How a culture of trust grows
A school cannot achieve relational trust simply through some workshop, retreat, or form of sensitivity training, although all of these activities can help. Rather, schools build relational trust in day-to-day social exchanges.
Through their words and actions, school participants show their sense of their obligations toward others, and others discern these intentions. Trust grows through exchanges in which actions validate these expectations.
(Bryk and Schneider)
Factors which may be hindering the presence of trust
- A past which has operated on a culture of mistrust
- Events which have destroyed trust
- Agendas held by adult stakeholders which are not in line with the school’s core purpose of creating conditions which enable the best outcomes for students
How to develop a culture of trust
After extensive reading on the topic (see below), I’ve synthesised the advice on trust into a few broad categories:
Attitude and Values
- Ask the hard questions about whether or where trust exists in the school and what is preventing it from happening.
- A school’s core business has to be results and improvements (academic and otherwise) for the students.
- The principal and school administration need to actively support this vision and it has to be communicated clearly and repeatedly to the school community.
- Decide on the target the school will work on which fits with the vision, e.g. improved attendance, higher reading levels, and consistently communicate that purpose.
- If a venture doesn’t fit with the current target, don’t do it.
- Risk taking needs to be encouraged and failure accepted as an option which creates opportunities for learning.
- Encourage and work towards a culture of respect (for others’ opinions, values and choices).
Structural and Procedural
- Structure the timetable so that there is some space for focussing on building relationships between students and between students and teachers.
- Create routines and procedures in staff meetings which enable staff to interact with as many different people as possible and to share their experiences, thoughts and questions.
- Encourage long-term, job-embedded PD models where teachers work together, rather than off-campus events.
- Ask the students for their input. Invite students to meetings when appropriate.
- Give staff opportunities to grow as one whole group.
- Slow down and work on one area of improvement at a time.
- Speak respectfully, use good manners, listen to what others have to say, apologise when necessary.
- Maintain appropriate confidentiality of students’ and other teachers’ private information.
- Fulfil your job or voluntary position competently and be seen to go “above and beyond”.
- Make new staff members feel welcome – introduce yourself, help them to understand the routines of the school.
- Be honest and open.
- Avoid conversations which exclude others.
For school leaders
- Be consistent in your words and actions.
- Follow through with plans and initiatives.
- Do not allow negligence or incompetence to continue.
- Work with teachers who are reluctant to adopt the school’s vision.
- If necessary, replace them with staff who will work with the vision.
- Help teachers to understand and have empathy with parents. Teachers are not usually trained in dealing with adults and may have trouble understanding parents’ views, especially if the teachers and parents are from very different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds.
- Wherever possible show compassion towards teachers by allowing them flexibility and personal time in their work and spending time with them.
- Be accessible.
- Ask for feedback and be prepared to listen to it.
Some trust issues particular to technology
Try to create procedures which assume that stakeholders are trustworthy. For example:
- Remove requirements for teachers to ask permission to access particular websites. Trust their professionalism.
- Remove the requirement for young students to change passwords often. It gets in the way of learning.
- Rather than blocking access, which many older students can circumvent anyway, work on teaching digital citizenship skills. Trust them to do the right thing.
- Involve parents in decision-making about their children’s educational technology use. Respect their opinions and input.
- Negotiate a technology “charter” with all stakeholders. Help everyone understand the purpose of technology use in the school and have a say in how it will be used.
References and further reading
Brewster, C. & Railsback, J. (2003). Building trusting relationships for school improvement: Implications for Principals and Teachers. Office of Planning and Service Coordination. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools. A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-45.
Doda, N. (2011). Trust : The key to leading a learning school. Middle Level Leader. Retrieved from
Hoy, W.K. & DiPaola, M. (Eds.), Improving schools: studies in leadership and culture. Information Age Publishing.
Jacobs, J.E. and O’Gorman, K.L. (2012). The Learning Leader: Reflecting, Modeling, and Sharing. Eye On Education Inc.
Larkin, K., Finger, G., & Thompson, R. (2010). Student health and welfare in networked school communities. In M. Lee & G. Finger (Eds.), Developing a networked school community. A guide to realising the vision. (pp. 277-289). Camberwell: ACER.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools. Wiley.