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The Power of Professional Trust

by Catherine Awsumb Nelson, May 15, 2013

Some of the most powerful findings from NCLE’s "National Survey on Collaborative Professional Learning Opportunities”—on which the recent report Remodeling Literacy Learning is based—concern the relationship between collaboration and trust in schools.

Of course it makes intuitive sense that schools where educators trust their colleagues have an easier time engaging in professional collaboration. Any of us who have ever been in a study group, professional learning community, or grade-level team meeting know that if people are afraid to talk honestly about the problems and challenges they face, little of substance will get accomplished. Having the hard conversations that really shift practice requires a certain level of vulnerability, a willingness to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and admit uncertainty or even failure.

This intuition is backed up by the hard data from our nationally representative sample of K–12 educators. In one question, respondents were asked their level of agreement with this statement about their school: “Collaboration is a routine part of how we do our jobs here.”

We found that agreement with that statement was significantly correlated with numerous other valued professional learning outcomes, including:

  • High levels of trust among educators in the building;
  • New learning about effective practices being shared;
  • Teachers being encouraged to experiment with their practice and try new ideas; and
  • A norm of using student data when discussing instruction and curriculum

All of these are characteristics that have been shown by large-scale longitudinal studies to be powerful contributors to school improvement, but in this post, I want to hone in on the elusive and fragile quality of trust.

Bryk and Schneider’s landmark work in Chicago demonstrated that trust is, as they put it in the title of their 2002 book, “a core resource for improvement” of schools. Almost any definition of a positive school culture or any effective professional learning community includes the aspect of trust. Why is trust so important and how does it function to improve schools?

No matter how talented the individual educators in a school, trust is the connective tissue that maximizes the contribution of each individual toward the collective goal. Where trust exists, people ask questions and share ideas and information. They identify problems faster. They make decisions more efficiently. They coordinate their work rather than inadvertently or even deliberately working against each other. Perhaps most important, they feel safe to take the risks that are sometimes necessary for improvement, rather than clinging to the status quo.

The NCLE survey traced some of these connections. Crucially, the NCLE survey item about trust explicitly included not just trust among teachers, but trust between teachers and administrators. For changes in practice to truly take hold, teachers need to be confident that administrators actively support their work and respect their professional judgment. The professional climate needs to be one in which it is safe for teachers to openly seek such support for change, not just from their peers but from their administrators.

The relationship between collaboration and trust in the survey results was quite strong. Among educators who reported that collaboration was NOT routine in their schools, 42% agreed that the professionals in their school trusted each other. But in schools where collaboration was reported to be routine, 82% reported a climate of trust.

These data show a strong correlation but not causation, thus raising an interesting chicken-and-egg question. Are schools able to foster collaboration because of a pre-existing foundation of trust? Or is trust built over time through the practice of collaboration?

No doubt, the relationship goes both ways, but for schools just getting started with collaboration, these data suggest something heartening. You may not be able to directly influence trust, which is deeply embedded in a school’s culture; but by practicing collaboration, by deliberately creating time and space for professionals to develop their shared practice, trust can be built.


In fact, the results of NCLE’s national survey suggest that routine collaboration, professional trust, and the spread of best practices exist in a reciprocal, mutually reinforcing relationship, where more of any one leads to more of the others, a classic “virtuous cycle.”

What can you do to create or accelerate such a cycle in your school? The practice of collaboration is the easiest place to directly intervene—make the time, protect the space, and learn all you can about tools and processes that support effective collaboration. NCLE has collected many such tools here on the Literacy in Learning Exchange. Taking the Asset Inventory as a member of a learning team can help you and your group focus on improving specific aspects of your collaboration. The more you collaborate, the more trust you will build, and the deeper and more powerful your collaboration will become.

For more specifics on the survey findings, see the full report Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.

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