Cultivating Trust: An Excerpt from Trust Matters by Megan Tschannen-Moran

cultivating trust

Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools, 2nd Edition
by Megan Tschannen-Moran

From Chapter 7: Cultivating Trust with Students

Classrooms are inherently social contexts, and thus teaching and learning in them involve risk, vulnerability, and interpersonal engagement on the part of teachers and students. Much of what inspires children to invest the effort required for learning happens in those interpersonal spaces. Because trust is central to making those spaces generative of learning, trust is critical to the central enterprise of schools. When teachers and students trust each other and work together cooperatively, learning follows from the climate of safety and warmth that prevails. When distrust and competition triumph, however, students and teachers alike are motivated to minimize their vulnerability by adopting a self-protective stance. Disengagement from the educational process results in unfortunate consequences, as safety comes at the expense of students’ investment in the learning project. It is, therefore, wise for educators to attend to the dynamics of trust in the classroom because it hits schools’ bottom line: student achievement(Howes & Ritchie, 2002; Mitchell, Kensler, & Tschannen-Moran, 2010). Teachers’ trust in students and students’ trust in teachers are reciprocal processes; indeed, a growing body of research evidence attests to the importance of each.

Teachers’ Trust in Students

The trust that teachers extend to students is key to the relationships that connect students to each other and to the school itself. Because teachers hold greater power in the hierarchy of the school than do students, it is incumbent on teachers to set a trusting tone in their interactions with students if they hope to build a climate of trust in the classroom. The teachers interviewed for this book, when asked about their trust in students, spoke of students who exercised self-discipline and who were willing to cooperate with the system of school.


Although a sense of benevolence or mutual goodwill is an important aspect of trust, trust took on a somewhat narrower definition in the classroom context than it did in regard to relationships between adults, most often being characterized as respect. David, a teacher at Brookside, explained, for example, how the sense of respect was related to evidence among students of reliability and self-control:

I am looking for respect. That is what I am looking for. If I see respect, if I see they just behave well; they respect adults; they respect others; they know what school is about in terms of coming, paying attention, not goofing off, not punching or calling names, those are the kids I put my trust in. Those are
kids who are usually reliable, dependable. They know what the system is, and they are working within the system. They are not rebelling or trying to go against the system. I can count on them, and I can trust them. I can walk out that door and not worry about that child standing up all of a sudden and running across the room and popping somebody or throwing something, or yelling out something inappropriate.

Students who were disrespectful or who had a negative attitude were more difficult for teachers to trust. In addition, students who were impulsive and lacked self-control in responding to social situations with other students or with the teachers themselves tended to provoke greater vigilance and suspicion among teachers.

Honesty was a much bigger issue in fostering faculty trust in relation to students than it was in promoting faculty trust in relation to principals and colleagues, perhaps because it was violated in student contexts more frequently. Many of the teachers in the urban context in which these three schools were situated reported that they regularly dealt with problems of students who engaged in lying, cheating, or stealing. Many teachers, like Rob, at Lincoln, reported having students who not only would steal from other students but would, given the opportunity, steal from teachers as well. Rob said:

Most of them I do trust. There’s a couple I can’t and I don’t. A couple of them will go right up and go through the drawer of my desk and take whatever they want. But both of those students I am thinking about take medication [for attention deficit disorder]. It’s easier knowing it is a medical condition. Maybe if they weren’t on medication I would be a little less forgiving.

On the whole, teachers were more forgiving of dishonesty from students than they might have been of dishonesty from adults because the teachers acknowledged that the students were just children who were still learning the norms of society and self-control. Teachers nevertheless found it difficult to trust students who defensively blamed others for their problems rather than accepted responsibility for their own behavior. This was especially true when teachers attempted to help students learn to accept responsibility as a precursor to behavior change and who experienced frustration in their efforts to enlist parents in this process.

Openness on the part of students was not often mentioned as a problem. As Mary, a teacher at Lincoln, commented, “99.9 percent of the children are willing to talk about themselves if I show an interest in them and take the time to listen.” She talked about the importance of making the time to listen to and get to know her students:

Early on, it is just my personality to establish rapport with the students and with the parents as soon as I can, talking to them often, and letting them tell their stories. I have a sharing time every day, so [students] can say what is on their minds and they are not interrupting at other times. If they have a story that relates to my life, then I will share a little about myself, and they just love to hear that.

Mary also spoke of the reciprocal nature of trust between teachers and students:

I look for them to open up to me where their personal life is concerned—what they did at home. Sometimes, if a student doesn’t share their personal experiences with you, it may be that they are withdrawn, or they may be intimidated by you as an adult. Usually a child just opens up. To me, that’s the grounds for trust, because I don’t automatically trust a child when they come up to me. I don’t think every child is good or not good. It takes time to get to know them. I need background knowledge from them, and they need background knowledge from me. They need to know they can trust me.

For the teachers in my study, competence as a facet of trust in students had more to do with the behavior of students and their willingness to go along with the structures of school than with academic competence. Just as notions of a “good leader” include both task and relationship dimensions, notions of a “good kid” were framed around students who maintained positive relationships and who participated appropriately in the tasks of schooling. Most of the teachers expressed a genuine fondness and caring for their students, even if they were sometimes frustrated by the amount of time and energy they had to devote to disciplining them. In establishing relationships of trust with their students, teachers were above all looking for respect and reliability. For many teachers, there was more leeway in their definition of trust in regard to students because their expectations for them as children were different from those they had for other adults. Simply put, they were willing to cut the students some slack.


When teachers trust their students, and when they believe that their students are respectful, honest, reliable, open, and competent, they are more likely to create a learning environment that facilitates academic success. There is a growing body of research across a variety of contexts that documents the role of faculty members’ trust in students in directly and indirectly fostering student achievement. In a decade-long study of Chicago public schools engaged in reform initiatives, Bryk and Schneider (2002) concluded that trust was a critical factor in predicting which schools would make the greatest gains in student achievement and which would sustain those gains over time. Teachers’ trust in students and parents has been found to be strongly related to student achievement in elementary schools (C. M. Adams & Forsyth, 2013; Goddard, Salloum, & Berebitsky, 2009; Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001); in middle schools (M. Tschannen-Moran, 2004); and across grade levels in an urban context (Moore, 2010). In a European context, Van Maele and Van Houtte (2009) found that the proportion of immigrant students and those from lower socioeconomic status was related to the level of faculty members’ trust in students and parents. Teachers’ trust in students has also been found to be indirectly related to achievement through relationships with student attendance rates and discipline referral rates (Moore, 2010).

The powerful role that socioeconomic status (SES) of students plays as a predictor of student school success has been well documented over the past fifty years. Educational researchers have searched diligently for school factors that predict achievement outcomes above and beyond the effects of SES. And yet, faculty members’ trust in students and its close correlates have been found to do just that. Studies have demonstrated a substantial relationship between teachers’ trust in students and student achievement, even when the impact of socioeconomic status was held constant (C. M. Adams & Forsyth, 2013; Goddard et al., 2001, 2009; Hoy 2002; Hoy & Tschannen-Moran 1999; M. Tschannen-Moran, 2004).

Teachers’ trust in students and parents has been found to be closely related to both the beliefs of teachers and the climate of the school, and these three together predict student achievement above and beyond the influence of SES. The sense of collective efficacy of the faculty, that is, the shared belief among a school’s teachers that they have the capability to facilitate successful outcomes for all of their students, influences the effort that teachers invest in preparing for and delivering instruction as well as the extent to which they persist in finding new instructional strategies for students who are struggling. In a sample of urban elementary schools, a sense of collective teacher efficacy and teachers’ trust in students were strongly related, and the strength of the relationship diminished very little even when SES, race, and past achievement were added as predictors (M. Tschannen-Moran & Goddard, 2001). Collective teacher efficacy beliefs have repeatedly been found to be related to student achievement even when school SES, minority composition, and past achievement were held constant (Goddard, 2001; Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk Hoy, 2000; Goddard et al., 2001; M. Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004). Moreover, when teachers trust their students, there is likely to be a stronger press for academic achievement. Academic press has also been found to predict stronger student achievement, even when controlling for SES (Goddard et al., 2000; Hoy, Hannum, & Tschannen-Moran, 1998; V. E. Lee and Bryk 1989; V. E. Lee & Smith 1999; M. Tschannen-Moran, Bankole, Mitchell, & Moore, 2013).

These three constructs, faculty members’ trust in students, a sense of collective teacher efficacy, and academic press, are so closely linked and such potent predictors of student achievement that together they have been framed as a composite variable called “academic optimism” (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006; Kirby & DiPaola, 2011; McGuigan & Hoy, 2006; Smith, Hoy, & Sweetland, 2001). Together, these three variables consistently do what few variables examined by educational researchers have done, and that is to explain student achievement above and beyond the influence of student SES.

When it comes to low-income children whose families are either unable or unwilling to prepare them to access all of the opportunities schools can present, teachers are the primary institutional agents responsible for guiding these students to academic success (Lareau, 1987). Such teachers are in daily contact with students, and thus the quality of their relationships has a large impact on student attitudes and engagement. Building bridges of trust across social class and cultural differences can be a challenge in such situations. Statistical analysis of trust relationships has shown that poverty, more strongly than race or ethnicity, hinders the trust that could lead to achievement (M. Tschannen-Moran, 2001; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009). These findings suggests that when teachers draw in-group and out-group distinctions about students, social class is a more salient dividing line than race or ethnicity. Although Brookside, Lincoln, and Fremont each had a diverse faculty, and although some of the teachers had started life in disadvantaged circumstances, teachers had for the most part assumed middle-class values and attitudes that were sometimes at odds with those of the low-income families of their students. Schools with high concentrations of low-income students are likely to benefit from a specific focus on the development of trust.

The evidence is strong that high trust makes schools better places for students to learn. Because of the tendency for trust to build on itself, higher student achievement is likely to produce even greater trust, whereas lower student achievement can be expected to lead to a self-reinforcing spiral of blame and suspicion between teachers and students, lowered collective efficacy, and weakened academic press—all of which could further impair student achievement. As school leaders come to appreciate the importance of trust in learning environments and learn how better to cultivate high-trust schools, greater student success is likely to follow.



Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools, 2nd EditionAn honest guide for educational leaders

This second edition of Trust Matters takes the first practical, hands-on guide for educators and inserts new research and insights. This book is a knowledgeable, professional reference addressing the critical role of trust among teachers, students, schools, and families. This edition of Trust Matters takes a purposeful approach to profiling the difficulty leaders in education face in earning and maintaining trust. Author and leading scholar Megan Tschannen-Moran uses exhaustive research to outline why trust is important now more than ever as we find ourselves in a changing world where suspicion, fear, and skepticism tend to erode educational relationships. This book offers updated advice about how to build and maintain trust to secure the healthy functioning of educational organizations.

“Successful leadership in schools depends upon trust: trust in the principal by teachers and trust in the school by its community. And no one has done a better job of explaining this critical dynamic than Megan Tschannen-Moran. This book is a must-read for all current and aspiring school leaders.”

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—DR. STEPHEN JACOBSON, UB distinguished professor,
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

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