(Originally posted at Larry Walsh, High School Principal.)
By Larry Walsh
In schools, trust is like love in a marriage: it bonds people together and makes them strong and effective. Trust in relationships increases security, reduces inhibitions and defensiveness, and frees people to share feelings and dreams. Trust empowers you to put your deepest fears in the palms of your colleagues’ hands, knowing that they will be treated with care. Trust enables you to be yourself and maintain your own values without worrying about acceptance. Trust makes colleagues willing to spend time together and make sacrifices for one another. Trust is an expression of faith that makes it easy for colleagues to have confidence in one another’s ability to perform well and to know that they will be there if needed. Trust means that promises made will be kept, and it also means that if a promise is not kept, it was probably for good cause. And finally, trust means that a relationship will last not because it’s good to do, but because the relationship itself is valued. School transformation rises and falls upon the degree of trust that prevails.
Deborah Meir (2002) wrote in her compelling book, In Schools We Trust: “Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something stupid. Learning works best in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids.” (2002, p.18). For young adolescents, schools must be exceptionally safe, ensuring that at all times, each learner is safe from mental, social, and emotional harm.
Parker Palmer (1998) claims that fear diminishes our best efforts to reach the young people we serve, to learn and grow as faculty, or to create schools where learning flourishes and is filled with joy and wonder.
“Educational institutions are full of divisive structures, of course, but blaming them for our brokenness perpetuates the myth that the outer world is more powerful than the inner…Fear is what distances us from our colleagues, our students, our subjects, and ourselves.”
When asked, many principals describe their schools as friendly. While friendly is certainly something to celebrate, congeniality should not be confused with collegiality. A friendly faculty may not have sufficient trust to tackle tough issues with honesty and courage. (Dufour & Berkey, 1995) In fact, because a school is friendly, it is easier to neglect trust.
- Do teachers feel safe to critically examine their own practice, to make needed changes, to test out new methods? Do they feel safe sharing these attempts with fellow colleagues and administration?
- Do students feel safe to think critically, to make mistakes, to not understand, and to seek support? Do they feel as if their success is our success? Do they know learning and growth are more important than grades or test performance? Do they feel safe with other peers? While this will not leave you with a definitive trust score, it will help you begin to identify issues and concerns.
David Strahn (2008) who recently conducted and reviewed research on trust and student motivation, noted that, “When a student learns to trust a caring teacher, he or she can begin to take chances, find the will to invest effort in a task, and receive the guidance needed to improve skills. Trusting relationships thus constitute the threshold of action, a point beyond which meaningful learning can occur.” Moreover, he added that when teachers engaged in caring behaviors devoted to knowing students well both as learners and people, students were significantly more motivated to try and more likely to succeed.”
The same principle applies to the relationship between administration and staff. It is particularly important to safeguard the way we talk about and to the staff in our school. Do we model the same respect we so hope they give to their students?
Good schools are continuously growing and improving. They seek to be learning schools committed to finding solutions to help students learn. They recognize, however, that a transformative school is built on a foundation of trust and they take that very seriously.
What is the degree of trust in your school? I look forward to reading your comments.