McKay School professors discover crucial role of trust in professional collaboration

When trust is not present in a school, neither is effective collaboration according to recent research by McKay School professors.

Pam Hallam and Shannon Dulaney from the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations began research on professional learning communities (PLCs) in a school that had recently been set up as a hybrid including teachers and students from previously existing schools. As Hallam and Dulaney performed the research, they found the school did not have the foundation for effective PLCs, and they would not be able to continue with the research questions they had planned. After looking at some of the interview transcripts they found the missing link—trust within the entire school.

“As we started to work with them on PLCs, it was clear they didn’t have the foundational pieces necessary to even move in a direction of developing [these groups],” Hallam said. “They didn’t have a school vision or mission in place. We had never seen a situation starting over [with] no trust.”

Hallam and Dulaney sought the expertise of Julie Hite and included a doctoral student, Hank Smith, as they adjusted their research to address three questions regarding the formation of trust: (1) How is trust developed specifically within challenging school conditions? (2) What is the role of trust in facilitating teacher collaboration within PLCs? (3) How do challenging school conditions affect both trust and collaboration in PLCs.

Research for this study was conducted through analyzing qualitative data gathered through focus groups in which teachers expressed their opinions about trust in the school. The researchers found that the teachers often trusted their own PLC teams, but there was not trust between teams or between the teams and the principal.

“There was a sense of high trust within their teams, but it was based on the fact that they felt like they had to hunker down together,” Hallam said. “The teams bonded and learned to trust each other to protect themselves from external threats.” These threats included mandates to change the structure of their school and edicts as to which book the collaborative teams would study together. Some other perceived threats also came from the principal, who demanded teachers meet certain change expectations without adequate professional development.

Dulaney further explained how the teams did not have any foundational direction about how to function in the new school structure (combining students and faculty from both elementary and middle schools), which impacted the way both groups had traditionally taught. This lack of direction negatively affected the trust level. The district administrators told the teachers to function in a certain ways and implement certain programs and initiatives when the teachers were focused on simply defining and adjusting to the new school environment.

“They had a huge lack of vision,” Dulaney said. “We found out how critical it is to build that common vision and collective inquiry of where they are and where they need to be.”

This research resulted in four findings:

(1) Trust development in challenging conditions was similar to trust development in favorable conditions; however, trust did not develop between groups or with the principal. Trust was confined to individual teams.

(2) Trust development in a toxic school culture requires a leader to first develop a compelling vision, along with supporting structures necessary to reinforce their shared purposes.

(3) Findings support the claim that the appropriate leadership style for a situation depends upon the combination of favorable context and leader orientation (Bons and Fiedler 1976).

(4) Damaged trust has long-term effects that are not easily repaired. What typically happens is that, “Distrust impedes the communication, which could overcome it . . . So that suspiciousness builds on itself” (Govier 1992, p. 56).

Hallam said trust is a crucial part of any collaborative team and people need to be more aware of trust levels and attend to low-trust scenarios.

“Trust has been compared to air. We breath it, we take it for granted, we assume it’s good, and we don’t ever think about it until it becomes polluted, and it makes us sick,” Hallam said paraphrasing Baier (1986). “We just believe it’s there. Yet, there is a lot of research that shows there is not as high a level of trust in schools as we probably imagine there is. We don’t address issues of trust, but until you can get the trust foundation built, you can’t go any further.”

Hallam, Dulaney, Hite, and Smith will publish their research in the book Trust Relationships and School Life sometime next year.

February 4, 2013