Provision #690: Trust Matters

Laser Provision

Today’s Provision could not have been written without the research and work of my wife, Megan Tschannen-Moran. For the past 15 years, Megan has made trust one of her primary academic and professional interests. But trust is not just a theoretical construct to be studied, understood, and described. Trust is a way of being in the world. My wife embodies that way of being as does every great leader. Trust matters. Read on to see just how much and how it works.

LifeTrek Provision

I am gratified by those who have received my recent Provisions as helpful commentaries on how to evoke excellence in education. Although the leadership principles we have been discussing apply to any setting, I have been focusing on the debate concerning American public schools because of the work we are now doing through the Center for School Transformation.

If any sector of society needs great leadership, it’s education. That’s true not only in the USA, but in every country around the world. As the globe becomes ever-more connected and interdependent, education becomes more rather than less important. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of our planet depends upon the quality of our education. Our present challenges will be met through the awareness and ability that education brings.

This past week I had the opportunity to hear a keynote address by Diane Ravitch, formerly with the US Department of Education under both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and author of the best-selling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010).

In her address, which she has been delivering to hundreds of audiences around the country, Ravitch offered a devastating critique of both No Child left Behind (NCLB) and Race for the Top: the two primary school-improvement initiatives that have driven education policy in the United States for the past decade.

Originally a supporter of NCLB, Ravitch decries how it is now being used to measure and punish schools and teachers in ways that are undermining not only the quality but also the very existence of American public education. By documenting systemic failures through NCLB and now Race to the Top, a case is being made for the privatization and eventual elimination of public education as a universal need and a fundamental civil right. 

Ravitch views that as a travesty, especially since the data that are being used to condemn teachers and schools are neither reliable nor helpful. They cannot be counted on as either performance indicators or as guides for school improvement. But they can be counted on to undermine trust • a critical element in both society and organizations.

Since the advent of NCLB, there have been more headlines about school failure than at any other time in American history. And not just general school failure, but specific school failure all the way down to individual buildings, leaders, and teachers. When the Los Angeles Times published the names of teachers whose students do not make progress on the NCLB tests, there was humiliation and a sense of violation.

What does that accomplish? Does it facilitate school improvement to name and shame teachers in this way? The answer is a definitive, “No!” Everything that we have learned through the Center for School Transformation, everything that we know about adult learning and growth fostering relationships, and everything that contributes to effective leadership and organizations, argues against such punitive approaches.

Yet, that is the world in which educators live today. They have gone from a respected and trusted place in society to a disrespected and mistrusted class of expendable cogs in the wheel. No wonder there is so much stress in the system today. No one knows where the next shot will come from and who will be taken down. It is an unfortunate state of affairs.

Especially since there has been ample evidence all along that other approaches work better. My wife, a professor of educational leadership at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, has based her career on the study and application of trust in schools. If there is any single ingredient that predicts school success, it is the quality of school climate and social relationships. Trust matters when it comes to both effective leadership and effective schools.

In her 2004 book by the same name, Trust Matters, my wife defines trust and describes how it works. Public naming and shaming are clearly not part of the equation. Yet trust is not just a feel-good commodity where no one ever talks about hard issues. On the contrary, trust is the willingness to engage in authentic dialogue • even around hard issues • based on the confidence that one is operating in an environment marked by benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence.

Those are the attributes that trustworthy leaders carry with them and seek to infuse in their organizations, be they schools or any other:

  • Benevolence means that we want nothing but the best for people. We truly care about how they feel and what they need. We want them to succeed and they know that we want them to succeed. They trust that we have their back, not blindly, but authentically sharing a sense of purpose and destiny.
  • Honesty means that we have no hidden agendas and play no games. Teachers can see through the debate. Although the talk is about school choice and improvement, the reality is about school punishment and closure. Costs are king. When the debate is not honest, it does more harm than good.
  • Openness means that we share what is there. Although leaders always have to make decisions as to issues of confidentiality, sometimes protecting our sources, the presumption of great leadership errs on the side of openness and transparency. People want to know what’s going on.
  • Reliability means that we carry ourselves in consistent ways and that we do what we say. Broken promises undermine trust every time. Leaders go out of their way to avoid over promising and under delivering. We want people to count us because that’s when they call on us for help.
  • Competence means that we have the skills and understand the job well enough to get the job done. In the case of leadership, this involves both technical and people skills. School leaders have to set up systems but they also have to treat people right. That’s when things get better.

We would do well to introduce these elements into the debate surrounding school reform. Diane Ravitch is right: we are not going down a path that will make things better for millions of American school children. We are making things worse by our untrustworthy use of data and decision making. In the process, we are killing the goose (the Great American School System) that has been laying the golden eggs (education, innovation, and creativity).

In our new book, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation At A Time, Megan and I describe a different way forward. Until school leaders learn how to talk and work with teachers and other educators in ways that facilitate trust, no transformation will be possible. Once trust gets established or reestablished and becomes the norm, that when the shining rocket of education will really take off.

I hope you will join us in making it so.

Coaching Inquiries: On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate yourself when it comes to trustworthy leadership? What examples do you have of standing in trust and experiencing its transformative power? How could you strengthen your understanding and practice of trust? How could you make your school or organization more fully embody the five facets of trust? What is one thing you could do today that would move things forward in a positive direction?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I just forwarded your last Provision, Happiness Matters, to the administrators at my children’s school. It reminds me of how important it is to make our schools more fun. Your Provision not only does a fabulous job of capturing the nature of education as it is today but also of suggesting how we may turn things around to make our environments more positive, happy and motivating. Thanks!

Have you seen the Volkswagen Commercial in which designers got people to take stairs, instead of an escalator, by turning the stairs steps into a functional piano? They made exercise fun! It’s a great video. I think it goes along well with your Provision on the importance of happiness. Thanks for your thoughtful words on the subject. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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