Yet with teacher evaluation, new assessments, budget cuts and the like, trust can become frayed.

This SERIES—excerpted from the forthcoming third edition of the award-winning Failure Is NOT an Option®: 6 Principles That Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools; is focused on some specific strategies to build trust in schools.

Relationships are at the core of successful learning communities as well as student success. In its Set for Success report of 2002, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation summarizes, “Stated simply, positive relationships are essential to a child’s ability to grow up healthy and achieve later social, emotional, and academic success”.

Those positive relationships begin with the adults in the school building and district. The personal rapport among teachers, students, and parents influences students’ school attendance and their sustained efforts at difficult school tasks. The history of relations between the principal and the teaching staff determines teachers’ willingness to take on new initiatives, and the relationships among adults in the school greatly influence the extent to which students in that school will succeed academically. In essence, if the adults in the building get along, so will the students.

Building meaningful and productive relationships with people is complex; people are less predictable, and their emotions can be scary. How often are school leaders trained in the many nuances of dealing with an angry parent, a disgruntled staff member, or a crying teacher? Where is the how-to manual for these tasks? Moreover, who has time for these elements when the “real” work of increasing student achievement awaits?

Relationships are the real work of school improvement! Without people and relationships, who will administrators lead and how far will followers follow?

Building relational trust with the staff is a precursor to sustainable success. In our work in thousands of schools and districts, this trust has been built by the leader using various approaches.

The first strategy in this series is:

Listen First

It’s essential to recognize that everyone wants to be heard. The new-leader syndrome, however, often entails changing things quickly to establish authority. Many veteran leaders, on the other hand, may feel they already know what is best and may move forward without building consensus. In both cases, the “slow” part—listening—of going “fast” is cut out of the process and initiatives are short-lived.

The “listen first” strategy has many components:

  1. Show appreciation via understanding the other point of view. “I appreciate that you’ve been asked to do a LOT here…!”
  2. Finding merit in what the person does, thinks, or feels is important in showing appreciation– even when you don’t agree! “I realize that it seems easier to teach students in Like-ability groups, and you need a way to manage a lot of diverse learners. At the same time, we know putting students into tracks will doom many to staying in those tracks. Ai here’s what we need to pilot instead…”
  3. Communicate understanding in words and actions. Saying “I look forward to seeing you when you feel better” could be even more powerful were you to send over some cough drops too!
  4. Show appreciation for yourself as well! “Yes it’s been hard to handle so much change– imagine having to lead it all!…”


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