Today's Puzzle: What Sort of Trust Is Toughest To Build?

..In the Trust in Schools study, they looked at three sets of relationships: teacher to teacher, teacher to administrator, and teacher to parent.

And I always ask people, Where do you think it was hardest to establish relational trust?

Let me explain. I was reading an interview with Parker Palmer.

He thought one of the key pieces of research in recent years was called Trust In Schools. It's by Barbara Schneider and Tony Bryk. (Note: Bryk is on our Advisory Board).

Palmer describes the Schneider/Bryk research this way:

They study school improvement, school reform, in the city of Chicago during the decade of the 90s. And they looked at many variables asking the question: Which ones made the difference between the schools that ended up in the 90s serving kids better and the schools that ended up plateau-ing or serving them worse no matter what you put into those schools?

They looked at money and governance and curriculum and technique and all the usual suspects, and they found that the variable that made the biggest difference between those two sets of schools was none of those usual suspects—none of those external factors.

Instead, it was a variable called “relational trust.”

If your school had high levels of relational trust in the leadership cadre that cared about that, you were much more likely to serve kids well by the end of the 90s, just in terms of standardized test scores.

And if your school didn’t have relational trust or a leadership cadre that cared about nurturing it...you could throw a lot of money at a school that had low levels of relational trust and nothing good would come out of the other end. Or you could have a school that was unfairly deprived of material resources, but if they had high levels of relational trust, something good would happen for kids as they worked together over the 90s.

Well, you know, there’s a sense in which, Who doesn’t know that, right?

But there’s an answer to that question. We don’t know it even though we know it.

...In the Trust in Schools study, they looked at three sets of relationships: teacher to teacher, teacher to administrator, and teacher to parent. And I always ask people, Where do you think it was hardest to establish relational trust?

...Teacher to teacher is where it was hardest because of the silos out of which professionals operate.

So how you establish relational trust is, among other things, doing very simple stuff that allows people to get to know each other and know each other’s resources.

Start a staff meeting with six or eight people by giving each person two minutes to tell a simple story. Tell a story about an elder in your life who meant something to you when you were a kid. Tell a story about the first dollar you ever earned. Tell a story about the best vacation you ever had. It takes fifteen minutes.

...The truth of our institutions is that we work alongside people for five, ten, twenty years, and we don’t know any more about them at the end of those twenty years than we did the day they walked in. We just don’t. Except in rare cases of friendship, that’s the way it works.

Five thoughts.

I partly agree with Palmer.

1. Agree: Teacher to teacher trust is critical to an effective school.

2. Open To: In many traditional schools, perhaps Palmer's description is accurate. I know that my mentor, Charlie, described this as being common in the suburban system where he worked for over 30 years (though not for him personally). Classrooms were generally silos.

3. Not sure that little break-the-ice stuff during staff meetings builds authentic relationships. Maybe.

4. In School A (where I work) and School B (where I was on the Board), I have noticed big differences in teacher-to-teacher trust.

In School A, teachers seem to like and genuinely care about one another. The same was true at School B.

At School A, though, teachers are hired only if they are both effective and align with a particular vision. Generally, poor fits are screened out in the hiring process (teachers participate).

At School B, teachers had some diametrically different views of what their school should be. I learned this as I surveyd staff during the search for a new principal.

For example, data seemed to show that students were terrible at reading. But there was sharp disagreement among teachers. Some thought the tests were useless -- not authentic. Others thought the issue was simply test anxiety. Still more thought the culprit was unfamiliarity with the test, which could be remedied by test prep. A few insisted that literacy was not the top goal: social and emotional development was. And some teachers felt the school was fundamentally weak in lots of key areas: bad student discipline, incoherent approach to teaching reading.

I don't know the degree to which you can generate relational trust among teachers when they like and know one another personally, but differ sharply about the mission.

5. In high-poverty charter schools like ours, I see teacher-to-teacher relational trust as reasonably high. I wonder if the bigger issue is generating legit value in teacher teamwork.

Here's what I mean.

Our 11 years of teacher surveys show that teachers enjoy collaboration (subject team meetings, and grade team meetings) when one teacher really takes the lead and pushes things forward, holding others accountable, and creating clarity.

According to their surveys, though, they mildly dislike -- though don't necessarily do much about, perhaps because they worry it would involve calling out someone who they get along well with -- meetings where nobody leads, a couple people vent, everyone pitches in ideas, and the results are often "stews of compromise."

The "stews" never get traction b/c they never really solve problems.