Trust and Leadership in Rural Education

By Maria Telford


Maria Telford is a small town girl at heart. She grew up in the Cariboo on a farm just outside of 100 Mile House, a small rural community in the interior of British Columbia with vast lakes, wildlife and outdoor recreation. After graduating from high school, she moved to Kamloops and attended the University College of the Cariboo where she earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education. After completing her teaching degree, she returned to the Cariboo to teach in elementary education, where she has been living and working ever since. Currently, she is in her sixth year of administration and has recently earned a Master of Education in Educational Leadership from Vancouver Island University. This article is a summary of her research.



As a person who has experienced the education system as a student, a teacher, a principal and as a parent, I have experienced learning environments both marked by high levels of relational trust and those weighted by mistrust. The most striking differences between the two that I noticed is that, when one enters a space where everyone has positive intentions and the atmosphere is friendly, learning becomes fun and people want to work together. Trusting relationships create a space where all learners can grow from mistakes instead of being ashamed of them. Trust allows individuals to be proud of their differences, share ideas, and seek help in times of need. On the contrary, when trust is replaced with mistrust, suspicion or doubt, people become guarded and defensive, the environment becomes closed off and tense, and learning is negatively impacted. Current research echoes these sentiments (Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Halbert & Kaser, 2009 Tschannen-Moran, & Gareis, 2015; Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2000).

Over the last few years I have become more curious about the concept of relational trust and the processes that impacts it within the school setting. In my role as an administrator, I have seen how change in the learning environment can increase stress on the school community as a whole and test the strength of interpersonal relationships, which allow for happy, healthy, and productive school functioning. For instance, I have been assigned to three different elementary schools in six years and have directly seen the struggles that staff, students, and parents experience when adapting to a new presence and style of management. As I navigated different school environments and worked to gain the trust of a new community, I often wondered if my priorities were in line with the needs of my teachers, support staff, students, and parents.

In my role as an educational leader, I have also witnessed varying levels of anxiety and uncertainty within my school community as educators, students and parents adapt to the system-wide changes that are currently happening in British Columbia with the implementation of the redesigned curriculum. Not only are schools becoming highly-interdependent learning environments marked by collaboration and networking, but they are also beginning to look and feel much different from the traditional system that most of us are accustomed to. As the school community adapts to a new model of teaching and learning that is responsive to the modern world, it will be vital that schools build high levels of trust so that everyone can work together to produce the best learning environment possible for our children.

Over the last twenty years, a substantial body of research has investigated the role of relational trust in enhanced school functioning and substantive school improvement (Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Coleman, 2012; Kaser & Halbert, 2009; LeFevre, Timperley, & Ell, 2015; Louis, 2007; Tschannen-Moran & Gareis, 2015). Leading researchers in the field agree that the principal’s role is to set the tone and overall climate in the school (Tschannen-Moran & Gareis, 2015; Halbert & Kaser, 2009; Hallman, Smith, Hite, Hite & Wilcox, 2015) and advise that a culture of trust be established before reforms initiatives are implemented (Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Kaser & Halbert, 2009; Louis, 2007). Relational trust has been shown as a key indicator to school success because it provides the path to the cooperative behaviour and mutual respect that is necessary for success in highly social environments based on interdependent relationships (Coleman, 2012; Hallman, Smith, Hite, Hite & Wilcox, 2015; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000).

Knowing the positive impacts that high levels of trust have on schooling, I wanted to study how I could better cultivate a culture of trust in a rural school community. To gain a deeper understanding I set out to learn, from the perspective of the school staff, what factors impacted relational trust in a rural educational setting. I was curious to know what teachers and support staff needed most from their principal to create a safe and productive environment in which everyone could thrive, learn, and grow. I also wondered if some initiatives would be more effective than others in building relational trust within a highly-complex and hierarchical structured organization set within a small community where everyone knows each other.


Research Methodology

Although it is seemingly easy to know that trust is an essential element in a successful learning environment, it is not as easy to know how to cultivate, to protect, or to repair a foundation of trust within a hierarchical system that is structured around many dynamic and interconnected roles and responsibilities. To gain valuable insight about the concepts that impact relational trust in a rural school community, which could then be used by educational leaders to guide best practice strategies, I distributed an open-ended written response survey questionnaire to teachers and support staff in four elementary schools in the local area. The survey contained four questions designed to illicit thoughts, opinions, and experiences from those working in the elementary school setting about key factors impacting the trust relationships between co-workers and between school staff and the principal.

A total of 26 survey questionnaires were completed and submitted for analysis. Of the 26 completed surveys, 14 participants identified themselves as teacher (54 %), 11 as support staff (42 %), and one unknown (4 %). Participant responses were transcribed into a Word document by a neutral party and ranged in style from bulleted words and short phrases that summarized thoughts and opinions, to explanatory paragraphs that retold experiences and conveyed individual points of view. The vast amount of data was worked through the process of qualitative content analysis, which included an extensive coding and re-coding process that assigned data segments to a coding frame.



Central Themes

 The result of the analysis was a comprehensive classification system that revealed nine central concepts that participants believed to be key factors impacting the trust relationship: (1) Is a Person of Integrity, (2) Has a Growth Mindset, (3) Is Approachable, (4) Has a Strong Work Ethic, (5) Demonstrates Effective Communication Skills, (6) Promotes an Inclusive Environment, (7) Models Best Practice, (8) Demonstrates Strong Leadership Skills, and (9) Takes Time to Build and Maintain Personal Connections. These findings complement the literature establishing trust as a multidimensional construct discerned in social exchange across four considerations: (1) respect, (2) competence in core responsibilities, (3) personal regard, and (4) personal integrity (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).

For instance, participants in this study saw the importance of promoting an inclusive environment and demonstrating effective communication skills as essential elements to building and sustaining a culture of trust in a school environment. They reported themes such as values my opinion, treats everyone equally, makes me feel welcome and included, shares information and collaborates, and genuinely listens when I come with concerns as key factors that impact trust.

Not surprisingly, because of who answered the survey, many participants also identified a strong need for balanced inclusion and equal recognition that “EA’s are part of the teaching team of the school.” This finding is unique and offers insight into a specifics group’s (EAs) desire for inclusion. Along the same lines, the study found that showing respect for others by including both support staff and teachers in the decision-making process was vital to a healthy trust relationship between school staff and the principal. Both participant groups identified “seeks your input and opinions, and often, acts on them,” and “includes me in some discussions” as important to feeling like a valued team member.

Another dominant theme that emerged from this study was the expectation that administrators show strong leadership skills. The findings indicated being decisive and resolute; showing strength of purpose; taking charge and acting on problems; demonstrating professional, confident, and authoritative public speaking skills; understanding the challenges experienced by classroom teachers; using strong mediating skills to help with staff conflict; and implementing fair but firm consequences with students as essential elements in effective school management.  

Furthermore, participants discussed the importance of building personal relationships, being a person of integrity, and modeling best practice as a means to garner trust. These themes are supported in the findings of this study when participants reported “taking time to show you care,” “being compassionate,” “being open and honest at all times,” and making sure to “follow through with anything you say you will do” as essential to building and maintaining relational trust. Participants warned, “Your actions say more than your words,” and stressed “Lead by example,” “Have positive interaction with children,” and “Fight for the best interest of your students.”


Current Findings and Change Literature

This study’s findings also support change literature that emphasized the need for strong interpersonal relationships based on trust before the implementation of reform initiatives (Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Kaser & Halbert, 2009; Louis, 2007). Survey participants spoke to trust before change in their responses to the fourth question in the survey asking, “What advice would you give to new principals as they work to build relational trust with their staff?” Participants identified the need for principals to be patient and build relationships, get to know the staff, students and their families, as well as take time to understand the culture of the school and why things have been done in the past before making changes.

The literature confirms this patience and suggests that administrators need to assess levels of trust prior to making any significant change and address low trust issues before moving ahead with organizational improvements (Louis, 2007). Because trust helps moderate the stress and vulnerability that comes from high levels of uncertainty associated with change (Kaser & Halbert, 2009), it increases the moral imperative needed to put in the extra effort required for lasting change (Tschannen-Moran, 2014) and provides a cooperative social network to support the inevitable dip in performance and lower moral that often comes in the initial stages of change (Louis, 2007).


Trust as a Dynamic Construct

Observations made during category construction and further examination of the data in the coding frame after the completion of the main analysis revealed other important findings. First, many of the themes (sub-subcategories) and central ideas (subcategories) in the coding frame, which were constructed directly from participant answers, were closely related and required specific indicator words and decision rules to distinguish one from another. This supported the literature indicating that trust is a dynamic interplay of several factors that come together simultaneously to form the concept of trust and that all aspects of trust seem to be important (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000).

Second, refining the results into data tables that organized and compared the frequency of recurring themes and concepts reported between the two participant groups revealed that support staff and teachers experienced their work environment differently. Each group expressed a different viewpoint on which factors impacted trust the most and placed differing amounts of weight on the themes that were reported. Indeed, the focus on support staff perspective would be an area of potential further research.

For example, the results of this study suggested that promoting an inclusive environment was of great significance to the support staff in this study, who repeatedly referenced the sub-subcategories ‘Shows Respect for Everyone’ and ‘Treats Everyone Equally and Makes Me Feel Included’ as the most important factors impacting trust. The common perspective reported was “Sometimes support staff gets treated differently than the rest of the staff.” Participants in the support staff group documented that principals they believe had high trust “Included EA’s as part of the teaching team of the school” and “Emphasized to teachers how EA’s and other support staff were an important element of the ‘team’.” This participant group also advised that principals looking build trust should make an effort to maintain “Consistency in relating to all staff.”

In contrast, teachers put the majority of emphasis on the central theme ‘Demonstrates Effective Communication Skills’ and placed a heavy focus on the importance of having good listening skills. Teachers reported that trust was earned by a principal who had an “Open-door policy;” “Was always willing to listen/lend an ear;” “Had the ability to listen to and understand (and value) all sides of a situation, issue, dispute, etc.;” “Would not brush off any concerns or issues;” and, “Listened and did not constantly take over the conversation or criticize.”

The substantive difference in the frequency that some themes were cited between each participant group supports the literature, which contends that, “Although all of these facets of trust are important, their relative weight will depend on the nature of the interdependence and consequent vulnerability in the relationship” (Tschannen-Moran, 2014, p. 39). Tschannen-Moran (2014) clarified, “People at different hierarchical levels examine and weigh sources of trust-relevant information differently” (p. 41).


Implications for Principals

The findings in the current study complement existing research that found trust discerned across four domains and constructed by several unifying and interconnected facets. These findings imply that trust impacts the rural school environment in the same ways reported in extensive research conducted in urban school environments, which established trust as an essential element in well-functioning schools. The findings of the larger studies also found a correlation between trust and successful school improvement initiatives, and trust and increased student achievement.

Furthermore, current research has found that principals play a chief role in setting the tone and culture in the school community, and that when principals model trustworthy behaviour other stakeholders in the school, such as teachers, support staff, students, and parents, are more inclined to extend trust to others, which cultivates a cooperative, safe, and caring learning environment. These findings imply that all educational leaders should be knowledgeable about the constructs of relational trust and the ways trust impacts the complex interdependent environments of today’s schools.


Principal Implication One:

The first implication applies to new principals and existing principals entering a new school environment. First, the findings suggest that concepts of relational trust should be explored in educational leadership programs. As well, strategies to asses, develop, and sustain a culture of trust within the new school setting should be thought about and planned for by the new principal before commencing a school tenure.


Principal Implication Two:

The second implication puts onus on district administration to facilitate an understanding of the construct of relational trust with all principals under their jurisdiction. For instance, district personnel in charge of hiring new principals should be versed in concepts of relational trust so they are able to vet applicants for this specialized knowledge. In a case where a successful applicant is unaware of the concepts and theory of relational trust, district personnel should provide the necessary training to the new principal in support of their leadership team as a way to increase the likelihood of success for the entire school community. To accomplish this task, district administration could provide something as simple as an electronic presentation outlining key ideas or implement a mentor program designed to focus on cultivating a culture of trust while coping with the organizational and bureaucratic responsibilities of the job, which can be overwhelming to a person who is new to the role.


Principal Implication Three:

            A third implication concerns existing principals, especially those who have been in the same school for an extended amount of time. The literature contends that trust is a complex multi-dimensional construct based on reciprocal social exchange and discerned across an array of interconnected and fluctuating mediating factors. Consequently, levels of trust are never static and need to be monitored and attended to on a regular basis. This contention suggests that, no matter how confident principals feel in their school environment, ongoing assessments of levels of trust need to be performed between all role sets in the school community.


Other Findings

Findings that suggest that people who play different roles within the school experience the environment differently indicates that principals need to be hyper-aware about how social dynamics are influenced by hierarchical relationships within the system. For instance, support staff in this study indicated that, as a group, they often get left out of important meetings regarding the students that they work with on a daily basis. This finding implies that principals must be sensitive to varying levels of vulnerability between role sets, pay attention to the differing needs of each group, and openly work toward solutions so that everyone feels valued. In this case, if possible, principals should be afforded professional learning opportunities to collaboratively reflect on their current practices and explore the subject area with other members of their association so they can candidly discuss concerns, share stories, and brainstorm ideas about how to approach challenging situations. Providing this opportunity would emphasize the importance of cultivating trust in schools and grant valuable time for educational leaders to develop a plan to target low trust scenarios in their school community.

The findings of this study also suggest that the importance of maintaining respectful relationships is even more pronounced for educational leaders working in small towns where everyone knows each other, because a trustworthy reputation can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. The literature contends the power of a good reputation should not be understated because it can either encourage or discourage trustworthy behaviour within an entire social network (Tschannen-Moran, 2014). Considering that environments marked by low levels of trust have little chance of improving performance or accomplishing lasting change, it is essential that principals living and working in small towns establish strong patterns of trustworthy behavior within their communities.

Finally, in regard to the findings within the change literature, which indicates that inclusive decision making and being forthcoming with essential information increases the commitment to a shared vision and supports lasting reform, principals should be candid with their staff about the role trust plays in daily functioning, academic achievement, and effective school change. Considering that British Columbia’s curriculum has recently undergone significant reform, which has placed a heightened stress on the system as a whole, it would behoove today’s educational leaders to be open to sharing their knowledge about the concepts of relational trust to better support school communities’ in the transition to the new system design.



This study examined factors that staff in a rural elementary school believed to be most important in building relational trust in an educational environment, with a special focus on the trust relationship between staff and the principal. The findings in the current study complement existing research that establishes trust as a complex multi-dimensional construct that is based on reciprocal social exchange and imply that levels of trust within the school environment are never static and need to be monitored and attended to on a regular basis. One limitation of this study is the small sample size. It is recommended, for results to be generalizable to a larger rural population, that a similar study be done which encompasses multiple small communities across British Columbia.



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