Trust: The Underappreciated Feature of Great Schools

Game showing people trusting each other

Tony Bryk, one of the nation’s most celebrated education researchers, has spent many years learning what makes some schools better than others. He and his colleagues have found a critical, underappreciated feature that underpins excellent schools everywhere: a high level of trust among parents, teachers and administrators.1

By trust, Bryk means something like “the quality of social relations.” Think of your closest relationships. Trust involves believing that other people have good intentions, they’re capable, and they’ll do the right thing even when nobody’s watching. 

Bryk and his colleagues found that trust in schools involves four core elements: respect, confidence, care, and integrity.2 

  • Respect means that people listen carefully and value each other’s perspective.
  • Confidence means that people believe in each other’s competence.
  • Care means that people go the extra mile to do what others need and value.
  • Integrity means that people do what they say they’re going to do.

Trust leads to successful interactions, which leads to more trust

In schools, Bryk and his colleagues found, trust is literally created when people feel listened to, when they feel confident in others’ skills, when they experience others going out of their way to help, and they see people doing what they say they’re going to do.

Trust is kind of a chicken and egg thing. Less trust means less successful social interaction, which leads to less satisfying results for kids and everybody, which leads to even less trust. More trust leads to more successful social interaction which leads to more satisfying results which in turn leads to even more trust.

You can’t build trust with words only. You can’t tell people to respect or believe in each other. people have to experience that respect and belief for themselves. One successful interaction promotes trust, which in turn greases the skids for more successful interactions.

Parents typically think that certain schools are better than others because they have better teachers, curriculum, or facilities, and of course these things matter. But a good part of the variation in school quality can be explained by differences in the quality of social relations among teachers, parents, and students.

Most schools have a mix of great teachers, OK teachers, and a few bad teachers. Most schools wish they had more money. But what the best schools often have that the others don’t is a powerful partnership amongst all the players in the community, a trust in each other that is continually renewed as parents, teachers, and administrators consistently experience respect, confidence, care, and integrity in their interactions.

Trust is to schools what oil is to engines

Trust, Bryk found, is to schools what oil is to engines. Schooling is a complex, human, project. Academic, social, and emotional growth is advanced through thousands of small interactions among teachers and students each day. Teachers work harder and more effectively when they feel trusted. Parents give more of themselves to the mission of the school when they feel trusted. For all parties, trust promotes communication, which in turn promotes mutual understanding and collaboration. 

Today, a big challenge for schools and other public institutions is that trust is less freely given than it used to be. Many parents today arrive at school with a pretty limited reservoir of trust. They recognize that the price of entrance to the middle class has gone up. The educational stakes are high. To have opportunity, young people need more knowledge and skills than they did 30 years ago. 

Parents want their children to be well-understood, well-taught, and well-supported by their teachers and schools. They want to spot problems early so they can help correct them.

And if you’re looking for faults in a complex, messy, human endeavor like schooling, they’re not hard to find. Kids don’t always get along. Information is imperfect. Most teachers are pretty good at teaching, but they sometimes make mistakes. Schools can be burdened by bureaucracy and slow decision-making. So, if parents are disinclined to trust, it’s not hard to get from “modestly anxious” to “seriously skeptical” about how things are going at school.

Trust comes from experience, not words

And herein lies a conundrum. That critical eye that is an asset to spotting and getting on top of issues at school can simultaneously be corrosive to the effort to build trust. If parents are inclined to see problems and faults around every corner, teachers are not going to feel trusted. If teachers don’t feel trusted, they’re less likely to bring their “A” game and collaboration will suffer.

Likewise, if teachers don’t value parents and don’t take their concerns seriously, parents are not going to feel trusted. If parents don’t feel trusted, they’re more likely to see faults around every corner and less likely to make the effort to partner effectively with teachers.

The lesson for parents and teachers is to approach each other with an optimistic stance and to work to build trust through reciprocal action. Again, you can’t build trust with words; trust comes through experience. 

The insight for parents choosing schools is to look for signs of respect and care as they walk through the school. In addition, look for opportunities to have conversations with community members about their view of each others’ competence and integrity. A high level of trust is a sign that your family will ultimately be well-served by the school.

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Trust: The Underappreciated Feature of Great Schools
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  1. Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider, Trust in Schools.
  2. Bryk and Schneider, chapter 2.
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