Trust is a necessity for learning systems
An interview with Karen Beattie.
Why is trust important to your role in professional learning?
Trust is a necessity for learning environments to be safe and secure. This is true for adults or students. If the environment is not safe, then the learning won\'t be successful. If a \"gotcha\" or threatening environment exists, then participants won\'t be as open to the reflection process needed to learn and change and grow.
For example, each system change, such as a new teacher and administrator evaluation system, requires a paradigm shift. Much learning has to take place. New information requires that we are all learning together. It is not \"us versus them\" but \"us,\" period. Specifically, everyone needs to see teachers and leaders in the same environment, learning together. When we have district initiatives that require communication to schools, school leadership teams are sharing the work, such as creating and giving presentations. Everyone is in it together. The learning is a team effort.
How do you build your own relationship skills?
I have been in education for 27 years, in every role: teacher, special projects, principal, and district administrator. During that time, my role models taught me to always be at the table with an open mind, to listen, to actively participate, and do what you think is right.
If people have a consistent perspective of you, if they know what to expect when they talk to you, your relationships will get stronger. I also make it a priority to always be accessible. Whether in a mentoring role or working with colleagues on projects, we truly are a team, so I am not afraid to put priorities for the team before my own. That openness and collaboration builds relationships. You have to be seen as a collaborator at the table with everyone. You have to mean what you say and do what you say.
The things I focus on to build relationships are natural activities that occur every day. For example, engaging individuals in polite, brief conversation versus just a hello. This demonstrates respect and compassion, contributing to the building of relationships. It has been offering to assist other departments during intense times, even though it may mean adjusting my workload. It may seem simple, but the effort to be perceived as friendly and nice goes a long way in building relationships. Over the years, this has created a reputation of being approachable and has served me well in my responsibilities of collaborating across departments and in districtwide audiences. Regardless of the project, I have already established connections with many members of the project team.
When the deputy superintendent reorganized the instructional services division, it resulted in four new leaders in our department. We met as a team, informally and formally, and talked strategy and how to be prepared for meetings. As a result of that team approach, we were able to move forward as a united front, resulting in significant successes in designing and implementing programs more quickly than we ever had before. That was because we took advantage of working as a team.
How do you set up processes that are designed to help build trust?
Transparency is critical for trust. That means using consistent and common communication messages, common language, and creating transparent operations. That way, no one has to wonder how the evaluation or assessment works, or what the research is, or what the rubrics are or what instructional support is available. When one builds transparency, everyone can see the evaluation process, the professional development system, the school improvement process, etc. They are all easily accessible and the district cannot be perceived to be hiding anything.
Also critical to building trust, we make sure that teachers and leaders are learning together, especially in key initiatives. Our leaders participate in professional development with our teachers, so everyone is sharing the same expectations in professional learning. That has been really effective in building administrators as instructional leaders and increasing their credibility with teachers. Teachers may sometimes not have the perception that leaders know as much as teachers. After months of learning and working together, though, perceptions change.
Our leaders model the behaviors that build trust. We designed a series of sessions entitled \"PD on PD\" that included district and school-based facilitators. Within this series, individuals participated in professional development that modeled effective planning, learning, implementing, and evaluating. This set high expectations, created a common language, and established a transparent process for the delivery of any professional learning. The connection between \"PD on PD\" and building trust is grounded in the design of a quality professional learning experience. We also determine the why of the professional development, based on data, and broadcast it along with the outcomes, or learning intentions, at the beginning of each professional learning initiative. The design of professional development activities promotes engagement through effective processing activities. The implementation of the new learning is supported through collaboration with peers, coaches, and administrators.
The evaluation of the impact of the new learning addresses both professional practice and student achievement. However, it is important to note that this evaluation is non-threatening as it is a reflection from the learner\'s perspective and is not a critique of the learner\'s work. This structure, specifically the supported implementation phase, has significantly contributed to the building of trust in our school communities.
What challenges do you face in building trust, and how do you overcome them?
Working with different departments in a large district can be a challenge. They can operate in silos. Even though you know that some individuals or teams aren\'t as open as others, or that some may be holding back, you have to keep coming forward and keep working at getting in. You have to show up and say, \"I\'m here to help. Let\'s get to work.\" Doing the work together, as well adding an element of fun to the environment, will result in building trust.
Sometimes, though, turf protection can be a challenge. Some people perceive that their job is to act as a gatekeeper. They are seen as the expert, so they may be afraid to share their lack of knowledge or understanding for fear of losing credibility. You have to keep coming back with an open hand because our strong relationships are for the good of the kids, and we don\'t have the option to stop our work. There may be principals of schools that don\'t have a strong level of trust in me, so I have to keep approaching them and extending myself to them. If I tell them, \"I\'m here for you,\" then their reluctance to collaborate will wear down and they will grow to believe that I am there to help and not to take over or rain on their parade. When a leader is perceived as someone who walks the talk and who consistently demonstrates the philosophy of a servant leader, it results in the creation of a wide network of colleagues embedded in trusting relationships and committed to the team.
Trust has to be part of a plan. When working with individuals or teams, with any change or initiative, you have to think of trust as one part of the equation. How everyone operates and learns has to be on the table for discussion. Some important elements may get overlooked because a few people don\'t have strong, trusting relationships. If we leave those people out of the discussion, we miss a significant part of the conversation.
Karen Beattie (email@example.com) is coordinator of professional development for Volusia County Schools in DeLand, Florida.