Trust – Leadership & Education

I was recently tasked with the daunting responsibility of reading a chapter about Trust in a book called, The Truth About Leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Now as surprising as it might be to some, the reading part was not daunting but the purpose for which I am reading the chapter is.  After digesting this riveting chapter, I am to present my thoughts to a focus group on Leadership and Education, of which I am a part.

Now anyone who knows me understands the issue at hand here. My personal mantra is “Life is too short to be taken seriously”. For me to muster up an opinion that is anything beyond a cynical, flippant, off the cuff and smart ass’d is, well… daunting. Not to mention that the the room will be filled with administration and respected educational leaders who spend their lives thinking about this stuff. Me?! I am just a run of the mill teacher who likes to fly under the radar and not attract to much attention, so yes the task at hand is daunting.

At first, I figured I would be hard pressed to come up with anything that might be of use to any of those assembled at our next meeting, never mind interesting. I mean really, a chapter on trust and I have to present it as it applies to education? What could I possibly say about trust and education that could not be readily assumed by a fifth grader. The truth is however, that after reading the chapter, I found that there seems to be a lot to say and some of it might even be interesting. What is more, some of it might even be a tad controversial and I love nothing more than stirring the pot.

Before getting into this chapter, I had some superficial assumptions. Yes teachers had to be trusted by parents and students. Yes it had to be trusted that the curriculum is relevant and purposeful. Yes teachers had to trust that parents were supportive at home… The list of “trust” items is endless but when you apply trust to education, as it pertains to leadership, things begin to get interesting. There are a number of things that crop up when trust, leadership and education are placed together and much of it seriously effects education on all levels and quite frankly I could write forever on the topic. For this post, I will discuss only one which is probably the most significant of the bunch.

Adversarial Structure of Public Education

I will preface this first item by saying that, I realize there are good people working on both sides of the Education system who want nothing more than what is best for students. Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership in education, there is a very big elephant in the room and without discussing it, there is no hope for building strong working relationships based on trust.

When reading this chapter, the first item of trust that came to mind had to do with the structure of the education system itself. In British Columbia, there are two sides in the education system, the Ministry and all its various agents & Teachers. A logical division I know but the problem is that most of the time, these two sides are at odds and distrust between them reigns supreme. In the fifteen years I have been teaching, there has been virtually no common ground between these two entities and it is unlikely there will any common ground between them in my last fifteen.

How this pertains to Trust, Leadership & Education is that we find ourselves working in a school system stands divided. Two sides peering across a pedagogical no man’s land unable to agree on the simplest of things. What complicates matters even more when discussing Trust, Leadership & Education is where the dividing line is drawn. If the battle ground between these two sides were out beyond the boundary of the school district, or even just outside the doors of the school itself, there would at least be an opportunity to create a  feeling of “we are all in this together” within a school community. The problem is that the dividing line between these two sides falls at the very threshold of our classrooms, creating an awkward and sometimes unworkable division within the school itself.

Administrators are pitted against teachers from the outset because ultimately, administration acts on behalf of the Ministry and therefore are not “trusted” by teachers. This makes it very difficult for administrators to be anything more than educational managers rather than the educational leaders they are suppose to be. In the end what happens is that leadership roles in education are usually taken up for the purpose of doing battle with the other side rather for the purpose of improving the education system.

This is not to say that Administrators are not trustworthy, in fact I have friends who are administrators with whom I would entrust with my own children’s lives.  The reality is however, that administrators are an extension of the Ministry and therefore they will, at some point, be asked to breach the trust of those they are expected to lead. The unfortunate result is that in British Columbia, educational leadership from an administrative perspective cannot be based on a relationship of trust because the system puts them at odds with the very people they are suppose to be leading.

So where does this leave us? Well to think that one side will roll over and expose their throat to the other is wishful at best. The cynic in me says we will be in this position for generations to come. As a result, true leadership where we have a community of professionals who trust each other and work towards a common goal, is unlikely to happen within my career. Teachers will continue to go about their daily lives, adopting new ideas, technology and methods as it suits them and administrators will continue to manage their schools as best they can.

It is an unfortunate place we have come to but until we can all trust that “we are all in this together” Leadership in education will remain fragmented.


  1. Steve Richter

    I overheard a teacher put it this way. Being an administrator is like being part of the Hells Angels.

    It is really easy and lots of fun until you have to make your first hit. Unless of course you like knocking off teachers (metaphorically speaking of course).

  2. Mr. Thackeray

    I’m in a cynical mood so I would have to agree with you at this point. Teachers have no reason to trust the “management” side of the relationship because trust is earned.

    In Finland, for example, teachers are respected and honoured in society. (I taught in Japan for 3 years and have a sense of what it’s like to be really respected.) They trust teachers to do what they are trained to do – teach. Here we are treated like labourers in the adversarial industrial model.

    I am not optimistic it will change any time soon. It is easier for the government to blame the teachers than to fund the system properly. They have managed to “frame the question” to suit their agenda. And it ain’t getting any better with Christie at the helm.

    It reminds me of that old sailing quote, “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”

    Public education is the anathema of those who would privatize everything. It’s creepy. It’s depressing. Thank goodness for the kids or it really would be a joyless job.

  3. Post

    Thanks for both your responses, although they do not really address the issues as it pertains to leadership in education, they both prove my point.

    What amazes me is how the Ministry can expect the education system to move ahead in an environment that is structurally divisive. I can only assume (at best) that our politicians do not care but in actuality I believe that they want an education system that is at odds top to bottom.

    In fact, when administrators and teachers were divided along professional lines in 1988, this is exactly what they wanted.

    As a parent of two school age children, this begs the question. What in the hell were they thinking?

  4. Lindahl

    There was a time when the admin and teachers were members of the BCTF. There was less “them against us” at the time The admin were more facilitator and less managerial. (or perhaps I was naive). I think this’ll work, let’s try it… After the split, the admin spent less time in the staff room and more time filling in forms.

    A few District Superintendents destroyed trust within the districts I worked in. School was pitted against school so that sharing between schools was non-existent. Why would you help someone you were competing with? Trust HAS to be “us against ignorance” – all of us. We had school trustees sitting in their cars following teachers leaving the school campus during school hours. Do you know what that does to trust? We had the admin refuse to give professional days on Friday because they feared teachers wouldn’t show up. Do you know what that does to trust?

    The activities of a district can’t be adversarial. The Board Office can’t plot against teachers and expect a teacher to give a heart and soul to the profession. Teachers simply barricade against the attacks. The problem is education requires dedication. If a teacher is an employee, you don’t have a great school or district. If you treat the teacher LIKE an employee, you are working counter to your goal. Teaching is an art. Trust the artist but be there to return him to the trail if he strays too far from the collective vision. The student should be treated the same way until he needs to be returned to the collective vision.

    Trust is everything to every organization. Stalin didn’t have it. He shot those he didn’t trust. Khrushchev spent most of his adult career proving to Stalin that he could be trusted simply to stay alive. Within months of Stalin’s death, Khrushchev had started to remove all memory of Stalin within the USSR. Without trust you can achieve the basest of goals but those achievements are transitory. We have had dictators as superintendents and principals. “Do it because I’m directing you to!” Fear works! Intimidation works! Ask Stalin. Ask my English 91 instructor who handed out detentions if you dropped your pencil during class. (The fellow knew nothing of teaching) Education needs an Arthur, a Camelot, a round table – not the rack or a Mao letting a thousand flowers bloom (look it up). Education is a refined society instilling all that is possible to an open mind. You can write your message on the broad end of a 2×4 and slam it home onto the foreheads of your charges or you can create trust and show them what is possible.

    Trust is everything to every organization. With trust, you DON’T ambush students with surprise questions on tests. You don’t surprise teachers by directing them to do something they feel uncomfortable doing. You SHOW students HOW to get a great mark and show them it is possible to succeed. You don’t humiliate employees or students or teachers. Without trust, you don’t have education and there is no reason for the existence of the superintendent or the principal or the teacher. Certainly the student won’t flourish without it…

    If we hire managers, they are immediately at odds with their charges. If we hire educators, the directives of Victoria can be shaded or coloured or bent to best serve education. If we hire managers, we have already lost the battle to the rules set down outside the classroom. Managers manage but they belong in 18th century factories not schools. A good manager handled Auschwitz. There was no thinking of is this wrong; the job was done and done effectively. If there is no thinking of “is this good for the students and education” the accolade of “good manager” is meaningless at best and counter productive to education at worst. We have hired a great number of managers lately. We need educational leaders. We need to foster trust with those leaders. Education is too important to leave to managers – be they superintendent managers or principal managers or classroom managers…

    I wandered… sorry

  5. Phil Rispin

    I think that competition between various interests and groups is the normal way of life, most of it is set up that way. Government parties, unions vs administration and owners, sports teams, even husbands and wives compete for resources and time. Teachers and administrators have competing interests while trying hard to look as if they are actually educating kids. Based on comments you’ve made frequently the results aren’t great. As a University Professor who has to deal with the product of public education I can confirm that the results are actually pretty bloody poor.

    So what alternatives do you have to this bumping of heads in education? Well we could set up an oligarchy where very few people run the show and everyone else tows the line or gets out. At the other end of the scale we could throw the educational system that exists out the window and let families do their own thing as far as educating their kids. In other words anarchy. What you are left with is something somewhere in the middle and you will inevitably be in competition of some kind with various groups and bodies within the system. I think we call this democracy.

    The trick for teachers and professors is to figure out how to educate within the system that exists. As far as trust is concerned its really unrealistic to expect other people or groups to support you and help you in everything. So in the sense that I can’t expect my friends and colleagues to always agree and help me I can’t trust anyone. If however we can have a clear goal to work towards in spite of differences we can all trust that we are working together to get to the same place. Things get really difficult when there isn’t a clear goal and everyone or every group has an agenda and I believe that is where we are at today.

    I do have some observations about students and education but I will save that for another time.

    Phil R.

  6. Sheila Stewart

    Where would I start here? 🙂 Great post and exchange! I have been thinking and writing about trust for some time. I see so many initiatives come through in education….and then I see the barriers when I look through the “trust” lens! Am I too cynical? It seems to take such a long time to build trust among the partners in education to achieve authentic progress! Yet I think there are concerns about trust and how things translate at every”level” of education….wondering where most breaches of trust occur at times. How did it get to be such a tightrope?

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