The BLOG: Voices

The importance of relational trust in school communities

Trust is the most crucial factor during times of change and the single most important factor in the success of schools. Trust among faculty, administration, and parents enhances learning and overall achievement within a school culture. Trust is also fundamental to building friendship, personal relationships, and vibrant community.

As the Christian school strives to cooperate with God’s intention to make our institution great, it is imperative that we build a community based on trust. In their groundbreaking book on the impact of trust within school communities entitled “Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement,” authors Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider examine three types of trust necessary for school improvement.

The third and most important form of trust discovered in their research is relational trust because it is established when individuals trust the actions of others because they have come to believe that their actions arise from good motives and noble intentions of the heart. It is based on the dynamic interplay, which “is rooted in a complex cognitive activity of discerning the intentions of others.”

In their decade long research project, Bryk and Schneider discovered that the single factor of relational trust had the most effect on student academic performance. The researchers analyzed Chicago Public Schools during the 1990’s in order to “understand the link between relational trust in school communities and the likelihood of organizational improvements that culminate in increased student learning.” Relational trust questions were administered to principals, faculties, parents, and students, and the conclusions they reached after amassing their data was overwhelming:

“Schools reporting strong relational trust levels in 1994 were three times more likely to eventually improve in reading and math than those with very weak trust reports. By 1997, schools with strong relational trust reports had a one in two chance of being in the improving group vs. a one in seven chance for schools with very weak relational trust reports. Perhaps most significantly, schools with weak relational trust levels in 1994 and 1997 had virtually no chance of showing improvement in either reading or mathematics. Presence of relational trust was more predictive of improvement than school size, teacher educational/professional background, percentage of new teachers, average years of teaching experience, racial and ethnic composition of student body, poverty levels, stability of student body, and prior school achievement.”

The report goes on to conclude that, “Relational trust reduces the sense of vulnerability related to new and uncertain tasks, increases classroom innovation, facilitates public problem-solving within the organization, undergirds and supports organizational norms of continuous improvement and collaboration, and creates a moral resource for sustained adult effort.”

Dr. Catherine Smith in her study, “Lucky in Love,” sought to determine why certain married couples continued to stay together and love each other more deeply over the years in the midst of a culture in which the divorce rate has approached 50 percent. She interviewed 100 happy couples and found that they disagreed just as much as unhappy couples. The key difference was when the happy couples “vociferously disagreed they refused to destroy one another.” Happy couples were quoted as saying, “When we quarrel (and we will), we’re not going to do the kinds of things that will damage this relationship long-term and when we disagree, we will not draw blood.”

Successful marriages are built on trust and so is living in a close-knit school community. Educators need to treat one another with respect and trust even when they differ intensely.

The opposite problem often faced in Christian schools is to ignore differences when we clash. We live in a conflict-averse society that tends to complain to others rather than approach the person with whom we have a conflict. Gossip, backbiting, and speaking ill of one another destroys trust. In a tight-knit and intense Christian school community, it is likely that we will wound or offend someone. If we gloss over our differences and offences to pretend that all is fine, we will never build an exemplary school or experience genuine community.

The work of noted psychiatrist and author, M. Scott Peck, suggests that such glossing over of differences and disagreements damages our relationship.

“If community involves things such as knowing and being known, serving and being served, loving and being loved, and celebrating and being celebrated, then most relationships are constantly devolving into pseudo community. It’s the great temptation for small groups of people to slide into a state where they’re not quite telling each other the truth and they’re not quite celebrating each other.  Instead, they tolerate each other, they accommodate each other, and they settle for sitting on the unspoken matters that separate them.”

Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church after reading Peck’s writing felt that “in order to move from pseudo community to genuine community, we may have to endure a little chaos.” We will sin against one another, have differences, and disagree at times, but the question remains whether we will forgive one another, whether we will speak the truth in love to one another, and whether we can endure the chaos of being honest with one another. Without this “honesty of the heart,” it is unlikely that we will become a genuine community whose members truly trust one another.

If a school is to become great with continually improving students, it needs to develop and maintain a culture of trust throughout the workforce and community. Along with superb teaching and committed care for students, school communities need to develop genuine relationships that enhance the ability to trust one other, and especially to trust one another’s motives and intentions of the heart.

Frank Guerra

Frank Guerra

Frank Guerra is the Headmaster of Boston Trinity Academy.