Hey Educators: Are You Trustworthy? Here are 4 Vital Signs for Identifying and Assessing Trust in Schools

November 20, 2017

Trust is unwieldy, vague, and fuzzy. It’s complex, huge, and complicated. And, by the way, it is essential to our schools.

Trust is a big word. It may be just one syllable and it’s certainly not a word the Spelling Bee organizers would consider a great challenge (or have on their radar at all), but in more important ways it is huge.

Its dictionary definition is well-known, easily understood, and…meaningless, most of the time. Because in schools, it’s the connotation we attach to the word and the deep reservoirs of associated emotion that determine how we truly define it. Trust is unwieldy, vague, and fuzzy. It’s complex, huge, and complicated. And, by the way, it is essential: research says trust is critical to our schools moving forward.

There’s quite a bit happening in just five letters.

“I don’t trust you.” “I feel unsafe on this team.” “I just don’t know if we can move forward unless I have built a trusting relationship with the faculty.”

I don’t disagree with the teachers and administrators who’ve shared their thoughts and feelings with me about a lack of trust and its crucial role on their perception of support in their job. And while I acknowledge the prevalence of uncomfortable encounters in unhealthy school climates, I can’t help but find myself asking, “What am I doing to be a trustworthy person myself? What can I do and say to build that trust?”

The Research Behind Trust

Many books, blogs, and articles have been put out on the subject both in and outside the field. From Megan Tschannen-Moran’s Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools to Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything to Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, the importance of trust has been well-established, and many great minds have established effective practices for enhancing it.

In their research, Bryk and Schneider demonstrated that schools with a high degree of trust are more likely to make changes that help students achieve. According to these two researchers, a successful school has a faculty that lives aloud the idea of trust. They trust the other faculty and employees on campus.

4 Ways to Assess Trust

How do they do that? Bryk and Schneider have four vital signs for identifying and assessing trust in schools that will prove instructive. While not an exhaustive list of behaviors, do you demonstrate through your words and actions that you are both trusting and trustworthy? See if you live these concepts out loud:

  1. Respect: Do I acknowledge others’ dignity and ideas or do I sigh when they speak? Am I distracted and playing with my phone or do I listen with full attention? Do I interact in a courteous way? Say hello in the front office? Respond to emails in a timely manner?
  2. Competence: Do I believe in a colleague’s ability and willingness to fulfill responsibilities effectively? More to the point: How do I show it? Do I delegate and show that I’m confident when I do? Do I ask for their insights? Do I use positive presuppositions in my communications? Do I not roll my eyes when someone mentions a colleague’s name or when I am asked if I think he/she would be good at a team lead position?
  3. Personal regard: Do I care about others on my team personally and professionally? Do I ask how they are when they come back from being absent? Do I listen when they share about their weekend? Do I go the extra mile for someone when I know things are rough outside of school or even with a class that challenges them? Am I willing to go beyond my formal role and “take one for the team,” without complaint? Happily do an extra duty, buy that coffee, sign the birthday card?
  4. Integrity: Can others trust me to put the interests of students first and do I demonstrate that I trust them to do the same? If there needs to be something done for the sake of student schedules or needs, even though it isn’t convenient, do I step up? If something needs to be written that will support student growth or a meeting to attend to, do I do so as it is best for students?

In schools, trust is a verb. You can’t stick it in your back pocket. It’s given actively and hard-earned over time. It is through our actions and our words that we create the environments in which we all can do our best work. And it is through our individual actions and words that we build this trust over and over, day by day. This isn’t a feel-good idea. It is a critical and essential component to the work.

This post was originally published as the second in a new column Jennifer writes for eSchool News. In her column on ‘Personal Development’, Jennifer focuses on tangible takeaways, tools and teachings that all those working in schools can use to develop their leadership. Read more about the column and browse future content here.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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