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Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools

Trust is paramount to school success. This book review describes the approach three very different principals take to achieve optimal school environments.

By Megan Tschannen-Moran
2004; 242 pp./hardcover
ISBN: 0-7879-7434-X

Reviewed by Bill Ferriter
Salem Middle School
Wake County Public School System

Because teaching is a fluid practice based largely on interactions between people, trust is a critical component of successful schools. High-trust schools are characterized by strong working partnerships between administrators, teachers, parents and students. But what does this trust look like and how is it developed? These are the questions that Megan Tschannen-Moran works to define in her book, Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools.

Tschannen-Moran approaches this topic from the eyes and experiences of three elementary school principals working in low-income schools with high percentages of minority students from the same urban school district. While their school communities are similar, the levels of trust within their buildings are not. As she describes them:

Gloria Davies is an overzealous reformer who has alienated her faculty and is engaged in an intense power struggle. Fred Martin, the "keep-the-peace principal," has lost the faith of his faculty by avoiding conflict.... These two cases are contrasted with the story of Brenda Thompson, a "high-support, high-challenge principal," who through caring and hard work has earned the trust of her faculty.

Trust Matters begins by defining and describing the ways in which trust is cultivated within a school community. "Trust," Tschannen-Moran writes, "is one's willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent." All five of these elements are then examined and supported through interviews with the members of Gloria, Fred and Brenda's schools.

At Brookside Elementary, for example, teachers are willing to follow principal Brenda Thompson because of her benevolence. "I think her underlying motivation is to help you be the best that you can be at what you are doing," wrote one teacher. "She expects a lot, but she gives a lot." This underlying belief in the good will of an administrator increases investment and dedication, described by Tschannen-Moran as "organizational citizenship," on the part of a faculty.

Trust Matters then discusses the consequences of betrayal and revenge in relationships between members of a school community. Tschannen-Moran explains, "Distrust can be costly. As trust declines, the costs of doing business increase because people must engage in self-protective actions and continually make provisions for the possibility that another person will manipulate the situation for their own advantage. When teachers or students feel unsafe, energy that could be devoted to teaching and learning is diverted to self-protection."

In Lincoln and Fremont Elementary Schools, led by Gloria Davies and Fred Martin, feelings of betrayal existed between teachers and administrators. These feelings led to a low level of commitment to the job and to the school community. Teachers simply couldn't invest energy in buildings where they didn't feel safe or supported. As one teacher said, "Morale is really low. The whole faculty feels unprotected." This low morale has consequences for student achievement and teacher retention.

Trust Matters finishes with a study of the dynamics of individual trust relationships within a school, how broken relationships can be restored, and the steps that school leaders can take to become trustworthy leaders. Individual chapters are dedicated to fostering trust with students and parents and to the trust relationships between teachers.

Trust Matters is a practical tool that educational leaders can use to improve their schools. Each chapter offers examples of successful and struggling principals, and ends with key questions that can guide school-wide conversations. Also included is an extensive set of surveys that school leaders can use to assess levels of trust within their buildings accompanied by information designed to interpret collected results.

The quality of the relationships between individuals involved in the effort of schooling is a critical component to reform that is often overlooked. Tschannen-Moran argues that it should be of primary concern. "Trust matters," she writes, "because it hits schools in their bottom line; it makes a difference in student achievement. It is related to teachers' collective sense that they can make a difference and in dealing constructively with conflict.... Trust pays dividends in helping schools succeed at fulfilling their mission to be productive, professional learning communities."