Relational trust doesn’t just happen in organisations. Schools are no exception. Leaders need to work diligently and with perseverance to create an environment where trusting adult relationships between and within all levels of the organisation (school) are built, improved and sustained. In schools, this means trust between leaders, leaders and teachers, teachers and teachers, leaders and parents, teachers and parents. It’s tough, unrelenting and critical leadership work.
The 21st century leadership competency
In his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M R Covey identifies trust as the 21st century leadership competency. In organisations where trust is strong, strategic improvements happen faster, deeper, efficiently and more effectively. In other words, to be a successful leader and an exceptional organisation you can never have enough of it! People at all levels in an organisation are more committed and motivated to change and improvement imperatives when they are daily immersed in trusting workplace relationships.
Relational trust in schools
For school leaders, the critical importance of relational trust in schools is revealed in Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s longitudinal empirical research study, published in their ground breaking book Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. Their main research finding was that schools with a high level of relational trust are far more likely to make the kinds of changes that help raise student achievement than those where relational trust is low. There is a strong correlation between high levels of relational trust and high levels of student success. Conclusively, relational trust is a strong predictor of student success.
What is relational trust?
Although it’s a somewhat elusive idea, given the evidence about the high impact of relational trust on student achievement it’s important to understand how trust works in schools. There are particular leadership qualities that build relational trust and increase trust between adults in schools, which in turn powerfully influences student achievement. Bryk and Schneider identify four attributes of trust in schools, to help us know if someone is trustworthy and what we look for when we think about trust.
I’ll briefly explain each attribute and give a couple of examples:
Is when we genuinely listen to and value the views of others, especially when views differ. People feel respected when their views and concerns are heard and taken into account. Genuine listening is an inclusive process that recognises the importance of each person’s role and that each person is dependent on their colleagues to help raise student achievement.
Example 1 A leader who presents their view about a teaching and learning initiative at a staff meeting, invites questions and critical feedback from staff, is open to learning, and is prepared to modify their view.
Example 2 A leader and a teacher who hold different views about a teaching and learning initiative meet to genuinely inquire into each other’s views to promote mutual understanding, find where they share common ground and where they don’t. They focus on their interests rather than their positional views.
Is believing in each other’s ability and willingness to fulfil responsibilities effectively. Teachers need to trust their leaders to expertly guide and direct teaching and learning improvements. Leaders need to trust their teachers to implement initiatives effectively and efficiently. As with respect (above), each person is dependent on their colleagues’ competence to help raise student achievement.
Example 1 A leader who builds their knowledge through professional reading, engaging in quality assured research findings, and seeks expert advice before initiating a teaching and learning improvement strategy.
Example 2 A leader who provides opportunities for teacher leadership first ensures that the conditions necessary for this to succeed are identified from research and experience, before distributing leadership.
Is ‘walking your talk’, keeping your word. What you say is what you do, always, without exception! You’re predictable, because you’re truthful and honest by being explicit with others about your values, expectations, priorities and actions. Otherwise, your integrity and trust in you by others goes down fast.
Example 1 A leader who states that decisions will always be made in the best interests of students, rather than adult or political preferences, explains important decisions to staff and the basis of each decision.
Example 2 A leader who states the importance of collaboration and interdependence sets up a staff working group to identify from research and experience high-impact collaborative processes, practices, and impact criteria, and how these could be applied to address a priority student achievement goal.
4. Personal regard
Sustained personal relationships are the foundation of professional relationships. Do we care about each other personally and professionally? Are we willing to go beyond our formal roles and responsibilities if needed to go the extra mile? Do we have other person’s interests at heart, not just our own? Positive responses to such questions strengthen social affiliation and reciprocal regard in schools.
Example 1 A leader who annually meets each person in a leadership role to review, support and plan for their career aspirations, including giving honest feedback if their career aspirations are not supported.
Example 2 A leader who meets with a teacher experiencing a family crisis to plan how the teacher can be supported to meet their classroom obligations so that student learning is not adversely affected, as well as how the school could support the well-being of the teacher.
Lead others by example
It’s the daily job of school leaders to understand, model and implement the four attributes of relational trust at all levels of adult relationships in the school. These attributes can over time become embedded in a culture of relationships across all persons and within all levels in the school. It becomes the way we do things around here, how we talk and listen to each other, and how we work together to meet the needs and interests of our students. Relational trust powerfully shapes adult behaviours and relationships, which in turn positively influences student learning and outcomes.