School Climate & Safety Opinion

Student Achievement Depends Upon Faculty Relationships and Trusted Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 20, 2017 4 min read
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Most educational leaders know the research by now. Leadership does make a difference in the success students have in schools. There are meta- analyses that have investigated that. Most educational leaders also know the research about trust in schools and how that makes a difference for students. Leaders may know what to do and how to make change happen but progress comes more quickly and develops roots that are stronger when leaders are trusted and followers are energized by that trust. Trust can be difficult to gain and it is easy to lose.

Schools can no longer succeed with the curriculum, structure, methods, and targets and financing that worked even a quarter century ago. Yet, these five critical components of education have still changed very little. Deciding what has to change and knowing how to lead change is a non-negotiable talent for today’s leaders. Building trust is not something that often appears on a leader’s ‘to do’ list. Many presume it will just happen because they perceive themselves to be trustworthy. But, every day in a leader’s life there are people who will be making decisions about whether (s)he is acting in a trustworthy way or not. Those opinions are an ongoing result of the responses to each and every decision made and action taken.

Stephen Covey, of 7 Habits fame, is also the author of The Speed of Trust. In a 2009 article, How the Best Leaders Build Trust, published in Leadership Now, he wrote:

Most people don’t know how to think about the organizational and societal consequences of low trust because they don’t know how to quantify or measure the costs of such a so-called “soft” factor as trust. For many, trust is intangible, ethereal, unquantifiable. If it remains that way, then people don’t know how to get their arms around it or how to improve it. But the fact is, the costs of low trust are very real, they are quantifiable, and they are staggering...

In the article Covey included ’13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders Worldwide’. They are:

  1. Talk Straight
  2. Demonstrate Respect
  3. Create Transparency
  4. Right Wrongs
  5. Show Loyalty
  6. Deliver Results
  7. Get Better
  8. Confront Reality
  9. Clarify Expectation
  10. Practice Accountability
  11. Listen First
  12. Keep Commitments
  13. Extend Trust

While policies, mandates, and laws guide leaders, their own moral compass is revealed in their actions. Particularly within a school and district where leaders have remained at the helm for a long period of time, relationships develop, trust grows, and expectations rise. Working in an environment where teaching and learning are clearly the central purpose allows for healthy relationships to develop and for trust to grow.

Trust and Student Achievement

Trust has a role in student achievement greater than the attention it receives. Byrk and Schneider’s research led to the identification of the key aspects of relational trust in schools. Megan Tschannen-Moran’ s Trust Matters captured the stories of school leaders as they learned the lessons about trust, successes and failures. More recently, researcher and author John Hattie studied teachers and found teacher credibility had a .90 effect size, with the average effect size of all the interventions he studied being .40. So how do students come to find a teacher credible? According to Hattie it is “earning trust by showing trust.” Working in an environment in which trust in the leader exists, relationships among the adults can strengthen trust as well. For teachers to be found credible by their students, the environment for the adults must be supportive of growing trust.

Trusted Leaders

Lets agree that, over the long haul, no decision will remain a secret, all decisions will be measured, and the effects of actions are far reaching. When a pebble is thrown in a pond, there is a little splash, then rings form and move out from where the pebble landed. They grow in size until the pond absorbs the impact of the pebble. Trust is like that...it begins or ends in little ways and its ripples are felt far from the source.

We strive for equity, evenhandedness, and impartiality and are tempted to make exceptions by special circumstances. The effect of the exception can be silent yet it spreads like the rings from the splash of the pebble. Those silently expanding rings can make or break the trust between a leader and the community she or he leads. Exceptions to rules, discipline and differing expectations for behavior of students and teachers, ignoring some while courting others or special favors can all erode trust in unnoticeable ways until one day the leader confronts the fact that it is gone. Responding with empathy to the adult or child who present with an urgent problem by making an exception can be seen by others as favoritism. There needs to be a place for kindness in the workplace. Whether or not there is depends on the relationship that has already been built by consistency, fairness, respect, open communication.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Ivelin Radkov courtesy of 123rf

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.