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May 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 8

The Trust Factor

School Culture
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As I prepared to address the faculty members of Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, New York, for the first time as principal, I noticed my secretary placing large sheets of paper on the counter in the main office. She must have seen my inquisitive look because she stopped and explained that they were time sheets for teachers. A previous principal was concerned about the tardiness of a few teachers, so he required time sheets for everyone. I quickly discussed my dismay about this practice with the superintendent and assistant principals and then asked my secretary to discard the time sheets. A few minutes later, in my initial address to the teachers, I told them what I had done. They applauded.
This simple act was a significant one. In that moment, I communicated to the teachers, "I trust you, and I see you as professionals." It became a symbol of my tenure as principal.
After more than 30 years as a school leader, I have come to believe that trust is the most important factor in building a collaborative and positive school culture. Trusting teachers communicates that you value them and believe in them. Teachers who are trusted take risks and collaborate with their colleagues. They work longer hours. They are committed to maintaining a healthy culture—a place where everyone looks forward to coming to work. Most important, they build on this foundation of trust and collaboration to create engaging, rigorous learning opportunities for their students.

Fostering Collaboration

Trust is the foundation for collaboration, and collaboration is what makes organizations excel.
Major corporations like Google have found that collaboration leads to better productivity. In his article "What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team," Charles Duhigg (2016) reported
In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly, and find better solutions to problems.
Likewise, schools are full of examples of teachers working together to develop the most effective learning experiences for students. In a study of 400 elementary schools in Chicago, Bryk and Schneider (2003) found that schools with high relational trust were more likely to make marked improvements in student learning. More recently, Linda Darling-Hammond (2014), in reporting the results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey, wrote that
OECD studies show that higher-performing countries intentionally focus on creating teacher collaboration that results in more skillful teaching and strong student achievement. U.S. researchers have also found that school achievement is much stronger where teachers work in collaborative teams that plan and work together.
Whether teachers are working on instruction, developing curriculum, or discussing students, they value the opportunity to collaborate. In our school, the literacy coach held periodic workshops with teachers from all departments. These volunteer workshops focused on different techniques and were always full. Teachers saw the workshops as an opportunity to work with colleagues from other departments and to learn new strategies and protocols. In an atmosphere of trust, they were willing to take the risks that new learning requires. Once teachers experienced the value of this kind of collaboration, they began to use the new strategies in their own classrooms with their students.

Coming Together as a Community

In my experience, building a culture of trust is an ongoing process and generally takes at least three years to accomplish. Trust is earned in every interaction, day after day.
It can begin with a new principal simply showing respect for the culture that's already in place. As a teacher, I had a principal who, during the first month of his tenure, brought all the teachers into the cafeteria to create a timeline of important events in the past 40 years of the school's history. He hung newsprint along the walls of the cafeteria, and teachers filled in dates and events that they thought were important (for better or worse)—such as the year a well-respected superintendent retired and the spring that the school budget didn't pass and teachers were laid off. When the project was done, staff members read the entries aloud and discussed each event's significance. By listening to the collective voice of his faculty, the principal demonstrated his respect for the school's legacy and established a shared foundation for moving forward.
Principals can also build trust with staff members in smaller moments and gestures—through inquiring about sick family members and acknowledging life events, for instance. If we want teachers to show compassion for their students and one another, then we, as leaders, need to show compassion as well. Every teacher has a year that is difficult for personal reasons. Whether it involves a sick parent, a marriage in crisis, or a child with issues, there are times when teachers are not as focused on work as they would like to be. How a leader responds and how a community supports the individual speaks volumes about the organization and the trust that people feel.

Honesty: The Best Policy

A leader frequently lives in a "fishbowl" with many eyes peering in on every decision he or she makes. Most people want to trust their boss, but they may be wary of a new leader's motivation and may look for inconsistencies. It is imperative to be open and honest about your agenda. It's better to have someone respectfully disagree with you than to have them worry that you are being less than honest.
Part of being honest with yourself and your staff means knowing when to ask for help—something not always associated with conventional views of strong leadership. As a principal, I had many opportunities to ask for help. I never made an important decision without seeking input from the people most closely involved. If a decision involved student discipline, the assistant principals and I reviewed the situation. If it was a curriculum issue, the department chairs worked with me. If it affected student life, students provided options. Asking for help communicates that you trust the people around you and invites them into the decision-making process.
Asking for help also provides a model for what others might do when they're unsure of their next move. For example, an assistant principal I worked with arrived at his first day on the job thinking he would be expected to have all the answers and make decisions unilaterally. I disabused him of that notion, assuring him that our important decisions would be made collaboratively. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, knowing that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, but a source of strength and courage.

A Forum for Discussion

Another indicator of trust is the willingness of teachers to be transparent about their concerns. Both Roland Barth (2002) and John D'Auria (2010) have written about "nondiscussables" in schools. These are the concerns that are never mentioned in a public forum, but are continuing sources of anxiety for staff members. Nondiscussables can include a principal's leadership style, staff morale, decision-making processes, or resource allocation. The more nondiscussables there are, the less trust there is, and the more toxic a culture becomes. As teachers spend more time worrying about these nondiscussables, they have less time to spend in productive collaboration.
When you create a culture of trust, individual faculty members will let you know when teachers are concerned about something but are not openly discussing it. You can then raise the issue at a faculty meeting or in small groups with the people involved. For example, several years ago, we considered changing the start and end times of the school day. Some of the teachers who were parents of young children were concerned that this would complicate childcare arrangements. They hesitated to raise it publicly because they weren't sure how their concerns would be received. Fortunately, one of them spoke with me about it. I was able to address their concerns at a faculty meeting and to assure them that their input would be taken into consideration when developing our final plans.
Difficult conversations are part of a healthy school culture (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999); they're also where the nondiscussables can be addressed. However, administrators and teachers often avoid difficult conversations because they worry they don't have the skills to resolve issues in a positive way. As school leaders, it's our responsibility to become comfortable having difficult conversations. Whether we're giving feedback to a teacher about a lesson that didn't go well, facilitating a meeting between two teachers who aren't getting along, or chairing a contentious parent meeting, our ability to resolve the issue at hand in a thoughtful and respectful manner provides a model for others.
Difficult conversations require skills that can be practiced and improved. I have often reminded people that if they are speaking more about a person than they are to the person, then it's time to have a difficult conversation. One summer, I hired a consultant to work with my leadership team on how to have these discussions. We spent the day identifying conversations we wished to have and practiced them with our colleagues. The experience gave us the vocabulary and techniques for handling some of our biggest challenges.
Working in groups of three, we role-played how a difficult conversation might go. Then, we reversed roles. For example, I had been planning to have a conversation with a department chairperson who was not providing enough support and supervision for his new teachers. In the scenario, I played the chairperson, and someone else played me. The third person observed and gave us feedback. By playing the role of the chairperson, I was able to consider the situation from his perspective, anticipate what he might say, and reflect on some possible solutions. This preparation led to a more meaningful conversation.

Just Say "Yes"

Building a culture of trust also means saying "yes" (even when you're not yet sure how to make it happen). Yes, you can try that experiment. Yes, you can take that trip. Yes, you can plan that event. Make "yes" your default response.
For example, the faculty room for the English teachers in my high school was divided into two separate adjoining rooms. This meant that half of the teachers were in one room and the other half were next door. It had been this way for more than 30 years. When the chairperson of the department told me that he and his fellow teachers were interested in more collaboration and wished to take down the dividing wall, I said, "Yes." When the chairperson of the social studies department told me the faculty wanted to teach an Advanced Placement course to all 9th and 10th graders (something that had never been done before, but that he wholeheartedly endorsed), I said, "Yes." I didn't know where I would get the funds for either project, but I trusted the judgment of these professionals and respected their initiative. In both instances, I knew our students would benefit.
Obviously, there will be times when the answer cannot be "yes." In these situations, trust is maintained if teachers feel their voices are heard and if the rationale for the decision is clearly stated.

Maintaining the Right Focus

In schools, the safety and performance of our students is what we value most. In a culture of trust, the principal and teachers trust one another to maintain that focus. This does not happen by accident, but rather by implementing a thoughtful plan—one that is embraced by everyone. This culture of trust and collaboration becomes the foundation from which everyone can grow.

Barth, R. (2002). The culture builder. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 6–11.

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40–45.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2014). To close the achievement gap, we need to close the teaching gap. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

D'Auria, J. (2010). Ten lessons in leadership and learning. Wellesley, MA: Teachers21.

Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations. New York: Penguin.

Jane Modoono has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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