Administration & Leadership

What Does Trust Look Like in a School?

Explore eight ways school leaders can work to create a culture of trust and teacher empowerment.

February 1, 2022
SolStock / iStock

Trust matters—people who work in high-trust environments experience less stress, burnout, and sick days than those who work in low-trust environments. Higher levels of productivity, greater engagement, and more energy are all associated with these advantages.

As a former teacher who now works with organizations to design professional learning, I hear a lot about teacher empowerment. We’ve seen countless instances where teachers or staff members do not feel supported or have the creative freedom to do what they believe is best in the classroom. Ultimately, they don’t feel trusted, and this lack of trust stifles engagement, increases stress, and leads to workplace dissatisfaction. If leaders want teachers to reach their full potential both inside and outside of the classroom, they must foster a culture of trust.

Education is a field built on relationships, but we are rarely taught how to nurture them. What does trust look like in practice? What concrete steps can leaders take to foster a culture of trust?

There is a wealth of research and recommendations in the business world on how to create workplace cultures that allow people and ideas to thrive. In his research on the neuroscience of trust, Paul J. Zak provides criteria about leadership behaviors that increase employee engagement and generate trust. As I read this research, I began to wonder how school leaders could use these strategies to foster a culture of trust and success for teachers. The following are eight prompts to help school leaders identify the behaviors required to create the ideal environment for trust with teachers.

How Are You Showing Trust?

1. Recognize excellence: How can we give teachers more consistent recognition? This could be as simple as noticing and congratulating teachers on their efforts in the classroom. For example, you may have a group of teachers who have collaborated to create a fantastic project-based learning unit centered on community heroes. Make sure to compliment them on a job well done.

2. Give meaningful challenges: Teachers are excellent problem solvers, and we must capitalize on their knowledge. Let’s say you’ve noticed a lot of absenteeism with virtual learning. Asking teachers for their insights is a way to engage them in something that’s relevant and meaningful. Providing space and time to let them act on those ideas demonstrates that you value their insights and trust them to engage students.

3. Encourage autonomy: Do we micromanage teachers when they should be treated as adults? We frequently prescribe how teachers should do things in areas such as virtual learning formats, lesson plans, technology integration, and assessments. Instead, give them the creative license to do it in the best way possible for themselves and their students. The how should not matter if the goals and destination are communicated. Leaders who trust understand how to provide support while also getting out of the way.

4. Let teachers pursue their passions: It’s critical to give teachers a chance when they approach you with new ideas, such as starting a community garden or a yoga club. Most teachers simply want the go-ahead to move forward with ideas so that they can grow. Do we do enough to promote the hobbies and interests of educators? Find a way to say yes.

5. Be clear and transparent: Teachers want to know why they are being made to do certain things and how those things align with the school’s mission and vision and benefit students. The more you keep your employees informed, the better they’ll understand what’s going on. Staff meetings, emails, and newsletters are opportunities for you to make goals clear and to facilitate dialogue as to how you will work together to achieve those goals.

6. Nurture relationships: Basics like remembering people’s names or not being too busy to say hi when passing another in the hallway can help people feel noticed. Stopping to ask questions and genuinely listen shows you care. Taking the time to be interested in other people’s lives and express concern about their well-being can show how much you value relationships.

7. Invest in whole-person growth: Are you asking teachers how you can assist them in performing their duties to the best of their abilities? It’s a good idea not to assume we know what’s best for everyone, especially when we can simply ask and listen. If teachers are coming to you to tell you they’re stressed out, figure out what can be done. Simple steps like having office hours or setting up a Calendly can make it easier for teachers to reach out.

8. Show vulnerability: Stop initiatives that aren’t working. Ask for help. Let others take ownership of ideas. Are you showing your human side? During a staff meeting, are you speaking with or talking to? These are a few ways to not let our egos get the better of us.

The majority of these trust-building techniques boil down to treating teachers as professionals rather than subject-matter experts. Perhaps with a little more trust, we’ll be able to restore some joy to what is unquestionably a passion-driven career.

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