The First Necessary Ingredient in School Reform is Trust

One of the lessons I learned this year, that I did not realize before becoming a teacher, is that trust is paramount to the functioning of an effective school and school system.

I teach at a school, for example, that does not give teacher tenure and that does not use last-in, first-out, to determine who is laid off in the event of a budget cut. Yet, because our school functions on a culture of trust and not compliance, we were not concerned about being let go for political, and not performance, issues. Our trust was well-founded. While schools across the Houston Independent School District were cutting teaching positions, my district, KIPP Houston, cut as much as possible from all other areas, funding for out-of-state field lessons and professional development, for example, and redundant office responsibilities, in order to avoid cutting staff. This coming year, not a single teacher at my school was cut, and that includes the teachers for our arts and physical education programs.

I also teach at a school that values us as professionals, trusting us to make instructional decisions that are the best for our students. I am completely revamping my curriculum for next year, and far from getting push-back, my principal and dean have actually jumped through hoops to get me into a professional development opportunity where I spend a whole week learning about project based learning in order to support my growth in curriculum design. However, the majority of my friends in the Teach for America corps have at least one story to tell about how they were forced to teach certain content or in a certain way. One ended up resorting to teaching the students how to pretend to be working out of a test prep book that was too easy for them when they see an administrator walk in through the door because the administration at her school insisted on using that book. As soon as the administrator walked back out, the book went back under the students’ desks and my friend’s class got back to the business of learning.

Finally, my school values accountability and using data to drive instruction, but data is simply a tool, not the end all and be all of instruction. We think hard about what data tells us, using MAP data growth as our metric instead of simple passing rates on end of the year state tests which do a terrible job of assessing students at the very top and students at the very bottom in terms of student achievement, as well as using grades for feedback, not for judgment. But, most importantly, we all know as educators that we are developing whole people, with character and habits of mind that will make them successful 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, even 50 years down the line, and because my school trusts us as educators, we are able to use our time and energy to build culture through academics, instead of leaving culture by the wayside in a misguided attempt to increase student achievement.

As I look at the educational landscape today, I can’t help but think that trust is the necessary first ingredient that is missing from many whole school and whole district reforms. In HISD, for example, teachers at “failing” schools should be trusted, and empowered, after all, the teachers were hired not to be plug and play widgets* but agents of change who problem-solve on the ground. Instead, while the highest performing schools are innovating, experimenting, and collaborating, teachers at the lowest performing schools are often forced to follow a prescribed scope and sequence, curriculum, and check-list of classroom and management requirements like being on a certain objective on a certain day, no exceptions, and cannot push back on policies that are not working in their classroom.

The things that work at KIPP Academy… at will contracts, data-driven instruction, whole school behavioral expectations and management systems, only work because we all trust the teachers, administrators, and staff in the school building. The things that work in KIPP Houston… experimentation, innovation, culture, only work because we trust that everyone in the district is acting in the best interests of our KIPP Team & Family, even when we disagree on the particulars.

And finally, if we truly want to reform education, we need to trust our students. We need to trust that they WANT to learn, that they want to learn HOW to learn, and that we are learners with them. We need to give up the model of the teacher as the giver of information and the students as receivers, and instead, work with them to create knowledge together.

The question now, of course, is how do we build this trust? I can’t say that I have all the answers, but I do wonder the following:

What would happen if ALL schools had the power to hire teachers that were a right fit, and then trusted them as educators to make instructional decisions that may be off the beaten path? We may then have schools were every educator is excited to be an agent of change.

What would happen if school districts didn’t give mandates, but rather brought teachers together collaboratively to work towards a shared vision and mission of student achievement and character? We may be surprised by the solutions.

What would happen if trustworthiness and teambuilding skills were celebrated and promoted, instead of singular ambition? We may have exemplary teams instead of simply exemplary individuals.

What would happen if at the beginning of the year, we asked the students what kind of classroom and school they wanted? We may then have the investment to build that classroom and school together.

*See The Widget Effect by The New Teacher Project.
** For more discussion on trust as a necessary ingredient, see “Trust is the one thing that makes collaboration work” and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.