From a very young age, we are told parables that teach the importance of developing trust through honesty. The boy who cried wolf too many times lost the trust of the townspeople; he wasn’t believed when his cries were genuine. After assuring that he would do no harm, the scorpion stings the fox who carries him across the river, thus drowning them both; the scorpion’s justification: “I couldn’t help myself; it’s in my nature.” Add to that the number of ’80s sitcoms I watched as a child, where the protagonist started with a small lie, perhaps to impress a friend, and eroded trust by adding lie after lie to cover his or her story until it all unraveled, and I was convinced: Building and maintaining trust was a key value.
For a school leader, building trust is critical, since it is the bedrock of relationships of all kinds. When people know they can depend on what a person says, trust flourishes. Students, parents, donors and teachers must all feel that they can trust their school leaders. The investments each of these constituents make in our schools—their time, money and children—demand such trust in school leadership.
Over the past three years at the Fuchs Mizrachi School, we have shifted our paradigm of learning in the Stark High School, moving away from a teacher-focused paradigm where students passively received content and regurgitated it on a test. We sought to create a culture of student-focused learning in which the emphasis was on meaningful, active learning; where students took ownership of their learning; and where we highlighted the skills, mindsets, habits and information our students will need for the ever-changing world they will be entering. Through both failures and successes, we learned that while change is unsettling and even uncomfortable, relationships based on trust ensure buy-in and smooth transitions.
Trust and our Students
Students need to feel safe in order to grow. If children can’t rely on their teachers and school leaders to provide a sense of emotional safety, they won’t fully engage in the learning process. How can children grapple with challenging material if they are unsure if their educators truly have their best interests in mind? How can we expect them to put themselves “out there,” with all the vulnerability that entails, if they can’t depend on teachers to react in a supportive, predictable manner? With trust, our students are more comfortable pushing themselves in uncomfortable ways. And while school leaders don’t interact with students to the same degree as teachers do, that relationship still often exists.
When we started shifting how we asked students to learn, many students were anxious—especially those students who had been successful. We were asking them to trust that we had their best interests in mind, and that we would constantly evaluate if our innovations were enabling our students to achieve or not. We established that trust by asking them for feedback and for their opinions, by reflecting on what they shared, and by bringing them into our thought processes. While every subsequent change brought on the anxieties of change, the students were reassured by the fact that they knew they could rely on school leadership to be thoughtful and have their best interests in mind.
I have found that, in general, students trust me most when I have done the following things:
- Clearly articulate expectations and consistently apply and uphold them
- Take time to show them I am invested in them and their success, by taking time outside of class to connect and by expressing interest in their lives outside of school
- Making it safe to be vulnerable by first making myself vulnerable
Trust and our Parents
Parents trust us with their children, and they need to trust that our school is a safe and supportive environment. Moreover, in order for children to truly incorporate what they learn, there must be a strong partnership between parents and educators. If one undermines the other, children will receive mixed messages and will not know what path of growth to follow. For the parent-school partnership to flourish, we must view ourselves as a team built on trust.
Further, parents must feel confident that the decisions of school leaders are made with the best interests of their children in mind. If parents believe that school leaders have ulterior motives, they won’t support institutional decisions. Specifically, if a school wants to change the status quo or pilot a new initiative, it is important that parents feel that school leaders are approaching the change thoughtfully, with the perspective of parents in mind, and with the best interests of the students as the primary concern.
These were lessons we learned the hard way, with the implementation of a learning platform that we felt would enable our students to better meet their goals. We underestimated the degree to which the change was going to be perceived as a major shift and innovation. Assuming that parents would share our perception that this was just another new tool we were using, we didn’t sufficiently engage the parents and explain our rationale for implementing a learning platform. Parents were left to draw their own conclusions about what we were doing and why we were doing it. We spent vast amounts of time and energy trying to reframe our reasoning and our decisions—time we could have spent supporting students or furthering teacher growth.
Increasingly, I try to invest in parental trust of school leaders by:
- Being transparent: explaining why decisions are made, admitting when I have made mistakes
- Communicating clearly and frequently about our goals and plans
- Listening: making time and creating opportunities for parents to voice their aspirations and concerns
Trust and our Donors
Developing the trust of our donors is essential. When making a financial investment and seeking a financial return, donors would not hand their money over to someone they didn’t trust. When making a financial investment and seeking a different type of return, a return of purpose and meaning, the same holds true. School supporters will partner with school leaders they trust and who consistently demonstrate that they are true to their words.
Having recently become a head of school, I have set aside considerable time to meet founders and donors just to listen. I want to know what is important to them, their dreams, their passions, their motivations. Not only does it give me a better sense of the school’s history and heritage, but it allows me to develop deep relationships with our supporters.
To build trust with donors, I try to think about:
- Building a relationship based on more than just solicitations: getting to know them and what matters to them
- Being transparent about needs, goals, successes and failures
- Following up when making commitments
Trust and our Teachers
The actual performance of the educators in our schools depends on their ability to rely on us. My doctoral research, based on Tony Simons’ studies of the role of trust in organizational culture, focused on perceived behavioral integrity, or perceived word-deed alignment. More specifically, I researched how teachers in Modern Orthodox day schools in North America were impacted by the way they perceived the word-deed alignment of the school leaders.
My research found that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between teachers’ perceptions of their leaders’ word-deed alignment and job satisfaction and performance. These relationships can impact areas such as teacher absenteeism, teacher retention and teacher performance. As such, the education of our students can be impacted by the degree to which teachers trust their school leaders and perceive that they are consistently “walking the walk.”
I try to consciously build trust with teachers by:
- Modeling behaviors consistent with articulated school values
- Sharing thought processes with teachers so they can see how conclusions were drawn
- Following through with commitments made to teachers
- Being direct and specific, even when the conversations are difficult
- Supporting and celebrating teachers publicly
Being a new head of school, I recognize that building trust takes time, and that it takes just a brief moment to erode that trust. The consistency needed to establish these relationships on a foundation of honesty and trust requires patience and mindfulness. But once attained, we, as educational leaders, will be in the ideal position to create school communities in which our students will thrive.