School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teachers Will Take Risks When Leaders Build Trustworthy Environments

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 10, 2016 4 min read
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We recently wrote a post on shared values and the important way those shared values, when lived in practice, can help the organization and everyone in it do their part to contribute to student success. One such value essential in a healthy organization is trust. In Covey language, it is the bank account leaders need to successfully lead the organization especially in this time when the degree of system change occurring is profound. The trust account requires filling and, yes, withdrawals can be made without damage but only if the account continues to be replenished. Without the trust of and between the members of the organization, no leader can successfully implement sustainable change.

Developing Trustworthiness
Sometimes decisions need to be made that are not easily accepted by those who must carry them out or live with them. Those decisions are especially the ones that call for the members of the organization to lean on their trust of the leader and each other.

School systems have been reluctant to spend public funds to prepare faculty and leaders for a work environment that requires trust and collaboration. There seems to be some underlying belief operating that all adults come hardwired with these propensities and skills and they emerge when called upon (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015).

Few professional development offerings are designed to help leaders and teachers develop their trustworthiness and to develop their ability to trust each other. It is not something that may come across one’s desk or in email. If it did, it might not be something that feels as urgent as scheduling standardized tests, analyzing data, or preparing the budget. However, trust remains one of the accelerators of change, and the foundation of healthy relationships.

...leaders must trust the people and , in turn, must be trustworthy....Creating a trusting environment means a workplace in which people are part of the decisions about the goals to be accomplished, then are trusted to do their work without constant supervision...(Autry p.33).

Change Requires Trust
Presently, change is a constant and it is necessary for us to lead within an environment of unpredictability. No matter where one stands on whether schools are successful or not, who among us can defend perpetuating a system designed for a century past? Programs have been tried and tinkering has happened around the edges but the system, itself, must open up in order for innovation to thrive and have room to take hold. The demands for change that come from outside the system are carried as burdens and are implemented with debilitating weight. And, surely, it is the responsibility of the leader to be sure they are implemented with fidelity. These can cause withdrawals from the hard earned trust account. So it seems that leading a locally designed change can be unlikely even though it is needed now more than ever.

... trust is the first fatality of imposed reform. Centuries ago, Confucius said that a government needs three things: weapons, food, and trust. If any of these have to be sacrificed, he said, the last of them should be trust.. Trust is an indispensable resource for improvement (Hargreaves & Fink, p. 212).

Changes in schools can free time and structure, can welcome new partnerships, and utilize new methods. The changes will take place in and among classrooms led by teachers and in workplaces where partnerships are alive. Practices and methods will have to be examined; some will be held and some, let go. Experimenting with new curricula, teaching in concert with others, learning new methods, becoming more facile with technology, and engaging students in new and different ways may leave teachers feeling vulnerable. Expecting these changes requires not only creating an environment of trust, it requires that a teacher can trust the leader AND his or her colleagues. That environment is developed and maintained through integrity of the leader and of the teachers, both.

Safety, Risk, and Trust
Teachers, who are responsible for learning, changing practice, and stepping into new territory while trying new things, require the safety that can only be provided by the school leader, in order to not be distracted by fear of failure or judgment or job loss. Each time a teacher experiences a setback in the effort of change it can be met with encouragement and appreciation for trying. In this way, the environment evolves into one where the definition of risk-taking, itself, changes. Safety and risk are no longer in a tug of war. Each time one’s word is kept, trust is built, making a deposit in the account. Surely, there will be times when withdrawals will be made so it is important that every time there are opportunities to keep one’s word, leaders do so. When trust becomes a shared and lived value, the people within the organization can remain invested in their chosen work, taking risks, moving forward, making changes. That is what the children need and we can provide it for them.

Autry, James A. (2001). The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance.New York: Crown Publishing
Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2006) Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco: Josssey-Bass
Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015) The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

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