Trust


I came across this excellent article by the Harvard Business Review about how trust relates to productivity in business. It turns out trust goes a long way towards creating a productive learning environment with students as well.  Trust doesn’t end in the classroom though.  Between teachers in a building, across entire school boards and in the education system in Ontario as a whole, trust is the cement that turns us from individuals into powerfully focusedl groups. After reading that article I couldn’t help but wonder at the damage done by the aggressive politics that drive out of date and combative management practices in education.

This week we were handed a remedy for a court case won by teacher’s unions in Ontario. In 2012 the Ontario provincial government decided to ignore the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and deny the right to strike and force a contract on teachers in the province because bankers had tanked the world economy a few years before and the government’s way to fix that was to vilify and then bleed public employees dry.

You couldn’t pick a finer example of broken trust within an organization. After a miserable late 1990s under a tea party style conservative government that was bound and determined to diminish the teaching profession in Ontario, the Liberal party was ushered in and a decade of rebuilding occurred. In that time Ontario shot up the ranks in terms of world education. Suddenly, in 2012, in a desperate attempt to garner conservative votes the Liberal party chose to ignore the Canadian Charter – the document at the foundation of our democratic rule of law – and force a contract on teachers, just to move some money around on ledgers so it appeared that they were more fiscally conservative. The strips to sick days actually cost Ontario more even before the government lost the court case and had to pay restitution. It was a case of desperate and illegal law making and profound mismanagement.  The people responsible have never apologized.  If your boss did that would you trust them?

Since then trust has been thin on the ground in Ontario’s education sector, yet this article on trust goes to great lengths to underscore how important it is to create a transparent, consistent and reasonable relationship between members within an organization:

“Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy, collaborate better, suffer less chronic stress & are happier – these factors fuel stronger performance”

Having worked in the private sector for fifteen years before coming a teacher, I’m often surprised at how unenlightened management practices in education are. Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of being managed by politics rather than productivity.  In any case, the mismanagement of Ontario’s education system over the past few years is neither cheap, nor productive.


I’ve worked for my current employer for over ten years.  In that time I only ever asked for a single exception to being expected to come in to work every day.  In 2012 my mother committed suicide.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a result but was expected to be in class teaching volatile teenagers.  I went to my principal and asked for help.  She called HR for me to navigate the process but we were told by a senior manager, “we have people at work who have had a heart attack and have cancer, what makes you so special?”  I went back to work with images of mopping my mother’s remains off the floor still floating before my eyes.  Can you imagine my level of trust since then?


This month I just got back from surgery.  I went back to work 2 days before I should have because we are only allowed 3 days off before needing to contact HR – something I wasn’t going to do.  I’d lost so much blood due to this surgery (sinuses, it isn’t a nice one) that I passed out at the end of the school day while stacking chairs in my classroom.  I woke up on the floor in a puddle of blood, cleaned myself up and went home and called in sick again. Damaged trust isn’t easily forgotten and can put people in ridiculous situations that need not occur.

Trust looks wish-washy from a conservative mind-set, but it’s actually a fiscally powerful incentive.

Mismanagement has a trickle down effect.  Board level administration is required to support and enable Ministry dictates, no matter how politically arbitrary, damaging to learning or asinine.  School level administration ends up in a frictional relationship with their teachers as a result of this trickle down distrust.  The end result is that people tend to duck and cover.  It’s difficult to get people to raise their heads out of their classrooms and collaborate on anything because they doubt the veracity of the people who manage them.

“when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.”


Trust creates a bond between teacher and student and student and peer.  Knowing you’re working with someone who has your best interests are at the centre of what they do makes learning more effective.  A teacher who students can’t trust is a poor teacher.   Students don’t know what to expect or what is expected from them.  A teacher who surprises students with tests, sometimes on material not comprehensively covered in class, is a teacher students shy away from.  For the rest of us who are trying to establish a trust relationship with our students in order to empower their learning, these teachers are a cancer on the profession.

When you think about your favorite teacher I doubt it’s because they gave you a high mark, or because they were hard to figure out.  Teachers that enable us are honest, direct and help us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves.  Trust isn’t a nice idea in those cases, it is the foundation of the entire process.  After reading that article, I now realize that trust is actually a mechanical process hard wired into how humans think; it’s the mechanism that makes us so socially powerful.

Enabled, energized people in an organization, be it a board of education or a classroom, want to engage.  Engagement is a big buzz word in education right now.  It occurs in high trust organizations naturally.  If it isn’t happening in your school or classroom look to how you are developing trust to see why it isn’t happening.  Demanding engagement is a sure way not to generate any.


“Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator: A 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work.”

I’m at my best in a classroom when I’m able to define goals, ensure students have fundamental skills in place and then give them the time, space, equipment and positive encouragement to figure it out for themselves.  This light-handed approach means that when they get something to work they feel that they’ve figured it out themselves.  This is very empowering.  Another benefit of this light handed approach is that I’m not so focused on talking at everyone that I’m able to see what individual students need to move forward.  I’m happiest when a student learns things they weren’t able to do before and feel that they did it themselves.  I know I’m important to the process, but students need to feel engaged and enabled in order to own their learning.  Trust powers that process.


My school and board is at its best when we have clear, tangible goals and decisions are made transparently and rationally.  The more this happens, the more effective these institutions become as places of learning, and the more I trust the people who are leading me.  When I trust my leader there is little I won’t do for them because I feel that we’re all working toward the same goal.

Much of this article drills into the neuro-science of trust.  We are social animals hard wired to use trust as a means of working effectively together.  If we want to best make use of our powerful social habits, building trust is where we should be concentrating our efforts, especially within the entire educational apparatus.

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