Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

A Matter of Trust

Serving with three different principals showed this leader that the relationships among school administrators can make or break morale.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

A Matter of Trust - Thumbnail
As an assistant principal at a middle school in Queens, New York, for the past five years, I have experienced the leadership of three different principals. Along with noting changes in these principals' styles and visions of leadership, I've observed how differently the same team of assistant principals—myself included—functioned with these various leaders at the helm. It's become clear to me that the way a school leader works with his or her administrative team predicts how things go at the school on multiple levels, including the state of school–community relationships, student achievement, and, of course, teacher and student morale.

Leadership That Fostered Sharing—and Didn't

My first principal, who retired after seven years as our school leader, exercised certain rituals and routines in working with her administrative cabinet of four assistant principals. Besides having formalized cabinet meetings, it was our habit at the end of each day to gravitate to Leslie's office to share the day's events. We'd informally discuss particular students and teachers or how an initiative was progressing. Often, there was ice cream in the freezer, salad in the refrigerator, and a Mr. Coffee available to anyone who wanted to brew a pot of Joe. But more than that, there was laughter at the conference table. This granted us the gift of perspective as we undertook the daily difficult work of educating middle schoolers.
These meetings encouraged our sense of shared experience. The camaraderie helped us come in the next day "ready to do it all over again," as Leslie often said. With this leader, our school maintained an A rating on our New York City report card all four years Leslie was the principal.
This sense of shared purpose wasn't evident with the principal who led after Leslie retired. For the first six months, Dan closed his office door at dismissal, cutting off the possibility of thoughtful, relationship-building conversation with him after school. He kept items to himself, as many principals do, which discouraged discourse. Whereas Leslie usually held cabinet meetings after school hours so we could converse with a sense of privacy, Dan scheduled cabinet meetings during the school day and permitted school staff to constantly interrupt our meetings. Fruitful dialogue or planning rarely happened in these meetings. Because there was little conversation during them, Dan eventually imposed a protocol that involved e-mailing him what we wanted to talk about two days before each cabinet meeting. Although well-intentioned, this didn't help communication, partly because trust issues had surfaced by the end of Dan's first year.
It seemed that Dan attempted to bypass the assistant principals' input altogether. Six months into his tenure, teachers began to approach us with knowledge of school business—planned visits from the superintendent, curriculum initiatives, or textbook purchases—that we knew little about. At least once, Dan asked the assistant principals to launch a required initiative, we shared this initiative with the faculty, and then saw teachers who didn't like this requirement complain to Dan about it—and be told that they were exempted.
Our school had more problems with school discipline during these two years. Students' academic progress was nonexistent, and no subject areas were able to align with the Common Core standards coherently. As to our grade on New York City's school report card, after four years running as an A school, we plummeted to a B, then a D. Reflecting low morale, our score went all the way to F on the school's Learning Environment survey.
Eventually, Dan moved on, for many reasons. But by then our school's reputation and the collegial atmosphere among staff had suffered.
The principal who came to our school next—Monica—did much to heal that atmosphere. Many practices she enacted reflect what needs to happen for an administrative team to set a tone of collegiality, expectation, and support for learning. This tone is important. Relationships among the administrative team must claim a larger part of the spotlight as schools integrate current initiatives, such as aligning the curriculum with Common Core standards. The quality of the relationship between the principal and his or her assistant principals—and relationships among assistant principals—will determine how a school fares on these challenges.

What Helped Our Team Heal

Congeniality—and Acting "As If'

Our current administrative team has found that socializing and common meals foster the congeniality that Roland Barth (2006) says is essential among school staff. Ordering lunch, eating together, and even making coffee together encourage a connection between team members, perhaps because if we care about one another, we try to nourish ourselves and one another. Monica has strengthened relationships among her somewhat professionally bruised assistant principals partly by setting up structures that encourage team spirit. For instance, we've had a staff bowling night; our grade teams (composed of an assistant principal, dean, and guidance counselor) engage in friendly competition for "spirit points;" and on student picture day, the staff is now encouraged to come in early for a staff photo.
Barth (2006) notes that congeniality makes a huge difference in educators' willingness to work hard:
When the alarm rings at 6:00 in the morning, the alacrity with which an educator jumps out of bed and prepares for school is directly related to the adults with whom he or she will interact that day. The promise of congenial relationships helps us shut off that alarm each day and arise. (p. 11)
Anthony Bryk also discusses the importance of building "relationship trust" through day-to-day social exchanges in the school. Without that trust, he asserts, a school's instructional agenda cannot move forward (Johnston, 2004).
Congeniality is the foundation for collegiality—relationships that focus on collaborative inquiry, planning, and curriculum. But there's a caveat: The congeniality and mutual interest must be genuine. Making eye contact and genuinely listening to the ideas of others ensure an open flow and exchange of ideas—another version of nourishment.
One mind-set any administrator can take that improves collegiality is to conduct business "as if." Act as if a staff member you have negative feelings about is someone you care about and want to see grow—and perhaps surprise you. In many instances, a principal might hope for a different assistant principal, but cultivating sincere collegiality with the "problem" assistant is a win-win for all concerned. When principals hurt another administrator professionally, this negativity trickles down first to the administrative team and then quickly to teachers, staff, and students.
Nancy Westerband, who works with New York City administrators to improve their practice, advises administrators who are struggling to be congenial with a colleague to
use your … human resources to find out what strengths others have to make the school better. You shouldn't assume that [a person on the team who is causing problems] is bad; find out his or her strength in other things. Don't look at the deficits. (personal communication, August 21, 2013)
The "as if" concept is a form of positive presupposition. A successful school leader is one who inspires others and makes it easier to act on that inspiration with structures that encourage both risk-taking and reflection.

Fostering Trust

No administrative team can function without mutual trust. As Bryk has noted, teachers who feel they can trust their colleagues and administrators feel less vulnerable. They are more likely to try new educational approaches (Johnston, 2004).
In her first weeks at our school, Monica met with the team and brought up the topic of trust, telling us we had to trust one another and work as a unit—or we wouldn't be effective. Because she raised the issue of trust, the entire team was able to be more congenial, to begin having conversations again. These conversations freed us to begin re-creating our individual and joint identities as school administrators.
This was my "as if" moment. Although I was wary after negative experiences, if I acted as if I trusted Monica, I found that I could do the difficult and rewarding work I loved to do. Monica asked me if I would like to lead school inquiry, almost as if she knew that I'd once had significant responsibility and my supervisor's trust—and temporarily lost it. She was attempting to heal, restore, inspire.

Speaking With One Voice

Monica also shared her belief that the members of the administrative cabinet should speak with one voice. Michael Schlar, a mentor with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, points out that if a school is to move forward and maintain high morale, it's imperative that administrators speak with one voice—and with consistency (personal communication, August 15, 2013). They should agree on a single definition of words like trust or accountability—and share that definition with the school community.
Consistency of message was one of Monica's goals when she asked her three assistant principals to share with our faculty the school's plans for department-level professional development. She then asked us to plan schoolwide professional development together. In all the years we assistant principals had been working together, this was the first time we'd been asked to plan together.
The three of us sat around a table deciding what content and learning activities to present. With each idea raised, we ended up questioning, rehearsing, and coaching one another on how to best share this learning with our faculty, taking into account the many voices and learning styles of our teachers. Through this practice, we became confident, relaxed presenters—which in turn enabled us to release control of the material and let teachers engage in real conversation during the actual sessions.
In our first schoolwide session, we dove into studying Charlotte Danielson's rubric for effective teaching, focusing on two domains: Planning and Preparation and Classroom Environment. Our teachers were concerned about how our new teacher rating system, which depended on this rubric, would affect them. The assistant principals modeled practices that encouraged active student engagement and discussion. We also used a jigsaw activity, a traveling expert group strategy, and a video of an actual lesson. Faculty walked away from this schoolwide professional development saying, "we actually learned something."

Moving Forward—Together

Our school is now implementing a new teacher rating system. We administrators are deliberately attempting to take the trust we experience in our administrative team and spread it throughout our faculty by the tone and consistent language we use in our feedback. The confidence and inspiration Monica provides free us to encourage teachers to reflect and to take an active role in their own growth.
In our building you'll now hear the phrase "moving forward" multiple times a day. That's what we've had to do—move forward and envision our school in a new way, not as "just as good" as it was before, but as better.
Our school's recent Learning Environment Survey revealed the positive results of our work. In the four large areas of Academic Expectation, Communication, Engagement, and Safety and Respect, all arrows point upward. Our school report card evidenced all our hard work and showed we were going in the right direction.
As I came downstairs from my office to the school's main floor at about 6:30 the other morning, the aroma of coffee lured me into the main office. There I found the principal working at her desk, the secretary attending to her work, and several others milling around, ensuring a smooth start to the day. But we were doing more than starting our individual days: We were, together, readying ourselves to greet our students warmly and welcome them into an environment where we all grow. Clearly, all administrators at my school are now willing to set our alarms early—and not press the snooze button.
Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.

Barth, R. S. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Educational Leadership. 63(6), 8–13.

Johnston, T. (2004, November). Bryk says trust, not pedagogy, may be the key to educational success. Paper presented at the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute Conference, Stanford, CA.

End Notes

1 At the time, all New York City schools were rated with a letter grade on an official Progress Report (often referred to as the school report card). A school's overall score on this report card was arrived at by combining several factors: Student progress was worth 60 percent; student performance worth 25 percent; and school environment worth 15 percent. A Learning Environment Survey—given to parents, students, and teachers—formed the basis for the school environment score; participation in the survey was voluntary and participation rates affected the score. For more information on these letter grades, see www.wnyc.org/story/progress-reports-after-bloomberg.

Maureen Picard Robins is assistant principal at a middle school in New York City.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 114022.jpg
Building School Morale
Go To Publication