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Trust Is the Linchpin for Strengthening Schools

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We welcome guest blogger Chip Wood, facilitator for Courage & Renewal and a co-founder of Responsive Classroom®. 

Lois Lowry's dedication for her novel, The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal, reads: 

For all the children
To whom we entrust the future [i]

A major theme of the book, as many a middle school reader discovers, is the significance of memory to the human experience. In this early dystopian classic, the central character, Jonas, becomes Receiver of Memory, selected as a nineteen-year-old to procure, from the community's one elder Receiver of Memory, all forgotten history and past experience.

Today, The Giver, and its recent, powerful movie adaptation, send a chilling warning, to all of us in education, about the consequences of minimizing the role of memory in the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the skills of problem-solving and decision-making for our students as well as for the adults who teach and lead them in the micro-communities we call schools.

Memory Requires Reflection
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of The Mindful Brain and Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, argues, "The basic ingredients of well-being and compassionate social living are, in fact, teachable. Reflection is the common pathway by which our brains support such abilities, our relationships come to thrive in them, and our minds can achieve a state of internal attunement and sense of harmony." In reference to teaching and learning, he states, "Reflection is the skill that embeds self-knowing and empathy in the curriculum." [ii]

Reflection Requires Time 
Time is a commodity in schools that we are trading for better test scores, bartering away opportunities for classroom dialogue, scientific observation and experiments, writing, reading and games of chess; to name just a few of the aptitudes requiring reflection.

In the adult community of schools, we are losing the memory for entrustment. Here, where teaching once depended on all of us sharing resources, as well as sharing leadership and decision making, we are now receivers, not of collective traditions, cultures and prized practices, but of the latest initiatives favored by the revolving door of well-intentioned, but increasingly short-term principals, superintendents and central office personnel who oversee the increasing bureaucracy of curriculum pacing, teacher accountability and data-driven decision-making.

Entrustment of the Future Requires Strengthening Trust in the Adult Community of Schools
Researchers Anthony Bryk, Barbara Schneider and colleagues at the Urban Institute and the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work, University of Chicago, and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, name relational trust "key to advancing improvement in urban public school communities" in their pioneering, decade-long examination of school improvement efforts in Chicago in the 1990's. [iii] Relational trust between all members of a school community is determined by their research to be not only significant for innovation and student improvement, but also finds, "schools with weak trust reports had virtually no chance of improving in either reading or mathematics."

Relational trust in schools is further defined as including respect, competence, personal regard for others and integrity in the social interactions and role relationships in the adult community and with students. In turn, each of these four criteria are explained in terms of their relevance in school settings, i.e. "In the context of schooling, respect involves recognition of the important role each person plays in a child's education and the mutual dependencies that exist among various parties involved in this activity. Key in this regard is how conversation takes place within a school community. A genuine sense of listening to what each person has to say marks the basis for meaningful social interaction."

Supported by this research and more recent studies, the roles and importance of reflection and relationship building in teaching, teaming, leadership and professional development are gaining traction.  For the past four years, Pamela Seigle, Lisa Sankowski and I, as facilitators for the Center for Courage and Renewal, have been working with collaborators and researchers to develop and pilot practical applications for improving relational trust in schools.[iv]  Leading Together: Building Adult Community in Schools brings principals and teacher leaders, participating in four person teams, together with similar teams from six to eight other schools to experience reflective practices and protocols that can be facilitated in faculty meetings, grade level meetings, child study teams, parent meetings and classrooms.  Based on the work of Parker J. Palmer in The Courage To Teach and other writings, Leading Together, partnering with other like-minded educators, organizations and networks, is part of growing efforts to remember, reclaim and relocate the heart of teaching and learning in reflective, trusting relationships and shared leadership.[v]

Chip's book,  Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 is a well known reference for teachers and parents.

[i] Lowry, Lois. (1993) The Giver. Delacorte Press. New York, NY. Reprinted by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Company.

[ii] Siegel, Daniel. (2007) The Mindful Brain. W.W. Norton. New York, NY. Pps. 259;261.

[iii] Bryk, A.S. & Schneider B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Pps. 22-26; 122-124.

Bryk, A.S., Sebring, P.B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J.Q. (2010) Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

[iv] http://www.couragerenewal.org/leadingtogether/ (See report from Dr. Sara Rimm Kaufman, University of Virginia, Curry School of Education for pilot project findings and related studies.)

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