Trust is more than an item on my to-do list

by Mr. Sheehy

Yesterday I spent the day in an inservice setting along with the rest of the district’s building leadership teams (BLT). This is my first year as a BLT member and while I am not interested in detailing much of it here, I will say that getting pulled out of the classroom to discuss things has been a factor in my high stress level this year. There are other contributing factors to that stress, and among them is anything not directly related to my students. Concerning this year in particular, I think I have been too high strung partly because I did not expect it. I finished those graduate studies last spring and thought I had reached Regular Land. I could just be a teacher again, not a full-time student and a teacher all at the same time. It has not worked out that way, however, and I admit to being disappointed that some days I’m worked into a frenzy about something I cannot control or influence.

Thus I was not thrilled about handing my classes over to a sub for the second time in two weeks for BLT related reasons. Going in, the consolation was that Cris Tovani was leading half the session. Tovani is great and if you teach secondary ed you should familiarize yourself with her work. If you are a language arts teacher at the secondary level, my recommendation is actually insistence: you must read Tovani.

The bonus of the day, however, came from a session some folks from our district conducted concerning trust. Whenever someone mentions trust the first blip that pops into my head is from Good Will Hunting, as Robin Williams’s character asks his class, “What is trust?” Some goofy kid gets called on and declares with pseudo-thoughtfulness, “Trust . . . is life.” Oh, yeah. I love that scene and I love that it is all too similar to discussions with high school students about literature:

“Talk to me about George’s shooting of Lennie.”

“Oh, it was rough. A tough thing to do, but he learned something . . . about life.”

Anyway, the presentation yesterday far surpassed the student in Good Will Hunting, and I appreciated it. When we received a two page “research synthesis” regarding trust in schools I about fell out of my chair. I wasn’t in a grad class, I was there in school, and in a professional and intelligent way, my colleagues presented a topic and defended it clearly and skillfully with research. Nice going, colleagues!

The definition of trust they passed along was concise and worthwhile: “Trust is the extent to which one is willing to rely upon and make oneself vulnerable to another.” They then turned to Tschannen-Moran (2004) to highlight five characteristics of trust that must be in place for another person to extend trust: benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competency. Further, they pointed out that trust is “influenced by . . . experiences” and is built after “repeated cycles of exchange.”

I appreciated a few aspects of the research, which resound so strongly with my experiences. For one, that vulnerability aspect is key. How can we learn if we cannot be vulnerable with one another? How can we improve if we’re too busy pretending we are perfect? I have a functioning and wonderful family life, and I will always be a better father than I am a teacher, because at home I trust my family completely. I can be vulnerable with them and can admit my failures, which leads to improvement (remember the first step in the AA process?).

Professionally, if I am with someone who needs to be right all the time or needs to write me up, I can’t be vulnerable. I might even find myself returning to the frame of mind I assumed sometimes in high school during class-discussions, where a confrontational classmate attacked me or my position in a way that made me defensive, and the next thing I knew I was vehemently defending a position I did not actually hold. It was the opposite of being vulnerable. I was even hiding my true position from such an untrustworthy person.

Other aspects of the research I appreciate so much are the aspects involving the influence of experience and the repeated cycles.

Just like construction of buildings, trust takes a long time to build, but we can destroy it in moments. The best illustration of this I can recall is something I heard from a friend a few years back. A forty-something  year old man committed adultery. It was the first time he’d done it, and obviously one can imagine the trust he’d broken. That in itself is a story to recall how fast trust can disappear, but the part of the story that makes it significant is when we think not so much about the man’s wife but about his daughter. With that one act, my friend observed, this man forever erased a sacred trust that existed between him and his daughter.

There isn’t much considered universally sacred in our culture anymore, but the relationship between a father and daughter seems to me to be about as sacred a relationship as there can be. And when that father betrays that mother . . . well, that trust will never be restored.

Nothing in a school is so sacred as that relationship, I realize, but when we talk about building trust in schools, we have to remember that trust is not something we add to a list of things to do and discuss in meetings. Trust is more fundamental than that, and if when we read this research we are not willing to ask ourselves highly personal questions about our own integrity and loving behavior towards others, we are not going to improve the levels of trust that exist.

Am I helping to build an atmosphere of trust in my school? Are there ways I am actually deconstructing the atmosphere of trust?

I have to ask these questions, and so do others. We have to ask them whether we have an atmosphere of trust or not, because that atmosphere is fundamental to our success as a school. It’s also fundamental to our sanity.

And since I am not on any interviewing committee for future teachers, I’ll just ask these questions to myself today, because I am the only one here, and because at least I’ll be vulnerable enough with myself to answer honestly.

Thanks for reading.


Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.