By Devin Vodicka
One of my favorite books is Peter Senge’s “Schools That Learn.” In the text he suggests that schools should embrace the principles of learning organizations where individuals connect and learn from one another. Many of the concepts are consistent with our experiences of being part of high-performing teams where we are willing to connect and share with one another.
Unfortunately the structure of most schools was not designed for learning. While we should be most concerned about how this adversely impacts students, the culture of “self-contained” classrooms and isolated professional practice, particularly when combined with inflexible scheduling, makes it challenging for teachers and staff to effectively connect and learn from one another.
Even when the conditions are not a constraint, we are all complex and dynamic humans. This means that relational trust is not uniform nor is it timeless. Whether it is due to our circumstances or experiences, when we have low levels of trust with our colleagues we tend to isolate ourselves. Isolated professionals share less and learn less than we would hope to see. This obviously has profound implications for our collective capacity to serve our students.
I would also add that routine can create a sense of comfort and familiarity. While there are benefits, the “busy-ness” of schools can be an impediment to pausing, reflecting, and learning.
Now, as we can see the end of this global pandemic in sight, I believe that we must pause and listen deeply. The research on relational trust indicates that receptive communication is more important than expressive communications.
High performing and innovative schools such as Design 39 Campus are deliberate and intentional about promoting strong connections among staff. In their own words, success comes from having “nine brains instead of one” as a result of their intensive collaboration.
In a multi-year research study in partnership with Arcadia Unified School District and UC San Diego, we found that relational trust for the principal was predictive of improvements in other areas of the student experience: “Once trust was identified as a key element in transformational change, leadership renewed their focus on the importance of the quality of relationships and their core values and the results have been impressive. As is evident in the graph below, the levels of trust from 2019 to 2020 have grown in statistically significant ways.”
There is a clear logic model here where relational trust leads to high levels of connectedness which contributes to collective learning that builds capacity for meaningful impact and success.
I suggest two complementary approaches to set the conditions for meaningful improvements in the level of trust among professionals. The first is to get broad input through a survey such as the one that Arcadia Unified used. In our organization, we recently conducted a team survey and asked questions about eleven factors such as communications, commitment to diversity and equity, recognition, collaboration, and resources. We shared the results across the organization and will use the input to inform organizational goals and plans.
Asking for input and acting upon it is one of the best ways to improve relational trust.— Learner-Centered Leadership
In addition to surveys, conversations through individual check-ins and team meetings can be extremely productive. There is nuance and context that is often best understood in this type of interaction (and which can be missed in a pre-defined survey).
The combination of deep, qualitative input through these exchanges coupled with the broad, quantitative feedback from surveys can inform meaningful improvements.
While we are busy now (and busy always!), it is incumbent upon learner-centered leaders to model the importance of listening and reflecting. Don’t let the opportunity pass.
Pause. Breathe. Ask questions. Connect and learn. Together, we can best serve our learners and build a brighter future.
Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.
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