A Matter of Trust - ASCD
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How a Boston turnaround school built its plan for improvement around relational trust.

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Leadership
School Culture

Today's schools are striving to prepare a diverse body of students to meet higher standards than ever before, and many school leaders are responding by looking for new ways to organize and energize their communities for this work. At the Henry Grew Elementary School in Boston, our commitment to this goal has a heightened sense of urgency, due to a state mandate to demonstrate dramatic improvement within three years. In the process of reorganizing our school for success, we believe we're learning important lessons that could be valuable for other schools.

Turnaround schools such as ours face unique challenges that can also be opportunities. Staff transformation means there is an opportunity to build new relationships among faculty and to re-design teachers' roles. Increased accountability from the district and state is accompanied by expanded resources that often lead to new programs and partnerships. Serving students who have been marginalized in the past often increases the pressure educators put upon themselves, but can also energize them to do their best.

But what can a school do to ensure educators will see the challenges facing them as creative and energizing opportunities? At our school, we believe we've found the answer in building and safeguarding trust.

A New Start

The Henry Grew Elementary has 12 classrooms that serve just over 250 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. Approximately 90 percent are students of color, 60 percent are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and 19 percent are English language learners. In 2014, after years of stagnant achievement patterns, the school was put on Massachusetts's list of schools designated for turnaround. Turnaround schools receive a range of supports, with the expectation that they will make significant achievement gains within three years.

In the fall of 2014, a group of local stakeholders—including teachers, parents, district leaders, and community members—was tapped to create a plan to foster rapid and sustainable improvement at the Grew. The plan the group created hinged heavily on organizing teachers' work in ways that would strategically strengthen and tap their skills as leaders. Every teacher would weigh in on school decision making as a member of one of five leadership teams; every teacher would share responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning beyond their own classrooms through grade-level common planning teams, peer observation cycles, and teacher-led professional learning; and every teacher would be deemed a steward of school culture through a commitment to shared values: Growth Mindset, Rigorous Teaching and Learning, Equity & Engagement, and We Are All Leaders.

This plan was exciting and ambitious. But the components it described—shared leadership, peer observation, and teacher-led professional learning—could make teachers feel vulnerable, especially in a setting in which the principal and at least 50 percent of the faculty would be new. Building trust would be essential.

Obviously, trust makes work more pleasant for everyone. But research suggests that trust matters for important practical reasons as well (Tschannen-Moran, 2014). Trust supports engagement: When there is trust, people are willing to cooperate with and learn from one another. Trust increases productivity: In a trusting environment, people feel accountable to one another and themselves in a way that gets work done and challenges all to work harder toward shared goals. Most important, trust inspires hope: Teachers won't take the risks required to go beyond what is safe or make themselves vulnerable enough to aspire to ambitious goals without trust.

In spring 2015, soon after she was appointed principal, Christy Connolly began staffing the school with the recognition that the work of turning around the school would require a faculty committed to ambitious goals. But how could this new faculty develop the high levels of trust needed for this work—and quickly? The school's approach was guided by research.

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Teachers at the Henry Grew Elementary School in Boston have a variety of opportunities to share experiences and reflect together. (Photo by Jill Harrison Berg)

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(Photo by Christine Connolly)

How Trust Develops

Bryk and Schneider's (2003) longitudinal study of school improvement in Chicago found that schools that were able to achieve and sustain improvement were those that had high levels of relational trust. That is, community members had not only developed respect and personal regard for each other; they also trusted each other to be competent and have integrity in their roles.

Building on this study, Kochanek (2005) examined these same schools in more detail to understand how trust develops. She found that trust grows as members of a community have positive experiences. Low-risk interactions, such as sharing funny student quotes or exchanging stories of classroom successes, are experiences that help teachers to develop respect and personal regard. The more they interact in these ways, the more they learn about each other, and the more they seek out additional interactions.

At the same time, higher-risk interactions that allow educators to see inside each other's practice, such as sharing student work, observing in classrooms, and collaborating on unit plans, are necessary for people to develop confidence in each other's competence and integrity. The more teachers work with colleagues and discover their professional strengths, the more they want to work with and learn from them. Eventually they will trust each other to share concerns about the students they can't reach, the lesson that flopped, or the student response that missed the mark. It's important to note, however, that people are unlikely to engage authentically in high-risk interactions unless they have first had repeated low-risk interactions that allow them to feel ready to do so (Kochanek, 2005).

Our commitment to our students and our state-imposed timeline didn't allow us to wait for trust to develop on its own. Instead, we used this literature to inform our strategies for accelerating the growth of trust as well as our ongoing efforts to maintain it. We focused on establishing readiness to trust, building understanding of roles, and solidifying routines to support risk-taking.

Readiness to Trust

Kochanek notes that while trust develops through members' positive experiences with each other, underlying conditions can influence those experiences. For example, some people are more likely to trust those with whom they feel some similarity and have shared experiences, and people are more likely to trust when they are in a good mood.

In this context, the process for recruiting and onboarding new staff for the first year of our turnaround effort was crucial. To ensure readiness to trust, in interviews Christy clarified the core values that would guide the turnaround work. Teachers would not be expected to have all of the answers but would need to be committed to work together to find them.

Once candidates with this commitment were identified, the new faculty had opportunities before the school year began to connect, discover similarities and strengths, learn about past experiences, and identify shared values. At one social, a teacher leader led party games that helped staff laugh together and get to know one another. During a summer book group, teachers took turns facilitating conversations about Carol Dweck's Mindset, connecting Dweck's theory to past experiences with teaching and learning and to our hopes for the new school year ahead.

In addition, we held the first of our annual summer leadership retreats, an opportunity extended to all of the faculty to spend four days developing a clear, shared vision of the school's turnaround plan, unpacking the implications for each of us as teacher leaders, and collaborating to strengthen the leadership skills we would need to make it happen. In fact, one of those skills was the skill of building trust. Together we studied "Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Reform," Bryk and Schneider's 2003 Educational Leadership article on relational trust and the Kochanek model on the development of trust. We developed norms and practiced protocols for facilitating safe and structured conversations.

As school opened and the Grew faculty began its routines of meeting in leadership teams, in grade-level teams, and as whole faculty, teachers shared responsibility for launching the meetings with fun connecting activities. (See Figure 1 for examples.) Some teachers used music to lighten the mood; others introduced games. We shared favorite family traditions, New Year's resolutions, and tales of our own schooling experiences.


Figure 1. Sample Meeting Launchers

Build just five minutes into the start of every meeting for an opportunity for educators to connect. Start with No Risk launchers, and increase risk level as the group begins to develop trust.

It is important to get all voices in the room.

  • With a small group, go around until everyone has had a turn.

  • In a large group, try a turn and talk, then ask a few volunteers to report on their discussions.

1. No Risk

These are light launchers anyone can answer without feeling vulnerable. The responses help educators get to know something about each other's experiences, values, and personality.

  • Share some good news!

  • What is your dream vacation?

  • What season describes you best and why?

  • If you could only have three spices in your kitchen, what would they be and why?

  • If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be, and why?

2. Invite Risk

These allow participants to choose whether they want to make themselves vulnerable or keep their responses on a surface level. They help participants to make discernments about each other's willingness to trust.

  • Open a virtual fortune cookie (or real one). How can you apply your fortune to aspects of your personal or professional life?

  • What is a personal or professional hope you have for the new year?

  • Use your gestures or draw a picture to show how you feel right now. We'll make two guesses!

  • What do you like about the end of the school year?

  • Let's Toast: Raise your glass and make a toast!

3. Encourage Risk

These lean more heavily on participants to make themselves vulnerable. They may require more time, including time for participants to think before responding.

  • Share a recent win, either personal or professional.

  • What is something you tried that made you want to give up?

  • Tell about a student who challenged you and what you learned from him/her.

  • Share a quote that is meaningful to you and explain why.

  • Think of one thing that you have added or removed from your life to improve yourself, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.


Trusting relationships with students and families are also crucial to school success. Teachers used their understanding of how trust is built to design meaningful classroom and family events that support relationship building. In a public demonstration of our readiness to take risks, the whole faculty participates in a flash mob dance presented at each year's back-to-school barbeque. By demonstrating our willingness to be vulnerable, we invite families to let their guards down and be ready to partner with us for the benefit of their children.

Understanding Roles

Our review of the literature on trust helped us to understand that trust is role-dependent. That is, people's willingness to trust is influenced by whether they feel others are acting appropriately in their roles. Teachers came to the new Grew with a range of prior experiences and expectations about what it means to be a teacher, a colleague, and a team member. Families came with a great range of experiences and expectations as well. Thus, we made the proactive move of having early and ongoing conversations about the roles and expectations of individuals and teams to build a shared understanding of these roles.

In our summer leadership retreats each year, we examine our turnaround plan, identify the functions that are critical to success, and agree together about which teams or individuals are responsible for each. We also establish a common vision for school improvement processes and map out visual representations of our expectations for interaction among teams.

Family events and targeted communications help to define and refine roles as well. At our semi-annual Data Nights, we educate families not only about how their students are doing, but also about how we know. We provide an inside view of some of the activities that are contributing to their child's growth, and we make sure families leave with ideas about how they can support that growth at home. At family conference time, we make home visits if necessary to ensure that teacher, parent, and student are all able to participate in a three-way conversation about our distinct roles as we establish and commit to shared goals for the child.

As our school improves and evolves, roles and responsibilities necessarily shift. By committing to revisiting these conversations and revising these tools regularly, we are able to respond to the developments we have created.

Routines for Risk-Taking

We can't improve as a school unless we can have hard conversations about the things that aren't working. Individuals need to be able to bring to team meetings their trickiest instructional challenges, trusting that colleagues will provide help, not judgment. Team members need to be able to voice concerns about what we've overlooked or gotten wrong, knowing that the team will appreciate their input. Teachers are unlikely to raise these high-risk conversations without first gaining confidence from lower-risk interactions.

Accordingly, our meeting routines have some low-risk interactions built in. For example, the fact that members rotate and share meeting roles is more than a practical matter. In doing so, members are placed in a position to be of service to the others: They take careful notes, bring a tasty snack the others will like, or plan a focused and engaging agenda that will honor the time we are all putting in. Members extend themselves and demonstrate regard for their colleagues' personal preferences and work styles. They also keep each other in check, as they share responsibility for monitoring norms.

Our teams also engage in routines that many would consider high-risk interactions, since they have the potential to make teachers feel vulnerable. Our instructional leadership team, for example, organizes cycles of peer observation and feedback. Our grade-level teams collaborate to identify students who are furthest behind and not making growth. Our family and community team tracks family engagement levels by classroom. High-risk interactions such as these have high potential for impact, but they also have potential to create tension. With a commitment to growth mindset and strong relational trust, however, we are able to support each other and our collective progress. It is through activities such as these that teachers get to know their colleagues' strengths and challenges, are motivated to become resources for each other, and are able to bring grounded knowledge to their leadership roles.

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Faculty meetings at the Grew are designed to cultivate low-risk interactions, in preparation for sharing the toughest challenges. (Photo by Christine Connolly)

Gaining Ground

Two years into the turnaround process, our emphasis on relational trust is paying off. The Insight Survey developed by TNTP, one of Boston's district-improvement partners, has helped us to monitor our instructional culture. While the national average for positive instructional culture for schools taking the survey in 2017 was 7.24, the Grew scored at the top of the index, with a 10.0. Since 2015, the Grew has retained at least 90 percent of its teachers, and student achievement growth has been strong, as expected for schools with positive instructional cultures.

Only one year after being designated as a turnaround school, the Grew exceeded its state growth targets for all students, as well as for black and Hispanic/Latino subgroups. In that year, the school's Composite Performance Index, which uses a 100-point scale to measure progress in narrowing proficiency gaps, jumped by 11 points in English language arts, 4 points in math, and 16 points in science. After year two, science scores jumped another 9 points. Although recent changes in Massachusetts's assessments make year-to-year comparisons of achievement growth in math and language arts difficult, our data clearly show that after year two, this school in turnaround status is exceeding district averages in ELA and narrowing the gap with the district in math.

We believe that the need to be deliberate about building trust in schools is not unique to schools in turnaround status. Students need their teachers to not only know each other, but also to trust each other. They need their teachers to know which of their colleagues have expertise that can help them improve and to open up to them. Over time, colleagues in a school may incidentally discover connections, learn about each other's strengths, and build constructive relationships. But students can't wait for that to happen by chance. School leaders of all stripes—teacher leaders, coaches, assistant principals, and principals—can take strategic steps to help teachers build trusting relationships. Those efforts will pay off in stronger teaching and learning. Trust us.

References

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

Kochanek, J. R. (2005). Building trust for better schools: Research-based practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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