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How School Leaders Can Foster Community Trust

Make yours the school of choice; build a culture of trust.

Building trust for your school

Trust—all across our country—is perceived as wounded and limping. Whether within corporations, government, or our schools, many feel the damage is irreparable. We disagree, and you should as well. You have the ability to rebuild trust in your circle of influence and create optimism that replaces cynicism. Trust rules. It drives your school’s cohesiveness. It drives performance. It even drives student achievement. 

Want your school to have a competitive advantage and become a school of choice? Build a culture of trust. Your school’s culture isn’t your mission statement or values. It’s the reality of “how we do things here.” It is how people behave. Trust is a part of all healthy relationships, whether personal or business. Your school’s culture requires trust to be healthy. In addition, don’t confuse “influence” with “trust” because influence can be bought, but trust must be earned.

Sometimes trust refers to “I trust you to do a good job” or “I trust you to do the right thing,” and other times it is “I trust you to protect me” or “I trust you to have my best interests at heart.” When it comes to our schools, it refers to all of the above. 

For a school to earn the trust of its communities, it first must create an environment of trust within its own walls. It is also a fact that schools with a high degree of trust are more likely to do what is best to help their students achieve. Since student achievement (reaching their highest potential as individuals) is education’s overall goal, then trust matters.

Assessing trust at your school

How would you say your school or district measures up when it comes to having a trusting culture? Trust in Schools, by Bryk & Sage, asserts that there are four behaviors that demonstrate the level of trust that exists in your school. I loved these questions and found them very indicative, not just for the idea of trust, but whether you and your colleagues live these behaviors. How would your school personnel answer these questions?

Respect

  1. Do I acknowledge others’ dignity and ideas, or do I sigh when they speak?
  2. Do I interact in a courteous way, or am I distracted and playing with my phone?
  3. Do I say hello in the front office?
  4. Do I respond to e-mails in a timely manner?

Integrity

  1. Can others trust me to put the interests of students first, and do I demonstrate that I trust them to do the same?
  2. If something needs done for a student’s sake, even when it isn’t convenient, do I step up?
  3. If something that will support student growth needs to be written up or a meeting needs to be attended, do I do it because it is best for students?

Competence

  1. Do I believe in my colleague’s ability and willingness to fulfill his or her responsibilities effectively?
  2. Do I delegate and show that I’m confident when I do?
  3. Do I ask for their insights?

Personal regard

  1. Do I ask how they are when they come back from being absent?
  2. Do I go the extra mile for someone when I know there is a need?
  3. Do I happily do an extra duty, sign the birthday card, even occasionally “take one for the team” without complaint?

One way to determine your current school culture is to use a survey. While you might believe answering the above questions gives you a clear picture, it will only constitute your perspective. Survey results can provide a wider view. Check out some survey examples from ED School Climate Surveys or School Climate Survey Compendia. Then consider holding small group meetings to further examine your school culture. 

If you believe your school has trust issues or you are coming into an educational environment where a previous administrator’s actions or inaction eroded trust, consider bringing in a consultant or someone outside the school to conduct individual interviews. In this way you can ensure honesty and impartiality. It might also let you see if the staff, administrator, or governing board has created or overlooked a problem that needs to be addressed.

Building trust through communication

Successful leaders require the trust of their stakeholders. How difficult is it to manage the day-to-day aspects of your job when you must constantly climb over a mountain of suspicion? As Steven M. R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust, The One Thing that Changes Everything, "Trust allows us to operate with greater speed, lower cost, and improved results. Without trust, the cost is significant." Without trust, what should be minor incidents can spiral out of control. So, what steps can you take to build trust? 

Begin with Respect

  1. Look at your customer service levels. Can a parent reach the school during the day or does their call go directly into voicemail? Does your school's receptionist act “put-out” with some parents or staff members questions? Do you take time to listen to whomever happens to be speaking with you at the moment, or are you thinking about how much you need to do and how quickly you can get them out of your office? When you and your staff demonstrate consistent messages of respect (and it must begin with you), you will begin to create the bonds that build strong and trusting relationships. It all boils down to respect for the individual—one at a time. It is the small slights that can undermine respect—notice them and fix them! See Roll Out The Welcome Mat.

  2. Implement a climate of respect. It might be as simple as returning phone calls, acknowledging concerns, a smiling face (yours), getting input by asking questions (and deciding what you will do with the answers). One day you may hear the words "he/she listened to me" and you'll know this translates to "he/she respects me." When this happens, you are on the road to trust. See Parents: Raving Fans or Raging Foes.

  3. Communicate competence and integrity. It is a common tactic to avoid providing information when the news isn't so good (maybe we hope no one will notice, and we'll avoid any conflict if it all blows over). However, that strategy does little to develop trust, for it erodes other’s confidence in you as a leader as well as your integrity. Rather, an effective communicator will deliver concrete, clear information with confidence. If you radiate a sense of calm and patience while offering solutions and information, you will communicate competence. Your words demonstrate competence, and your actions (if in alignment with your words) will reflect your integrity. Walk your talk. 

Practical trust building steps for school leaders

If you want to be school administrator who is successful at building trust with your staff do the following:

  • Communicate to your staff: Know that many parents will judge your school based on successful or unsuccessful interactions with their child's teacher. Make sure you communicate the importance of good school customer service in this area, and train your teachers to appreciate the value of each interaction they have with parents. Acknowledge and appreciate the positive interactions. Encourage your staff to speak their mind with openness and honesty without fear or reprisal. Include others in decision making. Live your life with honesty and integrity, and your actions will communicate far louder than any words you might speak. 

  • Communicate to your parents: Use your school website to create excellent customer service by creating and managing a school website with the requisite self-service information parents need. It should be a resource to do business with your school easily and reliably. Can parents find vital info they need there—forms, events, calendars, procedures, and accurate information? Information should be current, thorough, and timely. Do you tell your school’s stories through your news page and your school social media? Do you make yourself available to teachers, parents, and students both online and in person? Show that you care and are not afraid to take a personal interest in the well-being of others, whether it is staff, students, or families.

  • Communicate to the community: Use the media to share successes. Toot your horn. Contact education beat reporters, write up press releases, and put all this information on the website, and use your social media to drive parents to your school website. Good communication is key if you want to create an environment of trust and respect. Make sure transparency is a driving force behind your school communication strategies. Your school communication strategies, including your website and social media are a driving force behind your school brand. Make sure building trust is part of your school branding goals.

To earn the public's trust, we have to run our schools and organizations so they meet or exceed the ethical and public expectations society has for us. This includes being profitable (which in educational organizations would be delivering high quality services and turning out students who are prepared as contributing members of society and who are good citizens). To achieve this goal, trustworthiness is the trump card. It means being transparent (and with widespread social media platforms and 24-hour news channels looking for sensationalism, we don’t have much of a choice). Most secrets don’t stay secret. What happens at school doesn’t stay at school. It is Tweeted and shared and blogged about ad nauseam.

Trust increases a sense of security among educators. It encourages problem solving and a willingness to take on challenges and work together. But, conversely, when trust is low in a school, education suffers. Everything suffers.

Obstacles to Trust

Some of the more common obstacles to building trust are:

  • When leadership decision-making is perceived as arbitrary and not in the best interest of the school (or not communicated in a way that clarifies the reasoning behind it)
  • Frequent turnover in school leadership or teaching staff
  • Failure to remove staff who are widely viewed by others as inadequate
  • Ineffective or insufficient communication

Building or rebuilding trust takes time and sincerity. It means investing time in nurturing relationships. Look for opportunities to recognize others. Trust begins one relationship at a time, one conversation at a time. But, time is the key element. One person can set a tone of trust, which can change the culture of the school. Be the one to lead the way (whatever your current role). 

Now, it’s your turn!

Try these five steps to get started today:

  1. Accept responsibility—take blame when things go wrong, and give credit when things go right.
  2. Show appreciation—saying thank you goes a long way, and it travels even further when done publicly. Lift up others as a shining example any chance you get.
  3. Be a good listener—improving your listening skills allows you to collect new information (seeing problems and then solutions) and build trust and rapport.
  4. Show enthusiasm—a positive attitude is contagious. It also engenders trust and attracts others who are upbeat and enthusiastic to you and your cause.
  5. Be reliable—be the one others can count on. If you are, you will become one of those trusted with new tasks, projects, solutions, and ideas. This trust will give you tremendous influence. Use it wisely.

Leaders who walk the talk and strive to live up to the standards that earn trust are modeling those behaviors for others. When a school’s staff rises to those same standards, students not only see such models they can emulate in their own lives, but they are also more likely to reach their individual potential. Trust really is the one thing that changes everything. Give it a try!

Public Relations for Schools