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Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership | April 20, 2013

Trust, Power, Change and Risk


File5172abe3badc9By Mark

Change is hard, and for change to happen, trust is critical.

I've been thinking often about trust lately--sitting in meetings with administrators as they strategize how to build trust within a staff. In meetings at the ESD and with OSPI, I hear about how cultivating a climate of trust is vital for evaluation to produce growth.

Thus, we have more meetings, use surveys to find the root of the distrust. Still, I have bosses I trust more than others. I have colleagues I trust more than others. 

And when I sit and listen to my fellow teachers, they likewise lament situations where they do not trust their administrator or evaluators. As a building union representative, I sit in meetings where we talk about erosion of trust, and that the climate of distrust needs to be fixed. We talk about it, point at it, discuss it, and then leave the table waiting for that trust to somehow repair itself.

If I don't trust my administrator to make good choices, there is an assumption about how that lack of trust is to be remedied: If I don't trust you, the only way for trust to be repaired is for you to change.

Bam. There it is.

We're not talking about trust, we're talking about power.

Specifically, the power that I hold when I say I don't trust.

When I say I don't trust you, I'm not implying that I need to change, I'm implying that you do. I'm implying that you need to earn my trust, and since what you're already doing doesn't do the trick, you have to change.

But I don't.

I am thereby absolved from any responsibility for change. It's all you. When we think about power, the party who has the capacity to compel change in the other is the party in power. When I don't trust you, I'm demanding that you change. I have power now, even if your title is a higher rank than mine.

Sure, we might have reasons. I've felt stabbed in the back before. I've worked with liars. Those are reasons for me to want to withhold trust. 

But there is also great power in acknowledging--aloud and unequivocally--the reasons I have to withhold trust, and then bestow it anyway.

That, of course, is a risk. I've been burned before by your actions, which is why my gut says to withhold my trust. I run the risk of being made the fool. I run the risk of enduring job dissatisfaction, manipulation, and all the other things I fear could happen. But these things could happen regardless of whether I choose to trust--my withholding of trust is a feeble, actionless attempt to prevent these through emotional or psychic means, not actual effort, communication, or the challenging task of actually working with someone. And guess what: in that vacuum of inaction, I will rarely get what I want, and will only end up with more reasons to withhold trust.

We know that bestowing trust is a much more powerful way to produce a desired behavior than withholding it. When I say to my students or my own children that I trust them to do the right thing, they have a clearer sense of what I want. If I say nothing, or worse, tell them I don't trust them, then they either try to guess what they have to do to convince me to offer trust, or they feel free of any obligation to do what I expect. Far more often than not, when I state clearly "I am doing this because I trust you do to the right thing..." and then I clearly outline what I believe the "right thing" to be, the people in whom I place trust live up to that. When they don't, at least it was no mystery that they "should have figured out" in order to get me to bestow trust, and I have a starting place to begin the hard work necessary to rebuild. To give trust, therefore, is to empower others rather than possess all the power myself.

But bestowing trust, the risk there is a risk because there is fear of how that power will be used.

Some teachers will say I don't trust my evaluator to be fair.

In my mind, this translation may be the root: I am not going to change or take risks, because there is the chance that I might not succeed or it might betray some places where I am not as proficient... so I am going to play the trust "card" and absolve myself of the responsibility to change. Thus, it is their fault I cannot change. I know they won't treat me fairly, so I cannot change. They need to change.

This is fear of change masked as fear of being betrayed--and it is a shifting of responsibility away from us. When we say we don't trust and that enables us to keep doing what we've been doing while we wait for someone else to change, we've simply found an excuse to avoid looking at ourselves and taking responsibility.

My new mindset I'll be trying on for size: when I find myself feeling distrust, I need to ask myself what I am afraid I will have to do--not what I'm afraid they will do--if I give trust instead of withhold it. If I have a reason to distrust, I need to step up and give it face time: I need to communicate unequivocally exactly why I feel that distrust and what I trust the other will do from this moment forward. Since trust is always rooted in the past, a key first step is to acknowledge the past, then turn my back to it.

If fair evaluation and effective professional growth relies upon trust, I must recognize that trust is not something that occurs somewhere "out there."

Unlike just about everything else, it is something over which I have complete control. 



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Thanks Bill...and it is important for us teachers to remember that this system is "real" for our administration before it is even so for us.

Bill Oman

Great insight on trust. It always helps to keep a balanced perspective and only worry about what we can control, ourselves. Principals are dealing with this same issue looking at the AWSP framework and our current evaluators. Appreciate the post, Mark.

Thanks Maren. By no means do I want to make the whole "trust" issue seem easier to solve than it is... but I do think we too often talk about trust like it is something outside of us, that we don't participate in. I'm including myself in no means am I claiming I've done it right all the time!

Very thought provoking perspective on trust, Mark! Interesting to think about this in terms of teacher evaluation and other issues. Thanks for writing and sharing this.

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