School Climate & Safety Opinion

Are You Trusted? It Makes All the Difference.

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 22, 2016 5 min read
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Learning is a complex activity. It involves far more than the exchange of information. We have growing scientific knowledge about the learning process and a changing set of skills for our learners to master. Bransford, et al. reported three important over-arching findings from their research on how people learn:

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them (Bransford, J.D., et al. pp.14- 18).

Not Without Trust
These are solid, respected, and important findings and have a place in the center of the work where teaching and learning is takes place. We agrue that what must come first and remain in order for these three things to happen is an environment where trust is cultivated. Trust is a word with many facets. Megan Tschannen-Moran says trust is, “One’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent (Tschannen-Moran.2004. p.17). Without the social/emotional skills involved in vulnerability, benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability and competence, Bransford’s three findings become an intellectual exercise only.

Trust is the foundation for learning. Yes, one can learn from fear or other negative motivations but the stress accompanying that kind of learning has its own negative consequences. Schools are learning organizations in which everyone is a learner and, as such, they are environments that call for foundational trust. Stephen Covey called it the lifeblood of an organization. Therefore, how can leaders be evaluated without considering the factor of the degree to which trust is cultivated in the environment for everyone, children and adults alike, as an important part of their work.

September’s Education Leadership issue was focused on the value of relationships as an essential for learning to take place. In it Marge Scherer, their editor in chief wrote...

...building relationships is the foundational skill. Without trust, no amount of content knowledge, pedagogical know-how, or formative assessment is likely to move students to want to learn from you (Educational Leadership 9/16. p.7)

We believe at the same time leaders have to cultivate an environment in which relationships are paramount and trust is at the center, not only for teachers and their students, but between leaders and their teachers as well.

Current School Environments Depend on Trust
Why is trust such an important aspect of educator’s work? Especially in the increasingly interactive and interdependent learning climate, learners are called to be engaged, self-propelled, motivated and curious. This is true for both children and adult learners. Teachers and their leaders are asked to:

  • understand new research,
  • let go of past thinking and practices that no longer serve students,
  • develop learning environments in which information plays as much of a role as process, skills, and results
  • open classroom doors, embrace technology and discover transdisciplinary approaches to replace isolation and subject separation as the road to success,
  • develop partnerships with business and higher education that can help lower barriers between schools and the real world in which they sit

This is all about learning. People will learn at different rates, work with differing level of resistance and support, and present different levels of acceptance and readiness. All of this will grow more quickly if nested in an environment where open discussion is welcomed, all views are listened to and respected, risks are encouraged and taken, fears can be expressed safely, and failures are not feared. If failure is to be a learning experience, it cannot be an embarrassment and it cannot be punished. No one wants to experience either of those consequences so dealing with failure that way is a real deterrent to risk taking and, therefore, to growth. Unless the adults work in an environment in which this is true, how can they create it for their students?

It’s Tougher Today
It is a mighty expectation to develop trust in an organization these days. Suspicion and mistrust has risen around us. Cynicism and sarcasm reign and an unspoken, relational foundation is that everybody lies. We lead at a moment in time when fear is rampant and trust, ethereal. This presidential election has highlighted trust and trustworthiness. It is a polling issue. Many mistrust the “Washington machine” and the politicians who are part of it. There are groups of people, black and white, who are mistrustful of police and the judicial process. Children are taught to be wary of strangers and the lives of many of them have produced wounds that cause them to be self-protective, withdrawn and angry. Acts of terrorism within our borders have heightened the fear of immigrants. Trust, in general is eroding.

Opportunity and Challenge, Both
In this moment, educational leaders find both an extraordinary opportunity and the extraordinary challenge. We have a countercultural necessity before us. How can a leader build trust within the organization when the world around them is fearful, mistrusting, and maybe even paranoid? The answer is in the faces of the children.

We cannot afford to raise a generation of children who have grown up and learned to survive in an environment where trust and relationships are weak. Much has been written about why schools have not shown major improvement over the years. Much has also been researched about why individual schools can turnaround. How can a leader expect an organization to shift practice, even re-invent teaching and learning, when there remain members of the community of teachers and parents who do not trust leadership and do not feel heard themselves? It is an enormous responsibility for a leader to be trustworthy and to cultivate an environment where trust can grow between people, especially in these days of heightened mistrust. But it is an enormous responsibility that cannot be dismissed. All else depends on it.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.