Three components of trust

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” 
― George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet

Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.

All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.

Referencing decades of psychological research,  The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.

When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is  harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.

There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:

  1. Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
  2. Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
  3. Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.

And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.

Get outside the jar

I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:

“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”

This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.

If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.

Think big, act small, learn fast

One of the major challenges we face as we attempt to innovate in education is that the impact of innovation is so hard to measure. Not only are we working with complex humans in a hugely complex system but educational, wellbeing, and developmental outcomes are sensitive to an immeasurable number of inputs and variables.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of trying to collect an excessive amount of data in order to capture a comprehensive ‘picture’. This is a flawed approach for two reasons. First, we end up drowning in huge swathes of data that tell too many stories. And second, it is impossible to capture the full picture anyway. There will always be variables that we have failed to consider or are impossible to measure, control or eliminate.

Here’s what schools that are really harnessing effective innovation are doing:

  1. Clearly identify the specific change you would like to see.
  2. Choose a simple, discrete, well-defined outcome to measure.
  3. Identify a tool that effectively measures this outcome.
  4. Conduct targeted, meaningful experiments.
  5. Measure the impact.
  6. Learn.

Innovation is the result of insight gained from action. When we’re strategic, targeted and patient, rather than instinctive, sweeping and reactive, then we really have the chance to powerfully and confidently innovate.

Think big, act small, learn fast.

People of determination

I had the privilege today of attending a welcoming of the Irish Special Olympic Team to Dubai in readiness for the upcoming Games. I was reflecting on why I came away from the event feeling so inspired. And I think it comes down to witnessing a very raw, unadulterated version of the human spirit.

Under the UAE’s National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities are referred to as ‘people of determination’. I love that. These fellow people face obstacles that I could never truly understand – and yet they achieve and succeed anyway. They know their goal is going to be an immense challenge and so they just dig deeper.

There is nothing more inspiring than that.

All of this made me wonder: if our primary goal as educators is to genuinely inspire our students, how often did I role-model struggle? How often did I allow my students ‘behind the curtain’ to see obstacles I was battling? How often was my determination really on show?

In a way, the Special Olympics are a window into some of the most beautiful and fundamental elements of our humanity. When we’re willing to open our hearts, we see that we share so much in common. And it reminds us that, whilst we each carry the burden of our own personal challenges and battles, we are blessed as a species with an incredible depth of spirit fuelled by determination and hope.

Just a story

Our brain really has two fundamental purposes. First, it is a life-preservation device, finely tuned over millennia to identify threats and opportunities that may harm us or enable us and our species to thrive. Second, it is a story-telling machine. It takes in a tiny fraction of reality through our senses and cobbles it all together in the form of a linear narrative that, for the most part, ‘feels’ real. Without this personalised narrative, our lives would lack any sense of continuity and meaning.

Mostly, this narrative helps us navigate through life productively – which is great. Super helpful. But sometimes, the story we tell ourselves creates a bias or blindness that hinders us.

In one conversation I was having with a teacher last week, I couldn’t help notice the overly-certain way that he was describing different elements within his school: “We tried that but nobody _______“; “Everyone wants _______ to happen but management don’t believe in it”; “I know ______ works in other schools but there’s no way it would work with our staff”.

Now, those statements could be true – although it’s pretty unlikely given how generalised and extreme they are. These are the kind of extreme generalisations that are unhelpful in the workplace. Not only do they belie the complexity of organisational communities but they create a myopic lens that closes down possibilities.

And we’re all guilty of this form of bias – to some extent –  from time to time. So the next time you’re in meeting with “the guy who never _______” or you have to go to and speak to “that lady who always ________“, try to catch yourself, take a breath and remind yourself that this is just a story you’re telling. It might be true. But there’s a chance that you are closing an opportunity to really engage with a new moment.

Mis-take

Sometimes at school, children mess up, they get things wrong. And the way that we, as educators, handle that moment of erring is far more important than many people realise. In that moment, having been caught in the wrong, the stakes are high for the child, their immediate future is uncertain and they experience an elevated emotional state. And, as a result, the educative potential is maximised.

How you, as an educator, respond in this moment and others will have a lasting, cumulative impact on the child. Arguably the most important lesson the child will learn is: how do people with ‘power’ (modelled by teachers) use their power to treat others? Is power to be used to suppress, control and coerce behaviour (punitive discipline)? Or is it possible, even at times of erring, for power to be used to nurture, grow and enliven others?

When we view children through a genuine lens of optimism, hope and goodness, we must choose to view errant behaviour as mistake – literally a mis-take. Children come to school – a world where they are pushed, challenged, excited, and growing – and they give their best take at muddling through it all. Often, their first take is good, great even. But sometimes they make a mis-take.

And through that lens, of a child trying hard to work things out, coming to school with their whole heart and having a go at life, the only truly human response to mis-take is not ‘punishment’, but compassion, kindness and forgiveness. When we take this stance, power is used, not to do something to students (eg detention, suspension), but rather to do something with them (eg help them learn to rebuild damaged relationships and trust).

This type of approach to student behaviour is helping to transform schools in both independent and government settings and high and low socio-economic settings.

This simple word, mistake, has immense power to shift the way we think, talk, and care about the children in our schools.

One in, one out

Have you ever queued up to get into a bar or club that has a one in, one out policy? When a venue reaches capacity, the one in, one out policy is a very simple, effective method of regulating the number of people inside. The only way for a new person to enter is for a current person to leave. The bar never gets overcrowded. Brilliant.

Imagine how different schools and other workplaces would be if they applied a strict one in, one out policy to new programs, initiatives, or procedures. Wouldn’t it be great if the only way for a cool new idea to be adopted was if an equivalent redundancy or inefficiency could be hunted down and deleted.

Not only would our organisation become more refined over time, but the system would never get overcrowded or bloated. Brilliant.