative professional learning community? What behaviours, protocols or norms made the experience empowering and productive?

Trust and leadership

For some time there has been scepticism over the weight of evidence of the transformative potential of trust-leadership practices to generate a culture that elevates outcomes. Paul Browning, from his PHD research and thesis has identified ten leadership practices which have been proven to yield improved outcomes for students and staff. These ten practices are unpacked in his free IBook here: http://thecentreonline.com.au/compelling-leadership/

Relationships with leadership differ from person-to-person and is largely aligned to experience. Distrust of leadership can be crippling to individuals or teams in schools. As Govier (1992) explains, ‘distrust tends to provoke feelings of anxiety and insecurity, causing people to feel ill at ease and to expend energy in monitoring the behaviour and possible motives of others’. In turn, this can likely affect one’s own efficacy and impact teaching practice and potentially students. Furthermore, a schools leadership can ‘build or damage trust by how they engage with instructional matter in school. Applying too much or too little pressure, or being too pushy or not being involved enough, serves to undermine trust and makes their leadership of the instructional programme more and more ineffective over time’ (Tschannen-Moren 2014).

Schools who employ coaching models to support colleagues and invest in distributed leadership of matters pertaining to research, professional development and learning design, I would argue are more likely to see stronger organic growth in trust amongst colleagues and subsequently students, as teachers are less likely to feel ‘controlled’ or have things mandated. Lateral trust is as important as vertical trust in schools (Hargreaves, 2002). Again, this resonates strongly with the key messages from Pasi Sahlberg, Yong Zhao and Simon Breakspear at WELS 2015.

Reflection questions: What does trustworthy leadership mean to you and feel like? What trust engendering practices do you feel you possess and enact, and what impact do you feel they have? How do you know?
And so …?

Teaching is a very personal profession. It can be argued that few jobs have a core business that involves such high stakes as children’s futures – clichéd I know, but perhaps true. Trust should be a prime concern for leadership in schools the world over. Being able to work without the ongoing fear on conflict, disagreement and suspicion can bring rich rewards. Balancing trust with high expectations and responsibility as professionals is the crux of it. Feeling empowered to innovate and research is vital, not just for ourselves, but most importantly for students and their educational experience.

I encourage you to consider these reflection questions, but most importantly think about your role in developing a culture of trust in your school. Are you an agent of trust proactivity or a custodian and perpetuator of mistrust?

Suggested reading and links:

Browning, P (2014). Compelling Leadership http://thecentreonline.com.au/compelling-leadership/

Govier, T (1992). Distrust as a Practical Problem. Journal of Social Philosophy, 23, 52-63.

Hargreaves, A (2002). Teaching and Betrayal http://www.edu.uwo.ca/source4allcourses/AQ/Spec_Ed_Sp_009808/downloads/TeachingandBetrayal.pdf

Hargreaves, A and Fullan, M (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Teachers College Press.

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tschanen-Moran, M (2014). Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools. Jossey-Bass.

Tschannen-Moran, M and Hoy, W (2000). A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Nature, Meaning, and Measurement of Trust. American Educational Research Association.

3 thoughts on “Why Trust in Schools is Everyone’s Business

  1. Jon,
    Thank you for your post. You clearly articulate a manner of working in schools that promotes a desirable culture of teachers becoming excited about what they are doing in the classroom and developing professionally as a result of that energy….using it to move forward and change. It is so important to encourage every teacher everywhere to come up with their own solutions/strategies to maximise learning for each child they teach. Feeling empowered to be leaders of learning, seeking answers and solutions through research and collaboration with others is something to be encouraged. School managers providing an environment and an expectation of this way of working should undoubtedly see results in a much happier and livelier workplace. One where sharing successes and failures is natural and ongoing. It makes sense to me.

  2. Nice post. I agree that trust is crucial if teachers are going to be innovative in their teaching and learning. I also believe much of the rhetoric around teacher quality, is rooted in a lack of trust in teachers professionalism. If you haven’t read it, Stephen Ball’s The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity is worth a read, as it explores what happens to teachers when there is a culture of mistrust.

  3. Great post Jon. Building professional trust is a critical part to any successful leadership agenda. Being explicit with staff about your intentions regarding trust also needs to be backed up by your actions. I have made this a major focus of my work as a Principal and I see the gains that can be made when people feel empowered and trusted.

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