“Why Should We Do That?” The Impact of Trust on Buy-In in Schools

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by: James McGuire

“Why should we do that?”  “What a waste of time.” These are frequently heard phrases in a school.  A secret that teachers don’t often share is that these phrases are as common in the staff lounge as they are in the classroom.  Let me provide a little insight to what I mean and why this is the case.

Schools are built around relationships, and relationships are built around trust.  As a teacher, I have to be able to trust my administrators’ abilities, intentions, and motivations before I buy in to reform or a new initiative.  In turn, I have to be able to gain the trust of my students before they fully buy into the direction of our learning in class.

Schools are built around relationships, and relationships are built around trust.

Time and time again, we see school reforms that gain no traction among teachers. As a teacher in Wisconsin, I recently had a unique opportunity to view statewide survey data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction which addressed teachers’ trust in their administrators. The data reported the relationship between a teacher’s belief in the effectiveness of a mandated teacher evaluation process in relation to how much trust the teachers have in their administrators.  You won’t be surprised by the results.  The teachers who had trust in their evaluating administrator and understood how the results would be used thought the process had value.  The report, authored by Curtis C. Jones of the UW-Milwaukee School of Education, summarized the findings as such:

Although some teachers (35%) indicated that teachers in their school did not expect that they would receive a fair evaluation, teachers who reported that they trusted their principal were more likely to indicate that they would receive a fair evaluation.

Jones goes on to say:

When teachers reported that they understood how the results of EE would be used, they also tended to report feeling less concerned about how results would be used and more positive about the likelihood that the EE system will help them improve as a teacher.

If a teacher said they didn’t trust their administrator, guess what, they aren’t going to see a lot of value in the evaluation system ratified by that same administrator, especially an evaluation system that was developed with no local control.

The students who harbor these feelings are less likely to engage and invest in their education.

This example gives me a new perspective on how similar the relationships are between teachers and administrators and teachers and students.  My students are younger than me, but in relationships with others, they largely respond in the same way I do.  We can either develop trust or, conversely, develop distrust.  If I feel an administrator has an agenda that isn’t in my or my students’ best interests, it will decrease the trust I have in that person.  I am less likely to buy into small initiatives or big reforms led by this administrator.  The parallel situation is when one of my students feels that the education I am providing is not valuable or that I only say I care about them, but my actions don’t line up with my words.  The students who harbor these feelings are less likely to engage and invest in their education.

In these situations, it isn’t that the teachers or students are lazy or unmotivated (although it would be irresponsible of me to say that this isn’t a possibility).  Rather, for teachers, our time is so valuable we don’t dare invest more than what is required in a new initiative if we don’t trust that there will be an educational payout.  Students, on the other hand, have many interests competing for their attention.  Students often have eight or nine classes, sports, jobs, family issues they can’t control, and above all, they are investing an immense amount of time figuring out their social identities.  With all of these things going on, students don’t dare invest more than the minimum in something that doesn’t capture their interest and offer the possibility of intrinsic or extrinsic reward.

My students need to view our learning as valuable to their lives.  I often ask myself, “would I have seen the value in this unit or lesson at the age of 13?”  If my answer is no, most of my students’ answers will be no, too.  Administrators can ask themselves if their thinly spread teachers will see an educational payout in a new initiative, maybe not the first few weeks, but definitely in the first months.

. . . trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.

Trust is something administrators and teachers need to get right all of the time, not some of the time.  How do administrators and teachers do that?  Trust is gained through transparency, humility, encouragement and having the right product to sell.   Educator and author Stephen M.R. Covey states, “Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.

Developing trust is a requirement for effective leadership, and it is self-perpetuating.  If you lead teachers or students to a valuable payout, you earn more trust. The more trust you earn, the easier it is to gain buy-in.



Jones, Curtis C. “University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.” School of Education. UW-Milwaukee, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.

James McGuire (@jamesmcguire85) is a middle school social studies teacher since 2009.  He writes his own opinions about the educational world as a whole.  Any thoughts about his current or past educational communities are specifically identified. His experiences include teaching in an American school in Saudi Arabia and in public, rural Wisconsin, schools.  In addition to teaching, he is passionate about education, family, faith, reading, and fitness.

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