Thursday, February 4, 2021

Pandemic Lesson #1: Trust Matters

There are many lessons to be learned from this mess, including lessons about the usefulness of government. Also, I'm sure, plenty of scientific disease stuff.

But I notice that, particularly in the education arena, we keep coming back to trust. Black and brown families are hesitant to return to school buildings because they aren't sure they can trust the institutions that have failed them so often before. Teachers are reluctant to return to the buildings in those districts where they don't believe they can trust their district to keep them safe and/or follow through with their promises to do so. Critics of teachers unions don't trust (or at least pretend not to) teachers to do their jobs, or to even want to do their jobs. And distance learning, lacking the immediacy of face-to-face gathering in the same room, suffers from students and teachers unsure of just how much they can trust each other.

Where trust is strong, these issues shrink to insignificance. And that provides a major--well, two really--lesson about trust.

Trust is a basic, absolutely essential part of the foundation of a functioning school (any workplace, really--go reread the works of W. Edwards Deming). It has been demonstrated time and time again (here's a source for examples). And yet so many leaders resort to the stick, to management based on fear and distrust. 

I've watched school administrators who approach every discussion with staff worried first and fore most that it might all be about the staff trying to trick him, to get something from him. We've all seen administrators and boards that assumed that teachers couldn't be trusted to even try to do their jobs. We've suffered through years of teacher evaluation policies predicated on the belief that a whole lot of teachers suck and those sucksters must be rooted out. We've suffered through years of education policy built on the assumption that teachers can't be trusted to teach. 

It makes a school run poorly, even filtering down into classrooms where teachers assume that students are always up to something, that if you don't keep them under your thumb, those little creeps will somehow get something from you they don't deserve. And the immediate effect of that is that students no longer trust you, will not believe they can trust you to have their best interests at heart. A classroom without trust is a nasty, stunted, sterile stretch of blasted land where little can grow. 

But the other part of our current pandemic lesson is that trust matters enormously in a moment of crisis. When the ship is listing far over and water is pouring in, it's bad news if you can't trust the people telling you that it's time to had for the lifeboats, and the lifeboats are right this way. 

Schools and students and teachers and entire communities are paying the price right now for the erosion, gutting, destruction, and in some cases full on case-of-tnt-blasting away of trust. The absence of trust turns challenging and difficult times into toxic conflicts, opening the door to bad-faith opportunists who want to egg on conflict for their own purposes. It keeps people from teaming up when they are on the same side. 

And when this is more or less over and the fog clears, we'll find that the schools and districts that were already trust-deficient will be in even worse shape. 

We talk a lot about the shape of schools in a post-pandemic country, talk about pedagogy and making up lost time and restructuring and addressing inequities that have become screamingly more obvious than ever. I think the list of rebuilds has to include trust. Many districts are getting to see how badly the decay and loss of trust interferes with doing the work, and that won't be any less true once covid has faded into the background. Building trust, creating trust, developing ways to nurture and maintain trust--all these should be essential to the plans of every district, because without trust, not only will the district function at sub-optimal levels in the easiest of time, but when the next major crisis hits, they will crash and burn just as they did over the last eleven months.

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