Practical Principal: How to Rebuild Trust with Teachers

The Practical Principal series features examples of strategies Chicago public school leaders are using to keep their school communities connected during remote and hybrid learning. Find more ideas from school leaders here. If you have an idea you’d like to share, send it to engagement@thefundchicago.org

The Challenge

Years of principal turnover at Passages Elementary created a sense of mistrust between school staff and school leadership. As indicated by 5Essentials data, teachers did not feel supported by school leadership. This lack of trust made it difficult for faculty to reflect and continuously improve together. 

The Solution

Dr. Jeremy Riggs, his assistant principal and a dozen or so members of the Passages staff created the Building Trust Team. The Trust Team meets 10 times during the year, and team members take turns leading the 90-minute meetings which aim to create a sense of community and make teachers feel valued and respected. 

For the most part, they follow a simple format: 

The Story

As principal of Passages Elementary in Andersonville, Dr. Riggs has big goals for his school. He wants every student to reach their potential, every parent to see their student grow, and every staff member to feel fulfilled. 

The challenge is turning the goals into reality. 

When reviewing 5Essentials data, Riggs noticed a trend. The survey showed that teachers did not feel supported by school leadership. Riggs realized he had to take a hard look at his own practices and find a way to show his staff that he was committed to moving forward with them, during and beyond the pandemic. 

Riggs started brainstorming with his assistant principal. They hit on an idea: create a team dedicated to building trust with each other. The hope was that, by creating a space to have difficult conversations and make deeper connections between staff, a stronger sense of trust would permeate through the rest of the school. 

Riggs and his AP launched the group, open to all school staff members,  in October 2020. Ultimately, 12 people joined, a little under a third of the Passages’ staff. 

From the beginning, the Trust Team acknowledged that things could get messy. The content of the meetings is private, and all members are committed to showing up consistently, especially when things get hard. 

The group starts each meeting by grounding themselves in their values and purpose. Team members take turns leading the meetings. This has been a critical part of the exercise for Riggs; he has had to learn how to let go of control. It’s also been the most rewarding. The school leader respects and appreciates the different strengths his staff bring to the space. 

Riggs knows there’s still a long way to go. He hopes to continue this group – and even grow it beyond its current reach – to help Passages become a place where teachers feel valued and safe. 

“Trust takes as long as it’s going to take,” Riggs shared. The Building Trust Team is an important step in the right direction.

Advice from Dr. Riggs

  • Principals have to be reflective of their own practice: “Trust in a school starts and ends with the principal. Bottom line. If there are issues that need to be worked on, they’re the principal’s responsibility to fix.”