How trusting relationships advance school culture and influence student achievement


By Dr. LaMarr Moses

The culture of a school lives in its organizational relationships. Creating schools with a culture of positive relationships have long been a characteristic of success. When a school has established a positive culture, students are more likely to meet academic standards, and less likely to drop out, or experience chronic behavior problems. Faculty and staff working in school settings with positive cultures are often characterized as working collaboratively with colleagues, parents, and constituents to best meet the academic and social needs of students.

Relational factors that connect students, parents, and teachers are important contributors to school achievement and improvement. As schools respond to the challenge of ensuring that all students meet the academic standard of the state, more attention is being directed to relational factors that contribute to student achievement. In particular, understanding social connections in school environments is progressively becoming more recognized as an effective tool to realize student achievement. How these relationships take shape and progress are considerably dependent on the construct of trust.

Trust is the foundation for social interaction and cooperation. Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. Schools with higher levels of trust experience greater student achievement. Yet, establishing trustworthy relationships has proven challenging in a number of schools throughout the country. We can assume that most school leaders and teachers know the importance of establishing trustworthy relationships in order to boost achievement and culture – it actually seems like a pretty straightforward process on the surface. However we know that it’s not so simple. How many times have you heard teachers complain about administration? How many times have you heard students fault the personal vendetta held against them by their teachers as the primary reason for their bad report cards? What about parent complaints that particular teachers don’t care for their child; or the teacher that condemns parents for the behaviors of their children? These are all beliefs that are fueled by a lack of trust, or mistrust.

Cultivating school achievement is close to impossible when this type of school culture prevails. While the need for schools to establish trusting relationships with colleagues, students, and families is clear; not all are familiar with how this is in fact achieved.

So how do we enhance trust relationships in schools? Those looking to improve in this area should begin by examining the effectiveness of their school’s interdependent relationships. This is important, as interdependence is critical to the cultivation of trust. Trust is required when the interests of one cannot be met without the aid of another. Schools in order to be successful rely on the interdependent relationships of a number of individuals operating in various capacities.

Relationships are strengthened in part by each individual having an understanding of their own obligations; as well as having some expectation and understanding of the obligations of others. Trust grows as each individual feels comfortable that others are doing what is expected of them. One, or a small group of individuals acting alone cannot achieve and sustain all that a school requires to be effective. Also, it is difficult to establish trust with others if you feel isolated or alone. In this case, school leaders should encourage faculty, staff, families, and stakeholders to work collaboratively to meet the goals of the school.

The actions and behaviors of the school leader significantly influences the culture and climate of a school. School leaders are in the best position to advance initiatives that require the contribution of the majority of a school’s staff. According to studies, the primary leadership behaviors perceived to strengthen relationships in schools are associated with compassion and openness.

Given this, school leaders should be motivated to take measures that demonstrate to stakeholders that they are caring and transparent. School leaders can express benevolence by extending a high level of personal regard to staff, students, and parents. When individuals sense that school leaders truly care about their well-being, they often reciprocate by returning trust.

Teacher trust in school leadership is enhanced when they feel valued by the administration. Teachers who feel respected as professionals are more open to input from administration, and tend to be more concerned with the welfare and success of the school. School leaders can also strengthen trust relationships by fostering a transparent environment. In such schools, teachers often feel compelled to share best practices and instructional strategies with colleagues and administration which may result in improved student achievement outcomes.

Student trust in schools is heightened when they feel the adults in the building want what is best for them. They engage more freely in the learning process when they feel that teachers are invested in their educational outcomes and success. Students who do not trust their teachers may disengage from the learning process and create barriers which make developing healthy relationships with the adults in the building challenging.

To increase student trust in schools, explicit efforts should be directed towards eliminating the obstacles that limit the formation of trusting relationships. Similarly, studies show that parent trust in schools is fostered when the behaviors of the faculty and staff convey that they care about the well-being of their children. When parents trust in schools, they often feel obligated to work in a manner that is supportive of the needs of the faculty and staff. Likewise, schools that trust in parents feel compelled to meet their needs and expectations. Based on this knowledge, it should behoove school leaders to employ plans and initiatives that have been found to demonstrate personal regard for students and parents. Doing so has the potential to improve student achievement and school culture.

A school’s culture is influenced by its interpersonal relationships with faculty, staff, students, parents, and other constituents. The quality of the relationships within schools play a significant role in its success or failure. Successful schools are described as exhibiting high levels of trust and cooperation among the faculty, staff, students, and parents. It is unlikely for schools to realize healthy school cultures if relationships are destructive or negative. Given this, it may serve beneficial for schools to develop initiatives that are uniquely constructed to advance trusting relationships with constituents. As the pressure mounts for schools to show significant improvement, school leaders must be cognizant of how trust relationships contribute to student achievement and school improvement.

Dr. LaMarr Moses is the President of Results Education Group. He has over two decades of experience and currently provides professional development to schools, districts, foundations, and non-profits. Prior to his current position, he has served in the capacities of teacher, principal, superintendent, and school developer.