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.
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