How Do We Rebuild Trust in Our Schools?

People don’t seem to trust teachers the way they used to. Our community no longer assume  they can rely on the school system and its teachers to provide a quality education for their children.

It’s not helped by headlines like this that appear so frequently in the news.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 7.54.42 pm

From 9news.com.au – click image for article.

It’s not helped by school choice policies which generate anxieties,  perpetuating the idea that since there is choice some schools and some systems will be better than others.

It’s not helped by politicians who  talk about the education crisis and getting rid of bad teachers.

It’s not even helped by visionary speakers like Sir Ken Robinson talking about how schools kill creativity and fail to prepare students for modern life.

Educators and those who support us, rail against the injustice of this. We feel angry when we are portrayed in a negative light. We bemoan the fact that our professionalism isn’t recognised and that everyone is an arm-chair expert. We feel it’s unfair. We feel we’re fighting a losing battle, and it’s doubtful we will ever be able to stop politicians and the Murdoch press from publicly denigrating teachers.

But that’s beyond our control. We need to focus on what we have the ability to do.

So how do we rebuild trust?

If we ask that, we’re asking the wrong question, according Philosopher Onora O’Neil in this brilliant  TED talk.

She says,

Calling the task rebuilding trust, I think, also gets things backwards. It suggests that you and I should rebuild trust. Well, we can do that for ourselves. We can rebuild a bit of trustworthiness.We can do it two people together trying to improve trust. But trust, in the end, is distinctive because it’s given by other people.

You can’t rebuild what other people give you. You have to give them the basis for giving you their trust. So you have to, I think, be trustworthy.

Our goal as individual teachers, as schools and systems, needs to be that we are perceived as worthy of trust. And, to be worthy of trust, according to O’Neil, we need to show people three things:

We need to show that we are competent, we are honest and we are reliable.

  1. Be competent. We need to be committed to having the necessary skills required for our job, and we need to keep growing our competency by reflecting critically on  our practice, keeping and engaging in on going professional learning and keeping our skills up to date.
  2. Be honest. It goes without saying that we need to act with integrity at all times, and this includes giving honest feedback. Parents don’t trust us when we gloss over weaknesses in their children’s learning.
  3. Be reliable. If we say we are going to do something, we need to follow through. People need to know that they can depend upon us.

If I was to add to O’Neil’s suggestions, I’d include be ethical and be open.

It’s only as we let people in to our schools, and classrooms that they will start to see we are worthy of trust. If the only information people receive is through the media, or from the mumbled responses of their children when they ask them what they did at school today,“Nothing, Mum”, then how will people see that they can put their trust in us. They can only act on what they know.

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3 thoughts on “How Do We Rebuild Trust in Our Schools?

  1. Kelly says:

    You’ve been thinking about this topic for a while and I love that you’ve found Onora O’Niell’s perspective – another angle for me to consider too. The ideal principles you’ve articulated for teachers to aim for reflect a professional working culture. You’d hope colleagues are competent, honest, reliable, ethical and open.

    But the pursuit of competency and it’s relationship with community trust is also wrought with tension. Competency is on a broad scale that goes beyond paperwork, programming and ‘effective teaching.’ One school, and/or its teachers, can come across as more competent than others in its area because of its hidden and visible advantages.

    Think about cross-school competitions and events where a teacher is in charge of getting kids from A to B for an event. Involvement in cross-school competitions and events (ie Debating, Sport, Music) are great experiences for students. But for teachers, these can be administrative challenges that affect the perception and reality of their relative competency.

    A school that has its own transport (eg a mini bus) or covers the cost of student travelling streamlines the organisation process in contrast to another school that requires students to jump different forms of public transport to get from A to B and pay their own way in the process. Similarly, the school that covers student transport costs may also be in the position to release the teacher. In contrast, the school that needs kids to pay their own way may need internal staff to cover periods of absent staff as there isn’t any money left in the budget. The teachers in the latter school in this scenario are taking on more time/release challenges than those in the former which then have consequences on the perceptions and reality of competency.

    As long as there is such breadth in experiences of Australian schooling due to funding discrepancies some schools will keep their positional advantages as their school, and thereby their staff, appear more competent. In reality, illusions of competency may be more closely linked to hidden and visible advantages.

    (Hope you don’t mind the longer response – twitter just isn’t enough at the moment for me.)

    • Hi Kelly,
      Thanks for commenting. You make a really good point here. I also think there is an issue with the workload expectations on teachers. There is only so much that we can reasonably do in the time available, and often the expectations of us exceed what is possible. We prioritise what we can, but it can be a case of choosing what to neglect. Schools and systems with greater funds will appoint staff to look after specific areas, such as IT or sport. Yet other chools don’t have the funds for that so sports coordinators, IT coordinators etc do that work on top of their other teaching responsibilities. They can’t possibly give it as much time and attention.

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