The Importance of Trust: Why School Culture Matters

By J. Drew Tonissen, doctoral student at NC State University and Hunt Institute Intern


What makes schools highly effective? Recent research indicates that teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. However, teachers are only one component in the complex schooling environment. The environment of a school, or its culture, greatly affects teachers’ day-to-day experiences in the profession, and also has a significant impact on student achievement. In my six years of experience as an educator, I found that the principal was the key factor in setting the culture of a school. I worked for principals who were excellent in setting and maintaining a positive school culture, and I worked for other school leaders who managed to unravel such a culture within months. I now study education policy as a doctoral student, and have found that a great deal of research affirms my personal experiences.

One of the most important features of a strong school culture is trust. Karen Louis, Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, and Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, summed up this concept well in their 2011 work for Kappan Magazine:

“…neither organizational learning nor professional community can endure without trust – between teachers and administrators, among teachers, and between teachers and parents.”

Adding to this body of research, a 2015 study of 250 teachers from five selected high-performing schools reported that teachers in these schools had high levels of trust in their principals. Furthermore, a study performed in Kentucky examined two rural schools with similar demographics, one with scores a standard deviation above average on the ACT, and the other with scores one standard deviation below the average ACT score. In the high-performing school, research indicated that the principal and teachers supported each other in becoming instructional leaders, teachers were given autonomy to make school-level decisions, and collaboration and communication were emphasized. In other words, teachers trusted their principals to include them in school-level decision making and to foster relationship building, and principals trusted their teachers by giving them autonomy at the classroom level.

Schools that benefit the most from strong leadership and culture are the least likely to have these qualities. Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Peabody College, has conducted research demonstrating that teachers at schools with disadvantaged students were more likely to give poor ratings to their principals, resulting in high levels of teacher turnover. Other research has also shown that school leadership has the greatest impact where the learning needs of the students are most acute.

I have no doubt that school principals across the nation desire to create a positive school culture for both their teachers and students. Much research has been conducted on how to achieve this; however, there are no simple answers, no one-size-fits-all approach. The most promising solution lies in how we select, recruit, train, and retain school principals. If we can get the right people in this key position, trained in the importance of developing a positive school culture, we might well see a significant improvement in teacher satisfaction and student achievement.