The Power of Trust
Dr. Andrew Dolloff tells us what he’s learned about trust in school leadership.
Education runs in Dr. Andrew Dolloff’s family. His father spent 40 years working in schools—28 as a high school principal—and both his sisters are educators as well. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Dolloff felt drawn to the classroom himself. It had been a dinner table topic his whole life.
Now, Dolloff is in his ninth year as superintendent of Yarmouth School Department, a small suburban district on the southern coast of Maine. After more than two decades in education leadership, he’s learned a thing or two about what it takes to run a school system. He believes it all comes down to one crucial factor: trust.
In the current climate surrounding public schools, trust is more important—and perhaps harder to come by—than ever. That’s just one reason Dolloff wrote The Trust Imperative, released earlier this year. Writing from his firsthand experience as a practitioner, Dolloff offers school leaders a wealth of practical strategies on how to build trust, whether with teachers, community members, families, or students. In our conversation, he shares just a few of those ideas.
Why is trust so crucial for strong leadership?
I’ve been doing this work for nearly 26 years, but until I started teaching for the University of Southern Maine, I had never really thought intentionally about why I did things the way I did. Of course, I have always strived to treat people with dignity and respect and be collaborative—but in teaching at the graduate level, I wanted to be able to explain the why behind these actions. Through my own reading and the papers my students turned in, it became clear to me that trust is at the core of what we do as educators, especially in public schools.
I define trust as the confidence or belief others have in your reliability, integrity, and competence. Research shows that organizations with a high level of trust—not just schools, but all organizations—are more efficient and more productive. Their employees and constituents are more content and more likely to engage fully in the work they’re asked to do. That’s even more true in education. We have to earn the public’s trust in order for them to support their schools, whether financially or otherwise. For us to move the mission of our schools forward, teachers and students and families have to trust us.
In every single moment of every day as a school leader, you either build trust or break it down. So in all your interactions—from one-on-ones in your office to presentations in front of the entire district—you have to communicate in a way that leads people to trust you. They need to know that they’re being given the facts, that they will be listened to, and that their opinions matter.
Once you have that culture in your schools, your work goes to the next level. People become much more engaged. They want to be at school and at work. They want to participate in programs and have a say in how those programs are administered. Thinking about it has really opened my eyes to some of the specific things that we do—and the things that we need to do—to build more trust with our communities.
Public trust in schools seems to be eroding. Why do you think this is happening?
In my book, I speak to building trust with the community and even with those on staff who aren’t likely to trust school leadership. And it’s not just public schools that deal with this issue. If you look at statistics from Pew Research, you’ll see that since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, trust in public institutions in this country has declined. You’ll see a couple of spikes where it picks up—after 9/11, for example. But over time, the decline continues.
Our public school system is one of those entities. But interestingly enough, PDK International’s annual survey on trust in schools almost always shows that while Americans don’t trust public schools in general, they tend to think their own local school is doing pretty well.
We in education have to remember that we actually enjoy a bit more trust from our communities than most public officials. It’s still lower than it was back in the 1950s and ‘60s, obviously—but it’s helpful to know that diminished trust in schools is also part of a broader phenomenon.
How do you build trust with your most important stakeholders: students?
The level of voice that we give to members of the school community—including students—is a hallmark of our district, one that really speaks to a great sense of trust. At our high school, we have a very active student senate, but several other student groups also have significant voice in their schools’ day-to-day work, from our civil rights team to our Black Student Union to our environmental club. All of them have made proposals to school leadership that have brought about change.
I also think one of the greatest ways to build trust with students is to surround them with high-quality educators who have their best interests at heart. That’s my job as the superintendent: to put compassionate, ethical, talented teachers in every classroom in the district. When you put great people in front of students, those students trust that their needs are being met. They’re more comfortable. They want to be in school. And as a result, we’re going to see better academic performance.
One way to ensure that is through equitable hiring practices. We talk a lot about giving students “windows and mirrors”—folks who provide them with windows into other experiences, as well as those who mirror the learner’s own experiences. We know that kids learn and perform better when they are working with at least some adults who serve as mirrors for them—so we need to make sure all students, not just white students, have those mirrors.
We can also build trust with our students through our expectations and standards. At Yarmouth, our mission is sloganized as “Empowering Students.” In every setting, we’re asking how the decisions we’re making and the programs we’re offering are empowering students.
School boards have become especially contentious lately. How can school leaders build trust with their boards?
Communication and presentation are key. At Yarmouth, the materials I prepare for our board meetings are very extensive. I try to give board members all the information they’ll need to make informed decisions ahead of time, so that our meetings go as smoothly as possible in public. There are no surprises at board meetings—I don’t bring up anything they aren’t expecting, and they don’t spring anything on me. Setting those norms and ground rules is very important.
Just like any other trust-building situation, board relations are also about personal relationships. As a superintendent, you’re going to have lots of opportunities to be in one-on-one or small group settings with members of your school committee. It’s important to get to know them as individuals and to know their families. If they have students in the district, what grades are they in? Who are their teachers? What activities do they participate in? Ask questions, show interest, and be curious.
Of course, there are going to be board members you don’t have a great personal affinity for—but there will be moments when even those individuals make points or comments that you agree with on some level. It’s important to capitalize on those moments. Saying things like, “You have an excellent point there,” or “Great question”—that helps build a relationship. In my 13 years as a superintendent, I’ve worked with dozens of different school committee members, and I’ve been able to find at least some common ground with every single one of them. That has not only strengthened our relationships, but made our work more efficient as well.
How can trust help school leaders address issues with recruitment and retention?
I believe that our recruitment, hiring, and retention practices speak to the level of trust that exists in our organization. From the time we start advertising for and recruiting educators to join our team, we need to be upfront about everything: our mission, our expectations, our salary and benefits packages, our day-to-day work. Providing people with information helps them make a good decision, which is good for the district, too. We don’t want to hire anyone who doesn’t want to be here, so they need to know what they’re walking into.
Even our communication with people who aren’t hired is critical. You never know if somebody will come around again looking for a job. They may get hired at another district, work their way up, and be in a position to interview you one day. So it’s important to build those relationships, too.
At Yarmouth, we make sure that everyone who interviews with us gets a phone call. If we’re interviewing for a principal position, I call and have a conversation with every single candidate, trying to give them some positive feedback and constructive criticism. That goes miles for our reputation as a district. Even when the candidates are hired elsewhere, they remember we treated them well.
In terms of retention, teacher evaluations are a critical opportunity to build trust. We want folks to understand that we should all have a growth mindset and be willing to hear critical insight on our performance. So we don’t just have evaluations for teachers; we follow that set-up for our principals, too. And as the superintendent of schools, I have an annual evaluation process. Because we’ve implemented an evaluation model from the superintendent level down—where people can receive input, reflect, and improve—there seems to be a great deal of trust in our organization.
The relationships people have with their colleagues and supervisors also factor into retention. You have to make sure that people aren’t isolated, provide opportunities for common planning time, and give them some direction in their own professional development or continued education. All those things are what make employees feel valued, beyond attractive salary and benefits packages. It’s how they’re treated as professionals, how they’re respected, how they’re included in the decision-making process within their own schools. Being part of a team and actually having a say in things like scheduling and programming are critical for teacher efficacy and their sense of value.
Another theme in your book is the importance of trusting others. How can school leaders do that effectively?
One of the first self-help books I read as a young professional was Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and I always remember him saying, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In my book, I parallel that statement with this idea: Show trust in others first as a way to build their trust in you. That goes all the way back to the Golden Rule: “Treat people the way that you want to be treated.” If you want to be trusted, then you have to demonstrate trust in others.
So how do we do that? First, we have to show people that we respect their time. School leaders often make the mistake of overcommitting ourselves and others to meetings. But when you allow people the time and space to do their work, you may find that a meeting isn’t even necessary. Having too many long meetings makes your employees wonder whether you trust them to do their jobs. By not dominating their time with meetings and seminars—by allowing them to do their work—you’re demonstrating trust in them.
And that trust is essential. If you don’t trust your staff to do their jobs, you’re going to be following buses around, making sure the drivers are stopping where they’re supposed to. You can’t do that. So start from a position of trust.
How can schools build collaboration with other parts of their communities?
We talked about respect earlier—well, that involves providing opportunities for input and really listening to people. For example, during the pandemic, we revamped our five-year strategic plan. To make sure the community was involved, we conducted surveys and gave them opportunities to provide their input digitally as well as in person. We also invited them to be members of the strategic planning team itself.
Another example: We just started a pre-K program, and we actually invited private pre-K providers in the community to be part of that planning process. That not only gave us access to their expertise, but also helped us communicate to them that we weren’t necessarily their competition; the families we’d be serving were less likely to have the resources or the inclination to choose a private program.
As a school leader, I can’t just tell my staff and community, “This is my vision for the school district.” We have to develop a vision together. Now, as we move forward with that strategic plan, every single person in the district will be able to think about how their work furthers our mission—because they were part of developing it.
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