Be visible. Be consistent. Actively listen. Such practices are key for school leaders to build trust and foster a positive school culture. But at times, pandemic-related challenges have made them harder than ever to achieve. To learn what concrete steps school leaders can take to establish a trusting environment with students and staff and ensure that feedback given and received is a two-way street, Principal Leadership contacted Andrea Dennis, the former principal of Phillips Preparatory School in Mobile, AL, who is now the district’s chief area administrator; Darren Ellwein, the principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD; and Kip Motta, NASSP president and principal of Rich Middle School and North Rich Elementary School in Laketown, UT. Both Dennis and Ellwein are co-facilitators of NASSP’s Middle School Leaders Network, of which Motta is a member.
Principal Leadership: As a school leader, why do you think it’s so important to build trust with your staff?
Ellwein: Building trust is more important than ever. Even though South Dakota didn’t have a mask mandate, last school year was still the hardest year for everyone. People need to know you have their best interest in mind. So, now more than ever, staff need to know that the school leader is someone they can trust, and you do that by being genuine. People want to know that you’re going to be real with them.
Motta: You have to trust your staff. And I have to trust the people who are my supervisors. Any actions taken at our school—really at any school nationwide—should be done through the lens of what’s best for kids. As long as we keep that frame as our guiding post, we’ll probably be OK.
Dennis: I always want my staff to be able to feel free to share their ideas and best practices and to explore innovations in an environment in which they feel they can be open and honest. So, I work really hard to create a culture of psychological safety where they’re empowered to do that, to take risks, and where they feel comfortable in that collaborative learning environment.
Principal Leadership: How have you been able to build that trust?
Motta: I’m the principal of two separate schools: a K–5 elementary school with 130 kids and a middle school (grades 6, 7, and 8) with 135 students. We’re really very small. I have veteran staff in both schools. So, the trust has been built over 22 years. Like Darren said, you have to be genuine. You’ve got to be yourself. And be consistent. It’s really important that we not only listen but that we hear—not only the voice of our staff but the voice of our kids. If a student or a parent or a staff member comes to you with an idea, I think it’s incumbent upon us to listen and see it if it’s an idea that’ll make everything better for the kids. Once they know you’re hearing their voice and you’re acting upon it, that’s powerful stuff.
Ellwein: This will be my 10th year now at my school. To build trust, you need to talk with people. And I think what I realized last year with our enrollment getting bigger (we have more than 700 students in a building meant for 620), is I just didn’t visit with people as much anymore. And especially with our Gen Xers, our Millennials, they want things differently than when I was their age. They want that personal relationship. Leaders aren’t just managers anymore. They need to shift and figure out how to create authentic relationships with the people they’re working with.
Dennis: I constantly ask them questions so that I can get feedback. I visit classrooms daily. I carve out time to meet with teachers and have those conversations. I also have always believed in an open-door policy. My door is literally always open. That prompts many teachers to drop by to express concerns or share ideas or thoughts about things they want to try. And I want them to feel comfortable doing that. I also intentionally establish professional learning communities, and I encourage staff members to take roles that they’re not typically accustomed to. That pushes people out of their comfort zones at times, and it’s a way to ensure different perspectives are being shared.
Principal Leadership: Can you think of a time when that trust was crucial to overcoming a specific challenge?
Ellwein: Our middle school is a little different than most because our kids don’t have a schedule. They create their schedule every day based on offerings that are differentiated by teachers. When we first started that, I had some really skeptical parents who were willing to trust us to do that. That was seven years ago. Looking back now, it’s really humbling to know that people trust you enough, especially parents. They’re sending their most precious commodity to us every day. It was exciting to make that change with student schedules, but it was also a moment of gratitude to parents, who trusted us enough to do something different so we could empower their children.
Dennis: I’d say throughout the pandemic that trust was crucial. It was my first year as the principal at Phillips when COVID hit. We had to create those safe spaces for collaboration and inclusion because the pandemic forced our staff into isolated workspaces. Here in lower Alabama, schools kept running after we quarantined with everyone in early 2020. But the following school year we returned to the building, so we had face-to-face learning, with students also having the option of virtual learning. Because we were trying to mitigate the spread of the virus by having everyone stay in their spaces, some teachers tended to pull away from their peers. We had to be intentional about creating opportunities to still collaborate, even if they were virtual. Staff also spent a lot of time meeting outdoors to sit and talk. We have a really nice pavilion, and we have two outdoor learning labs at the school.
Motta: A few years ago, district officials came up with an idea of having teachers record their Tier I instruction and post it on our learning management system. There was a little bit of pushback from our teachers because it took a lot of instruction with the technology. And some of our staff weren’t comfortable with it. I distinctly remember the staff meeting when the teachers voiced their concerns. I told them, “I know this is different. I know it’s not going to be easy. But please trust me this is going to be the best for our kids.” And that was the end of the discussion. To their credit, the teachers gave it a try, and they worked hard. It was a great instructional practice because when a student was sick, they could go online and see the teacher teaching, so it ended up being a pretty cool thing.
Principal Leadership: Part of creating a trusting environment is ensuring that feedback is a two-way street. How do you give staff feedback that builds trust?
Dennis: One of my favorite quotes is I never ask others to do that which I’m unwilling to do. That’s just what a leader should do. In everything that I do, I try to model what I’m asking of my teachers. So, if I’m asking them to build collaborative learning environments then I need to do that, too. I plan a lot of professional learning community opportunities with my teachers. It’s not really formal, but it’s a way for us to sit together and brainstorm. I get a lot of two-way communication from those types of settings. We have common planning at our school, which means each department has the same planning period. That was intentionally designed so we could share ideas and grow together.
Motta: I picked up the idea of using a portable desk from Gregg Wieczorek, the immediate past president of NASSP. It’s just a desk on wheels. I put my computer on it and take it into the classrooms so I can be around the kids and the teachers more than ever. It enables me to be in the classroom watching, listening, and interacting. The portable desk changed how much time I spent in the classrooms. Because I was in there every single day, the environment changed in my school. My daily visits seemed to decompress any anxiety that surrounded the process of giving feedback.
I also really use my instructional coach a lot. For example, if I find a teacher’s transitions from Tier I instruction to classwork are taking way too long and they’re losing instructional time, I’ll tell them that the instructional coach will come in to help. The other thing to keep in mind about getting feedback and giving it is you can’t take it personally. You also have to know your people. I have a teacher who if I go in there and if I say anything about the way they taught, they’re done for a week. Just like when I was coaching, there are kids who you can really get on, and they’ll react and do well. But if you do the same thing with another kid, they go in a corner hide. Again, you need to know your people. And the only way you can do that is to build that relationship.
Ellwein: There’s a quote that comes to mind for me. Jimmy Johnson coached the Cowboys years ago. He said, “I always told my players especially when I went to Dallas, that I’m going to be consistent in treating each of you differently.” Well, what does that really mean? Because shouldn’t you be consistent with everyone? But like Kip just said, each person is so different. One person might have a great anticipatory set. The next one might not, so how can you treat them the same if their skill sets are going to be different? When I talked to my new staff for this school year—we had about 15 of them—I emphasized something that our school also teaches students: It’s all about growth. If you don’t want to grow, things are going to be pretty hard for you. Because I don’t want you to do the same lesson every single year. I want you to be able to feel like you have the freedom to create something that’s real for the kids that are in front of you at the time. The other thing I tell new staff is, “I need you to be able to take feedback. And I need you to be able to reflect.” You should always look to figure out what your next iteration is. By accepting feedback and reflecting on what you’ve learned, you can grow.
Principal Leadership: When has feedback improved your work as a school leader or your approach to a particular issue in your building?
Ellwein: The best feedback I get is when I do exit interviews with staff who are leaving. I had a teacher provide some valuable feedback for me. I sat down with her, and I said, “What do I need to do differently for people in this building?” She said, “You’re not visible enough.” She said, “I know you. I trust you. But you’re not visible enough for people.” That was very hard to take. Because if I’ve wanted anything over the last three years, it’s to build a strong culture. I had to process her feedback for a couple of days, which has prompted me to work on being more visible to the staff this school year.
Motta: More than 10 years ago, there was an issue with a staff member and a student. I made what I call a flock shot. In goose hunting, it’s when a flock of geese fly up in the air and you shoot in the middle of them, and you don’t hit anything. So, I did this widespread thing where I told all of the staff at once, “We have this problem and we’ve got to do this.” And I had three teachers come to me and ask, “Was it me?” And I learned a big lesson there. Although the information needed to be put out to the whole staff, I needed to make sure that I had a face-to-face, one-on-one conversation with the person that it really involved. The feedback I got from several staff changed my approach to situations like this and made me better.
Dennis: This is an ongoing process for me. I’ve had many instances in which the feedback teachers provided me opened my eyes to what I ask them to do and the way in which I’ve asked them to do it. I’m constantly growing because I’m also viewing things from their perspective.
Principal Leadership: Besides creating a trusting environment with staff, what do you do to build trust with students?
Motta: Every single day that I’m in the building, I meet the kids at the door. And I learn their names. Even if it’s just a last name. I give a fist bump. I talk to them. I look them in the eye. Every single day. And then two years ago, I started interviewing every sixth grader just for a five-minute conversation about them and how they’re doing. I meet with each of them because they’re new to me and new to the building. I think one of the biggest stress points for a parent is when they send their kid to middle school. I don’t know if people understand how emotionally difficult that is not only for a student but for a parent. And when they come home and say, “Oh, Mr. Motta sat down and talked to me for a couple minutes not about my courses but about me,” then the parents really know that you love their kids and that you care about them.
Dennis: I have the same open-door policy with my students that I have with my staff. If I’m in the office, they certainly are welcome to come in and talk to me about anything that’s on their minds. I also greet my students in the hallways and at carpool. I have conversations with them, and I start the conversations if they don’t. In the cafeteria, I sit with my students. I go from table to table just asking them about their day, what they’re learning, how life is going, and about their extracurriculars and how we can help them more. I make sure they have access to me and that I’m visible and accessible.
Ellwein: I’ll sit down with kids in groups of five to eight and I’ll ask, “What is it about our school that’s not working, and what’s been hard? And what are you stressed about right now?” We do this because the social-emotional piece is just so paramount right now. I call these conversations surfacing parties, where we just bring to the surface the things that we can do better. Because it’s not a perfect building. It’s not a perfect school. I got the surfacing party idea from Daniel Coyle, the author of the book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. It’s been really valuable, and we have the same conversations with our staff. But I value the learner input because they’re the ones that are living it, and I always feel we should take their pulse on things. Otherwise, school is geared toward the adults. And it shouldn’t be. It should be meant for the kids.