What descriptive words come to mind when you imagine a classroom teacher, a site principal, a central administrator? Doug Reeves explores an inverse relationship between the size of a district’s strategic plan and its magnitude of impact on student achievement. I write today to study the inverse relationship between power and trust between a senior leader and his/her employees. First let’s define trust and power. The Northern Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) defines trust as a firm reliance on one’s integrity or ability. Author Robert Dahl defines power as the control and capability to decide and influence situations. Dahl also acknowledges the sustainability of power is greatly affected by character and competency. Exercising good character and competency builds trust between a leader and his or her staff. A myriad of research further describes ways people in positions of power can establish trustworthiness to galvanize effective instruction and learning. In a keynote at the Annual Visible Learning Conference in 2017, John Hattie advised schools to develop an authenticated community amongst system stakeholders before embarking on the difficult journey of Visible Learning. Establishing trust before exercising power will help us create healthy school climates.
In my experience, leaders who assume more executive power deplete relational trust with their faculty. As I climbed the career ladder in the field of K -12 education, moving from a teacher, to a teacher-leader, to a site administrator, to a current central office administrator, I contended with this very inverse relationship between absolute authority and trust. Follow along as I also share my experience in reversing this relationship so that people in a position of assumed authority operate with their peers, their bosses, and their employees in a harmonious and credible manner.
Balancing Power and Trust As A Teacher
Think about how we hire classroom teachers. There is usually an interview panel, comprised of fellow teachers and a site administrator, that interviews applicants and determines whether they are qualified for the position. The teachers they hire enter the building as trusted employees because their skill and character have been evaluated. Teachers also enter their school with authority only over their students. Within the classroom, their sphere of control, teachers work to foster a healthy and positive class culture.
Connections and Impact
Teaching in the Southside of Chicago in 1994, I devoted my first year to establishing a deep-seated connection with my students. We greeted one another at the door each morning, ate lunch together at our assigned table in the cafeteria more days than not, and built relationships that led to trust and exemplary teaching and learning By the end of year two, 70% of my students averaged over one year’s gain in reading per the annual state exam. Prior to the exam, the kids gathered in a circle to either say a prayer or to share an affirmation. By establishing a climate of trust we were able to build efficacy as a class.
Emotions and Learning
Developing trust and deep relationships amongst the class helped students to believe in their own abilities to read at grade level and beyond. The students were empowered to write their own story, one with a future rooted in literacy. As I demonstrated continued competency in my teaching abilities and as my students continued to uncover their academic potential, I gained respect not just from my students but also from the administration and my fellow teachers.
Character and Leadership
As Covey points out, character and competency build relational trust and leadership (2013). The trust between my students and myself established my credibility with my peers, which led the staff to select me as the middle school department chair.
While not an exhaustive list, the table below notes some concrete steps teachers can take to gain trust and power within their school building.
Balancing Power and Trust As an Administrator
“Leaders can use vision to build trust rather than break it if they are willing to let their rhetoric give way to reality and allow their vision to become a blueprint rather than public relations baloney” (Reeves, 634).
Visibility and Presence
In my first year as a principal and in my first year as director of curriculum and instruction, I was visible, listening, and learning about the ways of people and the ways of their school or district. I walked the halls and visited classrooms. I talked with students, staff, and administration. I compared the context of my new school and district to their current goals and actions, and considered how they aligned, or could better align, with current research in the field.
After about six months, I had collected enough information and formed enough relationships to feel comfortable sharing my discoveries and thoughts at staff collaboration, executive cabinet, and board presentations. In particular, I wanted to encourage a dialogue about how we could align our actions with the school and district goals to develop collective efficacy. Because I had taken the time to be present, listen, and build relationships, the stakeholders were ready to listen to my findings. I led by legitimately acknowledging strengths of the school and the district. I recognized the instructional practices and the positive climate traits that were upholding the school and the school district’s strategic plans. As most school systems do, my school and district constructed goals around improved academic proficiency in language arts and in math, and around improved climate and culture. By tethering our current strengths to the school and district’s strategic plan, I was able to engage stakeholders in conversations that looked beyond the strategic plan.
Vision and Purpose
I synthesized our school vision into three initiatives. Our goal was to equip students with: content knowledge, cognitive skills, and tools and resources that would prepare them to thrive in their future outside of school. I served as principal for 8 years, and have been serving as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the past four years. In each of these roles, I learned and continue to learn to uphold our school vision in every conversation and presentation. I assured staff that every action and decision would revolve around our vision. As a result, the school’s narrative has evolved into one in which we teach and develop happy, civil, and literate young people. This has influenced the system so that the school district’s narrative began to revolve around developing happy, civil, and literate young people as well.
Power and Trust in Concert
President Abraham Lincoln embodied this notion of earning trust and leveraging power as a transformational leader when he transcended his own personal vendetta, humiliation, and bitterness and hired Edwin Stanton as the Secretary of War in 1862. Lincoln prioritized surrounding himself with the strongest men required to preserve Democracy and vindicate the unalienable rights of all people.
Climbing up the career ladder carries a juxtaposed relationship between power and credibility. As I gained greater authority by title, I simultaneously had to work harder to gain credibility and respect from the staff. Wherever you are on the career ladder — teacher, principal, or central office — the power and credibility must work in concert. Whatever power is associated with a position, it ought to be leveraged in a way that heightens adult and student performance, serving the organization’s greater intentions. Trust and credibility are critical resources for a leader when inspiring adults and students to improve and perform at high levels. Without these resources and leverage, the potential of a school or school district can never be realized or sustained.
While not an exhaustive list, the table below shows some steps school and district administrators can take to develop trust and sustain their authority.
Click on this link to review a set of protocols and facilitation skills that can assist when leading collaboration in your school.
Alvy, H. and Robbins, P., (2010). Learning from Lincoln. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Lukes, Steven (2015). “Robert Dahl on power”. Journal of Political Power (2158-379X), 8 (2), p. 261.
Netolicky, D. and Paterson A&C. (ed). 2019. Flip the System Australia. London, UK: Routledge
Reeves, D. 2006. The Learning Leader (an e-version). Alexandria, VA: ASCD