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A Question of Trust

By Eloïse Engel
A Question of Trust

When I joined my current school in August of 2016, I was told I was becoming part of a family. It was something I had never heard in my 14-year teaching career. What does it mean, to become part of a family? Why do we use this metaphor when talking about a school community? What are the characteristics of a healthy family that can be applied to a school in order to transform it into an effective, wholesome learning environment?
Like a family, a school is a dynamic place where complex relationships are played out, a community marked by every individual who is a part of it. Like a family, a school plays an important role in each member’s existence, as it impacts one’s vision of reality and values, and contributes to one’s character. Like many international families, a school is diverse in nationalities, cultural backgrounds, and expectations. Family members grow together, learn from one another, and are there to support and encourage each other to reach dreams and strive for excellence. Schools do the same.
Some of the factors involved in making a family strong are love, respect, compassion, understanding, support, tolerance, and empathy. However, I think that the main ingredient in making a happy family—and also in making a happy school—is trust. Trust is the foundation of every successful relationship. It’s difficult enough to create trust in a family of five, let alone among the diverse constituents that interact in schools. Trust doesn’t just happen. It needs to be earned.
One way to generate trust is through open communication. Everyone should be encouraged to speak freely and share their opinions, as long as this is done in a way that acknowledges that we all have a role to play in the conversation.
Communication is only valuable if it is honest. In order to share forthright opinions, one needs to know that they are operating in an environment that values honesty. A school must establish a culture of understanding, showing that opinions are not just shared and listened to, but acted upon, if necessary, and when appropriate. Schools need to cultivate a culture in which free, open, and honest communication is appreciated, even if what is said causes disagreement. If all stakeholders in a school desire open communication, honest opinions, and the development of understanding, then trust can be established. It’s only then that strong and lasting relationships can be built.
In order to build such trust, we all must model the attributes of speaking up, listening, and encouraging the same in others. In the process, our students will begin to understand that relationships are built on trust and communication and can apply this understanding both inside and beyond the school walls.
If people start sharing ideas and feelings, they start working together. Collaboration forms teams. Productive teams communicate and invite others to join and become part of what they do. Teams that communicate well value a wide variety of input.
It sounds so simple: communicate and work together to build an environment of trust in which every individual is welcomed to contribute and grow. You may nod your head thinking that this is exactly the culture that your school is fostering and embodying. Still, I believe that in even in the most stellar school there is always room for improvement among both the staff and teachers.
So let’s go back to the metaphor of the family when applied to joining a school community. Think about those strong families that you know, in which everyone is there for one another and works together to stay strong, grow, and move forward. Think about the love that lives in these families, the trust that members have in each other, but also the amount of work that it takes—work in the sense of taking time to share, listen, understand, tolerate, and reflect. The level of commitment required to build a successful family is no different than what it takes to build a successful school.
It can be challenging to open the channels of communication, to work in collaboration with others, and to establish trust. But I believe that if we take the step towards open and honest communication trust grows and the school grows, along with everyone in it.
Eloïse Engel is PYP teacher, head of department, and IB workshop leader.

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