A Culture of Trust

So as I was taking part in last week’s Middle School curriculum leaders meeting, I was once again struck by the importance and necessity of a positive school climate and culture. We were all busy and engaged in providing meaningful feedback through a critical friends protocol, when it occurred to me that the trust that was being shown by everyone in that room as colleagues was three years in the making. A culture of trust, where people are able to be vulnerable, open-minded, accepting of professional feedback, and eager to learn from each other takes a considerable amount of time and effort to develop….and it’s such hard work! It’s an everyday commitment that needs everyone on board, but when it finally arrives it’s like a whole new world of possibility becomes unearthed. In my opinion, a culture and climate of trust is the cornerstone of everything meaningful that can happen in schools. Without it, I will suggest that a school will never transition from good to great, and will never be able to truly focus on what’s best for their students. The issue is that it’s not something that you can just implement overnight…or purchase as a new school program…there is so much that plays into it, so much that cannot be taken for granted, and so many moving pieces that it’s a staggering undertaking on the part of the entire community. It’s about people, and their mindsets, and their passion….it’s about leadership, and priorities, and expectations, and follow through, and it’s about coming together over a shared purpose…but when it happens everything becomes easier, and the work can start to focus on the things that NEED to matter in order for student learning to be maximized. For us, it was a long journey and it took all of us to take ownership of what we’re trying to accomplish for our kids and each other…but it’s here now and it’s exciting to be digging into a new kind of work, the work that seemed like only a dream three short years ago.

I mentioned in a previous post how I was inspired by the work of Ron Ritchhart, and the 8 cultural forces that he suggests need to be present in schools and classrooms in order to reach their potential as learning environments. I was fortunate enough to see him present a few short weeks ago and he was truly speaking my language. He talked about how these areas of focus need to mesh and gel together to create a culture of trust, and to strengthen the “hidden curriculum” in your schools. The hidden curriculum being all that goes into creating a happy, productive, supportive, trusting, and focused working/learning environment….all the stuff that’s truly important in schools, but often times the stuff that gets overlooked and taken for granted. When I look at these 8 forces I am reminded about how difficult it is to get just a few of these right, let alone all of them. Here’s my take on what they are and why they matter for schools…….

  1. TIME – creating time for teachers to meet, to talk about kids, to have professional discourse around data, to learn from each other, to share, to celebrate, to get to know each other as people, and to learn to work together as colleagues. People often say that there’s not enough time, but it really comes down to where you’re putting your time!
  2. OPPORTUNITIES – for teachers to learn from each other, engage in rich professional development opportunities, to take on leadership roles, to pursue areas of passion within their work, to have a life outside of school, and opportunities to be heard and to find their educational voice.
  3. ROUTINES AND STRUCTURES – setting up programs that become part of the fabric of the school, the “how we do things around here” stuff, daily advisory, assemblies, house system, meetings, and all the things that make up who you are and what you value.
  4. LANGUAGE – the common language that is used as a community…from the language that you use around assessment, or your essential qualities of a learner, to reporting, to character education, and to the language that all students use when they’re asked about their school…what does your school stand for and what is its message?
  5. MODELING – how are teachers as role models for students? Are we risk takers, do we model growth mindsets, are we constantly questioning and learning, are we positive and supportive, and are we the heroes that our students are desperate to emulate.
  6. INTERACTIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS – How do people treat each other? With respect? Are we vulnerable and empathetic and do we approach every conversation with positive intent. Do we look to get to know our colleagues outside of school? Are we giving our best selves to others…everyday?
  7. PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT – how focused are you to the aesthetic of your school? Is it welcoming and bright, is the language that you value posted and present? Is it clean and safe and warm and inviting? Is it happy? If you were a student, would you want to go to come to your school everyday?
  8. EXPECTATIONS – how high do you set these for your students and each other? People will rise to the challenge if you set the bar high, but they’ll also sink low if you let them? What do you expect of your community and your kids?


The thing about developing a strong climate and culture in schools, is that even if you’re fortunate enough over time to accomplish this incredible task…the work doesn’t stop. I think that the work is now just as hard, and maybe even harder. Trying to sustain this culture is another colossal undertaking altogether….. people move on to new jobs, students and families come and go, and things happen that can test your resolve as a group almost everyday. Let’s keep focused on where we are right now and the culture of trust that we’re now enjoying. The longer we sustain our current situation the more likely it will become simply “who we are”, and the more difficult it will become to revert back to where we started three short years ago. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week……..
Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they are capable of being.
– Thomas Carlyle

Upworthy Video (Insert your name and recognize the incredible difference you are making)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaHJRLoCyWc
Climate and Culture websites and Articles –
http://edglossary.org/school-culture/
http://www.readingrockets.org/article/26095/
(The Hidden Curriculum)
http://www.guide2digitallearning.com/blog_tom_murray/building_positive_school_culture
http://mindfulnessinschools.org/
http://www.aasa.org/content.aspx?id=12512

About Daniel Kerr

Dan Kerr is now Lower School Director at the American School of Paris. He previously served as Intermediate Division Principal at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador, and prior to that was the Middle School Principal at SCIS in Shanghai, China. Dan has also worked at JIS in Jakarta, Indonesia and he began his International career in Abu Dhabi. Dan is thrilled to be joining the ASP family and will be accompanied by his wife, Jocelyn, who will be working as a counselor, and his two children, Max and Gabby. 
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