School Climate & Safety Opinion

Trust Within the Leadership Team

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 13, 2016 5 min read
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The 21st century has brought with it change at a breakneck speed. Driverless cars, new surgical methods, new medications, and new communication technologies to name a few. With them, new teaching and learning strategies and methodologies enter our workplaces. Yet, overall, schools remain organized around the tenets that supported the school system of the last century.

Trusted Leaders
While researching and writing our book on STEM as a fulcrum to shift schools into this century, we met leaders who fearlessly looked into the frontier, knew how to create a collaborative vision, set a course into the possible, and take others along for the benefit of students.They also understand the horizon line will always be moving, but we need to be moving always toward it. That work is deeply rooted in trust. Whether shifting a school or district into a new way of being or doing, trust is central.

In a recent post by our friend and colleague Peter DeWitt, How to Build Compliance and Kill Collaboration, he said,

When we talk about things like collaboration, taking risks, growth mindsets, and innovative mindsets, we have to understand that none of them will ever happen without a proper school climate. Trust starts from the top down, and if leaders don’t trust each other, the insecure ones will have a building filled with teachers and staff that may not trust them.

He captures a profound truth in that paragraph. We write and talk about trust top down and bottom up but he draws our attention to the trust levels among and within the leadership team. It is such an obvious and understated imperative. How can faculty develop trust for the district leadership without a school leader who trusts them? And have we not seen competition for resources and promotions between and among members of the team? We shouldn’t’ think for a moment that these in team positioning go unnoticed by the faculty. In fact, they are always observing the ups and downs among the leaders and trying to ascertain the lay of the land so they can avoid the political land mines. What an understandable distraction from our real work.

Trust Throughout the Organization
It is the leader who steers the organization and who can make or break the implementation of a change or requirement by the manner in which they lead it. That is true for both building and district leaders. Developing trust in an organization is based on one’s authenticity, reliability, honesty, fairness, and consistency. Knowledge and competence matter. Those attributes spring from a leader’s head and heart. “A wholehearted leader can share insight, reveal wisdom, and release courage” (p.62). It is through those actions that a community of change supporters decides it is willing to move into the frontier spaces. We know enough history to know that interdependence is required for survival on the frontier. Communities develop there. Their risks are celebrated, their direction supported, their fears understood, and their focus can remain on purpose, the children they serve. Trust forms or the community fails.

Every educator needs hope. Each leader is holding the tension between loss and possibility, between what is and what might be, between the terrain well traveled and the unexplored region where vision with honesty, leaders ask others to follow, to openly trust, to become co-creators, and to launch off from the comfortable into the journey. Without heart, hopes to create schools that offer children the best of 21st century learning will be dashed (p. 63).

Trust Begins With The Leadership Team
What happens in schools where there is little or no trust? Compliance, itself, becomes a goal. Morale will certainly plummet and little cooperation exists. The community fractures into backroom discussions, resentment, misunderstanding and frustration. None of these behaviors and sentiments are good for children and none of them will ignite full hearted, child centered, and future focused changes.

It is naïve to assert that people know how to be trustworthy and want to be collaborative. Many human beings, for reasons of personal life stories and personality, are reticent to trust and would rather work independently. To encourage followership for a change initiative, someone in the system must be paying attention to the people in the process and focused on the relationships that will ignite a creative and generative spirit (pp. 130-131).

In these days with need and demand for change colliding, we have met leaders who have been successful when bringing their district together with a vision for change. Their success emerged from the trust they extended to their teachers and found it returned reciprocally. Changes focused on student experience and opportunities found support. An example was in Goochland County Public Schools where then Superintendent James Lane along with his leadership team encouraged changes in teaching and learning with an understanding of the risks this required of the faculty. Fears about changing practice were allayed as the leadership team invited support from the entire school community that standardized testing results would be watched, but more important to everyone was the enriched learning opportunities they were designing for students. No results were negatively impacted. The district’s continued move to be a future aware district has continued, even after Dr. Lane moved to another district and Superintendent Jeremy Raley took the reins. A community where trust lives can continue to grow even with a change in leadership.

Ken Blanchard, servant leadership guru writes:

When people believe that they are working for trustworthy leaders, they are willing to invest their time and talents in making a difference in an organization. People who feel more connected will invest more of themselves in their work. High trust levels lead to a greater sense of self-responsibility, greater interpersonal insight, and more collective action toward achieving common goals.

No work in education can any longer lack high levels of self-responsibility, greater interpersonal insight, and more collective action toward achieving common goals. It does begin within the leadership team.

Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J (2015) The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin

Illustration by rawpixel 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.