Improve Teacher Growth One Trust-Builder at a Time

Improve Teacher Growth One Trust-Builder at a Time

Anyone who has ever walked a mile in bad shoes understands the value of supportive soles.  Without good reinforcement, there is an increased likelihood of blisters, splints, or spurs.  Taco lovers surely recognize the necessity of a good, crunchy taco shell.  Without it, the meat, beans, lettuce and tomato will simply fall out. The foundation is the key in both scenarios.

So it is with trust between teachers and school leaders.  Each conversation has the potential to become the foundation for trust-building, thereby allowing the growth process to flourish. But each encounter also has the potential to decrease the level of trust.  When trust levels decrease, growth stagnates.  If teachers are going to feel comfortable taking risks, then the significance of the following statements must be considered:

“My principal doesn’t ever come in my classroom except to do my two observations each year. How does she really know what I do?”

“I overheard the 2nd grade teachers saying they don’t believe any of us on the administrative team.”

“Teachers just do dog-and-pony shows for their observations. Why don’t they teach like that every day?”

“Why doesn’t the Superintendent ever come visit classrooms? Maybe he would be a better leader if he did.”

Trust is the foundation upon which growth is built.  When trust is present in schools, teachers and administrators feel more comfortable talking about teaching.

Research on trust

In researching teacher trust in school leaders (Arneson, 2012), several trust-builders emerged as critical components to building a foundation upon which conversations could be conducted.  Above all else, teachers indicated the need for school leaders to communicate effectively with teachers, not just as a well-spoken orator but particularly concerning the frequency and sincerity of the communication.  Many administrators claim to have an open-door policy, but what does that really mean?  Do teachers really need their principal’s office door open every minute of the day? Hardly, since those same teachers relish the privacy of talking behind this closed door, confidentially, about student concerns or discussing their observation evidence.  When providing anecdotal data regarding communication, teachers shared that good school leaders effectively and regularly share information with staff and are available and open to meet when there are concerns.  The second trust-builder was honesty, which was specifically mentioned in regard to teacher performance.  Several teachers mentioned the desire to hear constructive feedback, but “please do it with respect and tact”.  After all, who besides school leaders have the ability to watch all sorts of teaching going on in their school and are then able to show the teachers the data that were collected in the classroom. Only then can the teacher and administrator have a conversation about what might be some patterns of teaching behavior or causes of student behavior to be considered.  The final trust-builder mentioned specifically by many teachers in the study was support.  A specific theme resonated through the comments about teachers not wanting to be “thrown under the bus”.  Teachers shared experiences in which the school leader had waited until a parent/teacher conference before indicating a problem with the teacher’s instruction, behavior management or other issues.  Teachers indicated they would rather hear the feedback, confidentially, than hearing about it in a public forum such as a faculty meeting or a parent conference.

Each of the trust-builders highlighted in the research (Arneson, 2012) has certain practices that can improve the trust between teachers and school leaders.


Speak with teachers, not to them

Who has had the experience of being observed in the classroom only to find that the follow-up is the observer telling us what they saw and then asking us to sign the paperwork which will then be put in the personnel file? Too many, I suspect.  Even if the feedback was glowing, as in “I really liked the way you had the students work in groups”, the result is still contingent upon whether or not the teacher actually cares what the observer likes or doesn’t like.  If the teacher respects the observer, perhaps the aftermath is “Oh, gee, they liked what I did” but if there is no love lost between teacher and observer, the teacher can write off the comment with “Who really cares what you like or don’t like?”  Whether the feedback is positive or negative, the teacher must only endure the conference in a passive manner (Danielson, 2016) Consider the difference in feedback value if the conversation is actually that, a conversation, as in the following illustration:

Observer: As you examine the exit slips from yesterday’s algebra lesson, how might you summarize the student learning?

Teacher: I noticed that 18 out of 20 students were able to solve for x accurately, as opposed to the day before when half the students were still confused.

Observer: What’s your hunch about what might have led to the increase in mastery?

In this case, the teacher is actually engaging in the cognitive challenge that leads to teacher growth and learning.  Therefore, if school leaders want to provoke teacher growth, then we must provoke teacher thinking. Some habits and practices that foster the trust-building communication include:

  1. Ask open-ended questions.
  2. Ask questions that are not solely focused on the observed lesson but rather on teaching practices in general
  3. Resist the temptation to cloud the feedback with personal preferences (i.e. “I liked the way you…”


Base observations on facts

In asking teachers what they valued in a trusting relationship with their administrator, many educators felt strongly that school leaders need not have all the answers.  After all, none of us do.  However, in absence of having the right answer, it is crucial that administrators don’t act as if they do.  The prevalent thought was “Just be honest about not knowing everything. I need to know I can trust you” (Arneson, 2015).

Observations need not be lengthy, but they do need to be based on fact.  Observational facts include: teacher moves, student behaviors, student work, numerical information (i.e. “Eighteen of twenty students completed the ‘do-now’.”)  Having data on which to base the conversation about the teaching segment that was observed “shifts the cognitive and emotional energy from the supervisor/teacher relationship to the data” (Lipton & Wellman, 2013, p. 14). This use of data as the “third point” can help facilitate a dialogue about the evidence collected in the classroom rather than one person’s whims about the right or wrong way to do things.

Consider the alternate tactics of administrators writing only vague descriptions of the classroom lesson (The lesson seemed to go pretty well) or sharing their opinions of the teaching (Your behavior strategies need some work) or even less subtle advice-giving (I think you’d have better luck if you tried using some other strategies).  If the true purpose is to help teachers grow in their own practice, then the stage must be set for such growth by giving feedback that is factual and not based on one person’s opinion.

Some habits that will encourage honesty in observations and evaluations include:

  1. Observers should collect factual evidence from classroom observations, even if it is hard work.
  2. Feedback should then be based on the facts instead of observer opinion.
  3. Teachers and administrators should admit they don’t have all the answers and be willing to ask for support.


Respect for the person, the practice and the process

A principal who is respectful with a teacher is role modeling for the teacher the same respect teachers can show for students in the classroom (Arneson, 2011), as in the antithesis to the analogy of the parent yelling, “You kids better quit shouting at each other right now!!”

If, indeed, school leaders want to see teacher growth instead of “gotchas”, then support for the teacher must occur by design.  Take the practice of turning in lesson plans to the administrator, for instance.  In many schools and districts, lesson plans are to be turned in to the principal on a weekly basis for “grading”, as many call it.  While the intent might simply be a practice to keep in touch with what each grade level or content area are covering during a given week, the received perception of the teacher can be demeaning.  Stating the purpose of the practice is often the best way to keep it from seeming embarrassing, but that requires the administrator knowing what the purpose is.  If principals simply say, “You have to turn in your lesson plans every week because the Superintendent mandates it”, the tone is quite different than saying, “Taking a look at your lesson plans each week will help me keep in close touch with what you are covering and will help guide conversations when we meet”.  Because I said so is not ever the best way to foster morale. Sometimes, it’s not what we say but how we say it that makes all the difference in how it is received.

Many administrators use faculty meetings as a forum for honoring teachers by highlighting their effective teaching practices.  The only caveat to this well-intentioned method is that teachers have individual preferences (sometimes not coinciding with our own), and some prefer not to be praised in public.

Habits that will help foster teacher respect for administrators include:

  1. Model respect.
  2. Include a purpose for policies and procedures
  3. Individualize and differentiate respect for teachers, just as we expect teachers to do the same for their students.

While school leaders and teachers can agree that trust is a critical factor in the observation and evaluation process, achieving a trusting relationship is easier said than done.  Knowing the key trustbuilders and some concrete ways to keep trust as the foundation for school relationships is the first step in getting there.

Arneson, S. (2012). Character and competence: A mixed methods study on teacher trust in principals in a mid-sized county in Florida (Doctoral dissertation). University of West Florida.

Arneson, S. (2014). Building trust in teacher evaluations: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Arneson, S. (2015). Improving Teaching, One Conversation at a Time. Educational Leadership, 72(7), pp. 32-36.

Danielson, C. (2016). Talk about teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (2013). Learning-focused supervision. Arlington, MA: MiraVia.

Dr. Shelly Arneson ( ) is keynote presenter, author, professor, and international consultant for the Danielson Group. She works with schools and districts on topics such as communication, leadership, and trust.  Her books and articles are subjects for book studies, and she loves building relationships with teachers and school leaders around the world. Check out her weekly blog on her website:

About the Author


Dr. Shelly Arneson

Dr. Shelly Arneson ( is keynote presenter, author, professor, and international consultant for the Danielson Group. She works with schools and districts on topics such as communication, leadership, and trust. Her books and articles are subjects for book studies, and she loves building relationships with teachers and school leaders around the world.

Check out her weekly blog on her website: