Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Trust Is Missing From School-Improvement Efforts

By Dara Barlin — October 04, 2016 4 min read

One of the recent conversations in K-12 education has focused on creating environments of trust for students. Classrooms that are founded on trusting relationships enable students to take risks and make mistakes. They also teach young people how to learn from failure and develop the resilience they need to succeed in school and life. What is often missing from this conversation, however, is how a lack of trust among the adults who run our schools—including teachers, principals, and district personnel—can affect the success of the entire district.

Unfortunately, many teachers and school leaders often experience a culture of blame and the fear of failure. As a consultant who has worked for more than 20 years with teachers’ unions, policymakers, and departments of education in large urban school systems, I have seen firsthand why trust is so critical to the management of a healthy and successful school district.

Trust Is Missing From School-Improvement Efforts: Distrust among school leaders and educators can depress teacher retention and harm students, writes Dana Barlin.

When teachers make mistakes, they know they are accountable to parents or face discipline by their principal. When principals make mistakes, they know they might get publicly chastised or tagged as ineffective by their school system’s leaders. When district leaders make mistakes, they know they might draw criticism from local policymakers and the community, which can affect the district’s reputation and, ultimately, their job security.

There is an intense amount of pressure to get everything exactly right—to make every lesson plan perfect, every new initiative flawless, and every interaction with a parent or student superb. And if the adults who work in and operate our schools don’t trust one another, it can stifle their ability and willingness to take risks or try new things. It can also easily lead to scapegoating. Without trust, our schools are hampered from making necessary progress.

A lack of trust also has a huge impact on K-12’s infamous revolving door. The average superintendent of a large urban school district sticks around for about three years, and it’s no different for about 50 percent of principals nationwide. And within their first five years, 17 percent of all new teachers leave the classroom, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This attrition does not model the perseverance schools want to instill in their students.

Without trust, our schools are hampered from making necessary progress."

A lack of trust among adults can affect students. Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that teachers in schools with flat or declining student test scores are more likely to say that they do not trust one another, according to a report released in 2000 by the consortium’s co-founders Penny Bender Sebring and Anthony S. Bryk. In contrast, in schools where teachers report strong trust and cooperation among adults, students said they felt safe and cared for, as well as more academically challenged. And stronger student test scores often bear this out.

This issue is not just specific to school contexts. It’s also been well documented in the corporate workplace. Douglas R. Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup Co., found a direct connection between employee trust and financial performance. And Google, which recently studied the conditions that help its employees work well, found that psychological safety—the ability to be vulnerable with others and feel comfortable taking risks—was the most critical condition for creating effective employee teams.

Psychological safety for adults in any profession is a relatively new concept. It is unrealistic to think that anyone—especially educators who are juggling dozens of demands in any given moment—would instinctively know how to create the necessary conditions for trusting cultures. Many K-12 leaders themselves have been inculcated into environments that overemphasize outcomes and de-emphasize school culture.

As the founder of DARE Consulting, an organization that helps education communities improve school outcomes, I recently created a professional-development program to help educators take the first steps toward building greater trust. The goal of the program is to help leaders develop psychologically safe spaces for their employees by de-escalating potential conflicts and building trust in the fast-paced school environment. It brings educators together to discuss underlying issues; offers ways to foster a growth mindset across teams; and provides tools for addressing conflicts in ways that can promote mutual support, intellectual curiosity, and positive change.

The following conditions set the tone for building trust:

• Using empathy as the starting point for change;

• Celebrating individual and team progress, even when incremental;

• Inspiring people to take action, rather than mandating it;

• Using a team-oriented approach to problem-solving; and

• Prioritizing time for regular feedback and effective communication.

But talking about trust is not enough. A healthy school environment where educators and schools can flourish requires time, focus, an emphasis on empathy, and a good deal of practice before behaviors begin to shift. But when schools make the shift successfully, the difference is palpable. Educators and school leaders spend less time putting out fires and more time thinking about how to help students succeed.

If educators and K-12 leaders learn how to support one another, schools will be better equipped to create sustainable change that will benefit our students in the classroom and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as Trust: The Missing Ingredient in School Improvement

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Pay Raises and Pandemic Bonuses: Can They Keep Teachers in Classrooms?
Some states are proposing salary hikes and offering teachers one-time bonuses. Will the money have an effect on post-pandemic retention?
8 min read
Woman paying bills.
Getty
Recruitment & Retention Mentors Matter for New Teachers. Advice on What Works and Doesn't
Mentorships can go a long way in keeping new teachers in the field. But not all mentor-mentee relationships are created equal.
6 min read
Misti Kemmer, a 4th grade teacher at Russell Elementary School in Los Angeles, had a negative experience being mentored as a new teacher, but is now a mentor herself.
Misti Kemmer, a 4th grade teacher at Russell Elementary School in Los Angeles, had a negative experience being mentored as a new teacher, but is now a mentor herself.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week
Recruitment & Retention Principals and Teachers Don't Always See Eye to Eye. Can Getting In Sync Reduce Turnover?
Teachers and principals are not on the same page about why teachers teach, why they quit, and how to get them to stay.
10 min read
Teacher and coach Howard Hill at the King William High School athletic track in King William, Va. on April 23, 2021.
Howard Hill, a coach and agriculture teacher at King William High School in King William, Va., considered leaving the profession early, but changed his mind because of the support he received from colleagues.
Parker Michels-Boyce for Education Week
Recruitment & Retention Jobs for New Teachers: What the Market Looks Like Right Now
New teachers are searching for jobs in a recruiting season like no other. Here are some insights on what to expect.
4 min read
recruitment, magnifying glass reviewing candidates
iStock/Getty Images Plus