Searching for Trust

colin lofthouseI remember once, as a secondary school pupil in a general studies lesson, we did one of those trust exercises. You know the type of thing.

You are told to fold your arms in front of you, close your eyes and rock back on your heels over the point of balance into the waiting arms (you hope) of the randomly selected classmate who you happened to be stood next to.

‘It’s an exercise in TRUST’ the teacher said.

I couldn’t do it. I tried. Time and time again I set off backwards into the waiting arms of Anthony (not his real name) but each time, at the critical point my foot shot out behind me and I pivoted round to see Anthony’s jeering face.

Why couldn’t I do it?

All around me classmates were dropping to the floor like tombstones to be caught by their partners, 1970s haircuts brushing the floor.

‘What’s the matter Lofthouse? Don’t trust Anthony to catch you?’ asked the teacher.

You’re dead right I didn’t. Anthony was a large lad, perfectly capable of catching me but during our short relationship he hadn’t provided me with much proof that he was in fact worthy of trust. I was a door prefect tasked with policing entry to the school during breaks and lunchtimes. Shortly after taking up my exalted position, Anthony had informed me of his attitude to my position of power over him, by nutting me square in the nose.

Now, I was supposed to implicitly trust him to prevent further bodily harm? It wasn’t going to happen.

At the start of this new school year I find the issue of trust playing on my mind. I really like the start of the new school year it always feels so full of promise with new pupils and staff, things feel poised and in balance – we’ve laid our plans, know where we are headed and we’re off.

It helps that I work with a fantastic group of people. Professional through and through we have worked hard to create a school that ‘feels right’. We’re happy here.

It’s infectious, when you walk through the door you can sense it. There is laughter!

There is trust.

Trust isn’t easy to build, it takes time. People are nervous and need proof of reliability, integrity and competence. Positive relationships need fostering through praise and reward.

In our school we are working hard to change the way we teach by looking at our own practice with a critical eye. What is working? What is not? Can we change the way we do things?

Change requires energy – lots of it. Its scary to change embedded practice it requires a highly positive climate in which to experiment without fear of judgement. Confidence to fail is needed to try new things out and be open about explaining what went wrong so we can learn and move on. Trust is a fundamental starting point for this kind of transformational activity.

Which makes it all the more strange and baffling that with the stated aim of improving our education system to be amongst the best in the world (no small aim) our political education leaders and policy makers seem to be trying their best to engender a complete lack of trust in the people they are asking to transform it.

Proscriptive new curricula and accountability systems, ranking and league tables, stringent new examination systems eliminating all teacher assessment, fines for schools whose pupils fail to make the grade.

Google our Education Minister’s name and pick out the language that appears in the headlines. Failing, coasting, not good enough, crackdown. Hardly the language of trust.

I came across the research work of Megan Tschannen-Moran the other day. She is an American academic whose research into trust in educational leadership and change processes is really inspiring. The publication I came across was from a summary of the Ontario Education Leadership Conference in 2013 at which she was a speaker – Healthy Relationships: The Foundation of a Positive School Climate – the link is at the end of this blog.

From her years of in-depth research she concludes that educational leaders can accomplish very little in the absence of trust. That trust brings people out of their natural, self-protective mode into an energised, collaborative and accepting environment where change can occur rapidly.

She talks of the fundamental principles of trust being one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest and open.

Benevolence: confidence that well-being is protected

Reliability: the extent to which you can count on another

Competency: the extent to which the trusted party has knowledge and skill

Honesty: the integrity and authenticity of the trusted party

Openness: the extent to which there is no withholding of information from others

It’s difficult not to feel vulnerable as a school leader at the moment but how many of us are willingly so? Or are confident in the character of those at the top? In my school we are ready, willing and able to catch each other and I hold that dear. It is a precious thing, because at the moment I feel, like many other Head Teachers I suspect…that Anthony’s got my back.

Finally the thing that struck me most about the article was the foreword, which implored leaders in education to put Tschannen-Moran’s findings into practice – Who wrote it? George Zegarac the Ontario Deputy Minister of Education.

Colin Lofthouse is the Head Teacher of Rickleton Primary School, Sunderland. 

Further reading: 
Healthy Relationships: The Foundation of a Positive School Climate

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