Trust Falls: The Importance of Trust in the School Community
“Without trust, a school cannot improve and grow into the rich, nurturing micro-society needed by children and adults alike” (Blasé and Blasé 2001).


Have you ever had to do a trust fall?

Participants have a reasonable expectation of safety.

They believe that someone will have their back, and that they will not end up on the floor. But how many people would volunteer to fall backward into the unknown with no guarantee of safety?

Trust is an element of the human existence.
Trust is defined as, the “belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.” (Merriam-Webster). Why does relational/social trust play a role in academic achievement?

(Mean Girls, 2004)

Without trust, people cannot form relationships.

The late Rita Pierson stated in her popular TedTalk that, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” (Pierson 2013).

Pierson speaks of the importance of relationships formed between students and their teachers. Fondness is only one aspect of a positive relationship, and it cannot be achieved without a foundation of trust. Trust is necessary to form positive relationships in the school community, and positive relationships positively affect student achievement.

Trust affects achievement because it is a basic need for people to achieve personal and academic growth.

Trust falls under the safety level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This level is second to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, designating it to be one of the fundamental building blocks in the process of human development.

(Maslow, 1943).

While trust also relates to love and belonging, it more closely relates to feelings of protection, security, and stability, and its placement on the second tier of Maslow’s pyramid illustrates the need for trust to be present before relationships develop. Although the word trust does not literally appear on the pyramid, scenarios described in the accompanying research involve trust. “The average child in our society generally prefers a safe, orderly, predictable, organized world, which he can count, on, and in which unexpected, unmanageable or other dangerous things do not happen, and in which, in any case, he has all-powerful parents who protect and shield him from harm […]we can perceive the expressions of safety needs in, for instance, the common preference for a job with tenure and protection, the desire for a savings account, and for insurance of various kinds” (Maslow 1943). The child and adult situations described require trust—trust that both would be protected from physical or emotional harm. This need for trust exists within the school community as well. “Schools that work are safe. We know that infants require safety to thrive, but so do school-age kids. The more time that must be devoted to protecting oneself from bodily or mental harm—from peers or authorities—the less energy there is left to devote to other tasks” (Meier 2002). Research shows that when trust is present in teacher-administrator, teacher-teacher, teacher-student, and teacher-parent relationship, that students and the school perform better in schools in which trust is low or not present.

Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Scheider conducted a study of trust in schools during the 1990s in Chicago. They determined that by “linking evidence on the school’s changing academic productivity with survey results on school trust over a long period of time, [they] were able to document the powerful role that trust plays” (Bryk and Scheider 2002). Over a decade, Bryk and Scheider examined how the social relationships create or fail to create a successful learning environment. They found that a “broad base of trust across a school community lubricates much of a school’s day-to-day functioning and is a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans” (Bryk and Schneider 2002). Bryk and Schneider especially noted the importance of social trust in disadvantaged schools. In disadvantaged communities, the lack of trust leads to isolation instead of community, and isolation hinders the ability to sustain improvement efforts (Bryk and Schneider 2002).

ISSUE: Falling Trust

(Mean Girls, 2004)
Falling levels of trust is an issue that modern schools face, and it is an issue of importance because of the interpersonal nature of education. “In examining the characteristics of struggling schools that have made significant gains, researchers have verified what most educators already know to be true: the quality of the relationships within a school community makes a difference” (Brester and Railsback 2003). The issue of trust is complex within the dynamics of the school community; there are numerous moving pieces: administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Each of these stakeholders interact with one another, developing trust or mistrust between one another, and the outcome of the social relations between each stakeholder affect the overall quality of the learning environment. “The personal dynamics among teachers, students, and their parents, for example, influence whether students regularly attend school. In schools characterized by high relational trust, educators were more likely to experiment with new practices and work together with parents to advance improvement. As a result, these schools were also more likely to demonstrate marked gains in student learning. In contrast, schools with weak trust relations saw virtually no improvement in their reading or mathematics scores” (Bryk and Schneider 2002).

Bryk and Schneider illustrated the ways trust influences student growth and achievement with their research findings. Top performing schools report strong and very strong levels of trust in both teachers-principal and teacher-teacher relationships. Low performing schools were more likely to report lower levels of trust, although interestingly teachers in both the bottom and top quartile reporting strong trust with their principals were almost equal in number.

(Bryk and Schneider 2002).

Trust Takeaways

If experts agree that developing trusting relationships within the school community improve the school’s climate, learning, and achievement, why are falling trust levels common? This goes back to Maslow’s pyramid. “To be able to talk honestly with colleagues about ‘what’s working, what’s not’ means exposing one’s ignorance and making oneself vulnerable. Absent trust, genuine conversations of this sort remain unlikely” (Bryk and Schneider 2002). Trust is not built in a day, and some people are more willing to trust than others. If you are seeking to build trusting relationship within a workplace, classroom, or community, the person with the most power in the situation should be the party who gives and models trust first. Since trust is a safety need on Maslow's pyramid, it makes since that people give their trust when they have a sense of security in the relationship. The people in power are less likely to feel vulnerable and are more likely to risk trusting those around them.

When schools implement changes to improve performance, everyone must buy-in. Long-term change and advancement cannot occur in isolation.

Although there are certain jobs in which trust and these social relationships do not affect the quality of the work, education is not one of them. Education involves interdependence between all stakeholders in education: administrators, teachers, students, and parents.

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Annotated Bibliography

Blase, J., & Blase, J. R. (2001). Empowering teachers: what successful principals do (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Brewster, C., & Railsback, J. (2003). Building trusting relationships for school improvement:implications for principals and teachers. Northwest regional educational laboratory. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from
This brochure details how and why trust matters, and it offers ways to build and maintain trust with the school community.

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: a core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002. Print.
Bryk and Schneider’s book is the product of a decade of research into the impact of trust in the Chicago school system. Bryk and Scheidner provide data to support their findings that trusting relationships within the school community increase student achievement, teacher retention, and overall school performance.

Maslow, A.H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review, 1943. Reprinted in Classics in the history of psychology. York University, 2000. Web. 29. May 2016.
Maslow is one of the key people in the field of psychology. In “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow describes a hierarchy of human needs which influences aspects of human behavior.

Meier, D. (2002). In schools we trust: creating communities of learning in an era of testing and standardization. Boston: Beacon Press.
Meier discusses how to sustain trusting communities in the age of testing.

(n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2016, from

Pierson, R. (2013, May). “Every kid needs a champion.” Ted. Lecture.
Rita Pierson’s influential TedTalk is commonly used to motivate teachers and teacher candidates. Appropriately titled, “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” Pierson enlightens the audience on the importance of developing positive relationships with students in the classroom.

Zakrzewski, V. (2015, February 19). “How to build trust in schools”. Retrieved May 25, 2016.