This year, as I continue to focus on issues that impact teacher wellness, I had the opportunity to interview an expert in how we build trusting relationships: Nan Russell, author of Trust Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation. My goal for the interview was to better understand the concept of trust and then work to increase the development of trust in my professional relationships.
Why do I trust some people and not others? As I pondered this question, I initially thought the answer may be connected to likeability. Do I trust people whom I like more? Yet, thinking back to coaches who challenged me during my days as an athlete, I realized I often trusted the coaches who pushed me the most, even if this was at the expense of a more comfortable, lighthearted relationship. I knew it had to be more complex than likeability.
As I interviewed Nan, I asked how teachers could build trust in a world that focuses heavily on performance evaluations that so often work from a deficit model, focusing on what needs to be fixed in our instructional practices.
Nan told me there are three kinds of trust that we need to build trusting relationships:
"If we're not competent at what we do, and we don't see ourselves as competent at what we do, it is very unlikely that someone else will see that."
This struck me at my core. A few years back, I was a new teacher to a building, teaching a section of students who were ranked as the 27 lowest achieving eighth graders. In addition to being tasked with teaching the most at-risk students, I never taught eighth grade math before. I was lost. Managing behaviors, misconceptions, adapting curriculum, and more was exhausting. Yet, what was more stressful was I was repeatedly observed during this period. And, I admit, I was struggling.
As the number of drop-in observations increased, my confidence in my ability to teach the students decreased. Though the administrators were doing their best to provide constructive feedback, because I lacked confidence in my position in the school community, my knowledge of the eighth grade math content, and my ability to meet the needs of my students, I was floundering. I wasn't reflecting, but surviving. I didn't trust my own performance. As such, I received the feedback as if it were an attack.
The first question to ask before evaluating is: Does the teacher feel he or she has the necessary skills and content knowledge to teach this group of students? If the teacher isn't confident in his or her ability to do the job well, administrators and instructional coaches must first support the teacher with resources and coaching opportunities before an evaluation can be meaningful and constructive.
"If we don't live up to our own promises and we rate those internal promises that we make to ourselves, we assume that other people will, too."
Once you've developed competency in your practice, you must then consider whether or not you trust yourself. When you make a commitment, do you follow through? In Trust Inc., Nan says, "You are unlikely to be viewed by others as trustworthy if you don't view yourself that way." In other words, is what you "value, say, and do" in alignment?
What if your self-trust is not fully developed? Here are a few things to work on that will help you make considerable progress developing self-trust:
- Set Achievable Goals: Realize and understand that by setting a goal you feel confident you can achieve allows you to value your ability and judgment, helping to foster a sense of self-trust.
- Speak Up: When you disagree with an issue or feel disempowered by another person, using your voice to push back on ideas or behaviors will help you develop self confidence that reaffirms the idea that you have values and beliefs you're willing to advocate for.
- Own Your Mistakes: When you make a mistake, own the mistake by admitting to it, apologizing if necessary, identifying how to lessen the occurrence of that mistake in the future, and most importantly, moving on from the mistake.
As you set goals, speak your opinions, and own your mistakes, you'll build your confidence, and foster a sense of self-trust.
The third type of trust that helps to build trusting relationships is relationship trust. As you converse or interact with another professional, you're consistently asking questions: "Am I respected in this relationship? Is this someone that I need to make a decision about? Am I going to be invested in this relationship?"
When you feel a sense of mutual respect and you're invested in the relationship (that is, there is a reason to work on trust, and you can imagine this individual being in a space where you will converse with them for some time in the future), a trusting relationship can occur.
Relationship trust is challenging to develop in a supervisor/employee relationship. For this, Nan says, we must first start with what's going well when talking about practice, emotions, student growth, etc. Second, we need to define language together. For example, if I said "use formative data to guide instruction," each part of this statement needs to be clearly defined. What does this look like, how will it be used, etc. Very clear definitions and plans for action must also be a collaboration. Nan says, as "we paint these pictures for people, it helps them to see that you're trying to help them in a good-intentioned way. When someone can see that your intention is to help them because you show them what it looks like to be successful, you'll gain their trust."
After wrapping the interview with Nan, I realized the component I'm often missing is performance trust. Sometimes the drastic changes in education can create a mental disequilibrium that lessens my faith in my competency to teach my students. Now I know if I'm not feeling competent, I need to ask for support. This may be from a coach, colleague, administrator, para, etc. I also need to assert my ideas whenever possible, while balancing input from others.
As I build my instructional practices alongside mentors, coaches, and administrators and continue to advocate for my needs, while simultaneously collaborating to define and agree to a shared vision, I'll develop relationships built on trust. As we learn and become comfortable with best practices, find a platform to assert our voices, and engage in focused collaboration, we'll move toward trusting environments where success can flourish.