Headlines about teacher and teacher union concerns over efforts to link teacher performance evaluations to student achievement scores leave one with the impression that teachers are either unwilling to be accountable for student achievement or that they are just resistant to changing their ways.
Yet, those of us working in schools and districts know that most teachers feel the weight of student achievement on a daily basis and that change and improvement are constants of the profession—from implementing new state and district programs to seeking new and better approaches for reaching students.
So if teachers are not resisting accountability or change and do want to improve student learning, why are they often circumspect about education reforms? Teacher wariness frequently speaks to issues of trust in educational organizations. Where trust is absent or compromised, there will be cautious teachers.
Though it is frequently spoken of as a feeling or intuition about a person or situation, trust is actually engendered through a rational weighing of experience and evidence. Psychologists maintain that trust represents a willingness to be vulnerable to others, confirming that there is judgment involved in trust and giving credence to the notion of “earning” trust.
Trust is no small matter for teachers working in school systems where leadership and system priorities and commitments are subject to frequent changes, often with little notice. Consider, first of all, that classroom teachers are highly reliant on:
For teachers to believe that a new program or policy is a good one means that they trust in the educational competence and motives of those proposing and implementing the change; that they trust they are in possession of the facts and will continue to receive the latest and best information; and that they trust that they and their students are important to those making the decisions.
Secondly, consider that “trust” is, according to leadership guru Warren Bennis, the lubricant that makes organizations run. When trusting relationships exist in schools and districts, authentic conversations among teachers and between teachers and principals are more prevalent. Where there is trust, risks associated with implementing new programs and policies are more readily assumed by everyone. It is at the school and classroom level that change in education must take hold and, not surprisingly, studies show links between the level of trust in a school culture and the level of student achievement.
Finally, consider that whether a policy or program initiative originates at the federal, state, district, or school level, teachers and principals are the primary implementers. Thus, it is the character of their working relationships that leads to quality outcomes.
Trusting relationships are not merely a “feel good” exercise. They are basic to effective school and district leadership. But in times of change, the quality of teacher trust and the character of the teacher-educational leader relationship are even more critical, which means not leaving them to chance. If we want teacher performance evaluations to contain a student achievement component, we should first ascertain that we all know what policies and practices will make it top-notch and thoroughly reliable. Next, we should verify that everyone has the same access to information and to opportunities to provide and receive feedback; and lastly, that school and district leaders are open, transparent, and honest in their decision-making and their commitments to teachers and students.