Building Trust in Educational Settings to Maximize Learning for All

(Parents, Students, Teachers, Principals, Coaches, and Administrators)
BY:  LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.

Trust is the Foundation

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” said Stephen R. Covey.  So, what is the main thing in education?  Is it Common Core?  Behavior/Character Education? Parent Involvement? Differentiated Instruction? Complex Text? Critical Thinking Skills? Blended Learning?  Well, actually these detailed components could support the main thing, but they are NOT the main thing.

The main thing in education is:  High student achievement.  How do we get high student achievement?  Through instructionally intelligent teachers.  How do we get teachers to become instructionally intelligent educators, making the best decisions daily to help students succeed – responding to the evidence of learning?  Through powerful training (content explained thoroughly, research-supported, examples across the grade levels and curriculums, modeling, practice and feedback) of the best, researched-based strategies and tools.

Research shows that “just a training” is not even close to being enough for high implementation.  After training, strong coaching and feedback must occur during the implementation process of these strategies and tools and throughout the school year.  For lasting, effective change to occur from the coaching sessions, trust must be created among these coaching partnerships.


High student achievement comes through trusting partnerships that help one another achieve goals for growth and change. Teachers create goals to use the best strategies and tools correctly and effectively to maximize student learning.  Every goal needs a coach who believes it can be achieved with hard work, effort and perseverance.  The whole process of accomplishing the main thing is built on trust – trust among the administrators and coaches with the teachers to help them grow and develop beyond what they thought they could accomplish.  Trust among the teachers as they plan in their PLC groups and teams.  Trust among teachers from other grade levels that they are giving forth their best efforts to help the students accomplish grade level standards.  Trust among the students that their teachers have planned and can respond to their daily learning needs.  The focus in this article will be with instructional coaches (sometimes called the principal and sometimes not) and the teachers.

There is solid research that explains the correlation of trust and positive relationships to people wanting to grow and change. Stanford Professor, Tony Bryk, showed that schools with high trust have more than a three times higher chance of improving test scores than schools with low trust.  This research showed that there was a 50% greater likelihood of success in schools with more trusting atmospheres (Bryk, et al, 2010).  There are numerous business statistics showing that there is a tangible benefit to high trust and measurable costs to low trust in organizations.  Stephen Covey, sums it up in this statement: “When trust is low, in a company or in a relationship, it places a hidden ‘tax’ on every transaction:   every communication, every interaction, every strategy and every decision is taxed, bringing speed down and sending costs up.  My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done” (Covey, 2016).

“There is no way to lead schools successfully without building, establishing and maintaining trust within and across the many and varied constituencies they serve.  With trust, schools are much more likely to benefit from the collaborative and productive efforts of their faculty and staff, which in turn help generate the results for students that educators yearn for” (Tschannen-Moran, 2014).  Trust among all the stakeholders in schools can improve the success rate of that school.

Every Conversation Leads to Chemical Concoctions in the Brain

Conversations are more than just words – they are emotional, nonverbal, and thought-provoking.  Words can open the pre-frontal cortex so that higher level thinking and problem solving can occur more powerfully, and yet words can also shut down this powerful processing center and keep us in amygdala-mode (seat of our emotions).  In fact, nonverbal communication trumps words 100 percent of the time.  People allocate 7% to words, 38% to tone of voice, and 55% to nonverbal behaviors – all three need to support one another for trust to build (Glaser, 2014).

Professor Uri Hasson at Princeton University explored the brain during interactions among individuals. He found that when conversations are successful (comprehension of what the other person has said), the brain waves between the speaker and listener had the same pattern of activation – he called this “mind melding or brain coupling”.  The stronger the melding between the speaker and listener’s brain responses, the better they understood each other.  Professor Hasson said: “Sometimes when you speak with someone, you get the feelings that you cannot get through to them, and other times, you know that you click.  When you really understand each other, your brains become more similar in responses over time.”  On the other hand, when two people are speaking two different languages (or not understanding literally and figuratively), the wavelengths were not in sync.  (

Our brains are an electrochemical organ that can generate 10 watts of electrical power.  Electrical activity emanating from the brain is displayed in the form of “wavelengths” or brainwaves.  Brain cells or neurons, communicate with each other by electrical charges and can be seen via an EEG (electroencephalogram). When new information is received by a neuron, it creates an electrical impulse that triggers the release of a concoction of neurotransmitters, or chemicals of the brain.  One such powerful neurotransmitter has been studied for years in many arenas:  dopamine.  It has nicknames such as the pleasure neurotransmitter, reward neurotransmitter, and the motivational neurotransmitter (the latter is the most popular and accurate nickname).  Dopamine is associated with memory, attention, focus, challenge, and overall, pleasant feelings.  This neurotransmitter release happens at split-second speed from neuron to neuron in a small gap called the synapse.  These neurotransmitters make up our states of mind.  For example, when dopamine and serotonin are released into the brain, a person could be in an alert, yet relaxed, state of mind.  We are born with 200 billion of these brain cells, and they must continuously gather information from the physical environment and internal state of the person, evaluate this information, and then synthesize responses to the situation and the person’s immediate needs.  So, one could say at the basic level, we are at any moment, what our electrical impulses signal to our interconnected neurons which chemical concoction to release.

Trust Concoction:  Pre-Frontal Cortex Cocktails

If we perceive that someone is trustworthy (takes about .07 seconds), our brains can release the positive chemical concoction of a variety of neurotransmitters that help us think at higher levels, think creatively, have more empathy and many more positive responses.  The chart below will help us to understand that certain environmental factors trigger the chemical concoction and trigger certain activation of brain parts that then make one respond in certain manners.  In other words, when we interact with a safe, caring, transparent, honest, “we” mentality, nonjudgmental person, we release the brain chemicals of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.  These positive neurotransmitters can create the states of mind or actions of bonding, higher level problem solving, relaxed-alertness, better learning and even empathy!  This is the pathway that all educators should want their students’ brains to take in their classrooms daily.  When a person perceives trust and care, better learning can occur.


Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, summarizes this process best: “Supportive engagement makes us feel safe, as the oxytocin we release during such conversations enhances our feelings of bonding, and dopamine and serotonin contribute to feelings of well-being.  These neurotransmitters tamp down the defensive role of the amygdala, freeing the prefrontal-cortex…to allow new ideas, insights, and wisdom to emerge.  This part of the brain also contains the mirror neurons that allow us to feel empathy for one another.” Distrust takes a whole different neural network pathway and delivers completely opposite responses.

Distrust Concoction:  Amygdala-Driven Cocktails

On the other hand, when one senses distrust among another person or is not sure if that person can be trusted, the neural network of “distrust” is activated in the brain sending a whole different chemical concoction into the brain which makes that person respond more negatively.  This “triggering” activates the amygdala part of the brain which can actually prevent a person from activating neurons in the pre-frontal cortex – which is where higher-level learning occurs.  When the amygdala is activated negatively and the chemical concoction including cortisol are dumped into the brain, the distrust pathways are activated.  One might respond to this toxic-for-learning cocktail by getting defensive, blaming others, fighting back, getting angry, completely withdrawing or hiding, and literally shutting down learning and creative thinking centers.  See the below chart that explains the trigger-response details.


We can conclude that when teachers communicate with students, when teachers communicate with parents, when administrators communicate with teachers, and when coaches communicate with teachers, they should be highly cognizant that every interaction can trigger the trust or distrust response.  One is powerful for learning and the other is toxic for learning.  In order to keep the “main thing” the main thing, we are going to have to learn the top ways to build trust among those that we work with.

Top Ways to Build Trust

“Without trust, there can be no coaching” (Echeverria and Olalla, 1993).  Stephen Covey in his famous book, The Speed of Trust (2008), shares his definition of trust:  the feeling of confidence that we have in another’s character and competence.  Character = Integrity and it includes how honest we are and how aligned our actions are with what we say and how we say it.   Character also comprises intent – what is our agenda with this person?  The second portion of this definition is competence – can this person really help me become a better teacher or better student?  Does he/she have the skills and knowledge to truly coach me toward my goals?

There are so many ways to build trust among those that we work with on a daily basis.  The Trust Equation by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford in their book, The Trusted Advisor (2000) suggest this simple fraction:


As with fractions, when the numerator gets larger, so does that number.  Therefore, the more credibility, reliability and intimacy (connections) that the coach displays with the coachee, the more trust among them.  Again, as with all fractions, when the denominator gets larger, the number gets smaller.  The more one focuses on self, the less people will trust.  Just from this equation alone, we could create a list of ways to show credibility, reliability and connections with others.  Below are some specific examples of top ways to build trust within your coaching partnerships.

  1. Know your stuff! Be credible.  If the teacher needs help with engagement tools during reading, you should come prepared with several tools he/she could choose from for that specific grade level and with the student needs in mind from that classroom.  Examples will help them understand the strategy or tool faster.  You might even need to model how to use the strategy.
  2. If you say you are going to do something – write it down and do it! Alex Sheen, author of the “Because I Said I Would” movement, is passionate for helping all people stick to their commitments.  You can even create commitment cards to help you keep your promises.  This builds incredible reliability which builds trust among the relationship.  Reliability is the consistent experience of links between promises and actions.
  3. Spend more time with getting to know the people that you coach. Connect!  Do you demonstrate that you care for this person?  Are you transparent with this person – sharing your struggles, questions in life, and examples of how you are not perfect?  Share your life with those you coach, and they will probably share their life too.  BUT, don’t share too much about you – it’s all about getting to know that person so you can help and serve him/her better.
  4. Walk into every conversation as “I am for you!” I call this the “We” mentality.  How do you show that you want to help and serve this person – to help him/her truly be the best teacher or student he/she can be?  How do you show that you want this person to be successful with the main thing?  Do you end each coaching opportunity with:  How can I help you implement that?  Can I find ______ for you?  How did I do as a coach during this dialogue?
  5. Show loyalty and respect to all people. Loyalty means giving credit to others and speaking about people as though they were present (Covey, 2008).  Keeping information confidential is of top priority when coaching someone.  By the way, if they hear you “talking about someone negatively,” they might assume that you might talk about them negatively when they are not around too.
  6. Confront the issues – share the reality. This means taking on the tough issues head-on.  It’s about sharing the bad news as well as the good news.  It’s being honest rather than superficial or hiding the truth (Covey, 2008).  Researchers found that people trust those who actually take the time and courage to confront the issues rather than ignore them or act like they are not a big issue.
  7. Listen and seek to understand first. Be able to paraphrase that person’s perspective very well before sharing your opinions or before diagnosing (Covey, 2008).
  8. Extend trust or have positive intent for others. Believe that they want to get better and improve their teaching skills or achievement (if students).  Trust that they will do their best.  When you trust others – it shows!  They will trust you in return – it creates reciprocity (Covey, 2008).

In order to determine our “trust factors” we could ask those who are closest to us how we come across with the trust factors listed in the following link or we can take the Trust Self-Assessment Continuum.  This assessment could help us determine which trust characteristic we could create a goal toward.

Create a SMART goal ( and then ask a friend to “coach” you toward accomplishing this trust factor.  If we want others to learn, grow and change, we must model that we too are growing, changing and becoming better students, teachers, parents and administrators.

Maintaining Trust:  Ongoing Connections

In order to have more opportunities to build this high trust, we must take time to connect with the people we are helping to grow, change and be the best they can be.  By partnering and having an “I am for you” mentality, we will help others grow and thrive so much faster than by “telling and demanding” that one do something.  We start with finding common ground.  What do you have in common with this person – find something!  Explore the hobbies or experiences (travel, moves, sports, crafts, animals, collections, etc.), interests and/or favorites (food, music, book, movies, vacation spots, historical figures, etc.), convictions, and roles in life.  However, just because you find common ground doesn’t mean that you have a positive, growing relationship.

Taking the time to connect with this person with short conversations will take your relationship a whole different direction.  “Research suggests that effective leadership requires a quieter, more subtle form of communication – namely, dozens of small, every day, interactions driven less by rhetorical talent than by keen emotional intelligence” (Goodwin and Hein, 2015).

I wrote an article about the best ways to connect with students and build more powerful relationships. When building relationships within a partnership coaching situation, keep the following pointers in your mind constantly – in fact, own them as mindsets.  You will be amazed at how quickly your relationships will grow.

  • Make many efforts to connect emotionally with the people that you serve. Share emotional little happenings with each other.  Small little movements such as:  smiling, nodding of head, hugging (if appropriate of course), greetings, complimenting sincerely, text messages, little notes or gifts of encouragement, thanking him/her, etc.  Be fully present while engaging with the person.
  • Treat the teachers that you work with as “an equal,” rather than appearing superior. Look at the coaching relationship as a partnership, making decisions, problem-solving and brainstorming ideas together.  If our brains perceive that someone “thinks they are better than us”, then we tend to not receive the feedback or ideas from him/her.  In fact, we might even resist this person and his/her ideas for growth and change.  Go into every conversation with a positive intent that this person is trying to be the best teacher and wants to succeed.  The receiving person can tell if you truly believe this in your heart.
  • When we insist, they will resist. We’ve all heard this mantra before.  Daniel Pink, author of one of the best books on motivation, Drive, said that there are three factors to increase intrinsic motivation:  autonomy (desire to be self-directed); mastery (urge to get better and improve); and purpose (a reason for doing something).  When teachers believe that the ideas, solutions, and strategies truly came from their brains, there is a deeper desire to implement them.  Good coaches have powerful questions they can ask to help teachers receive feedback “that came from themselves.” To learn more about this type of feedback, please see my article here.
  • Keep the coaching conversations as much of a dialogue as possible.   Honest.  Back and Forth.  The best coaches actually listen more than they talk.  Active listening shows that you want to understand that person more than you want to portray your opinion or point.  When we listen and paraphrase, the teacher feels respected, understood and “equal.”  My favorite book that explains how to have better coaching conversations is Jim Knight’s new book:  Better Conversations:  Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected (2016).
  • Once judgement has been perceived by the teacher, he/she could shut down all conversation and/or openness. This can destroy relationships.  You can paraphrase what the teacher has said so that you show understanding – that is called acknowledging how that person feels about a situation.  We can acknowledge but not necessarily agree.  When you have established trust and have taken the time to connect with that teacher, then you could state your opinion while continuing to acknowledge that person’s perspective.

There are so many other steps we can take to continue to build and maintain trust within our coaching partnerships.  These are some of the top ways to lay the foundation.

Growing with the Best, Research-Based Practices, Tools and Strategies

Anyone who studies John Hattie’s work will know that how a teacher plans and uses his/her practices, tools and strategies can greatly affect student achievement.  He found through his 800-piece meta-analysis that the most powerful strategy for helping students learn at higher levels was ensuring that teachers work collaboratively in teams to “establish essential learnings all students must acquire, to gather evidence of student learning through an ongoing assessment process, and to use the evidence of student learning to discuss, evaluate, plan, an improve their instruction.”  In other words – these are the “main things.”  For example, when a teacher uses the formative assessment process, there is a .90 effect size on student achievement.  When teachers facilitate student self-assessment throughout the class time, there could be a 1.44 effect size on student achievement.   Both of these tools should become teacher goals if they are needed since they produce such high results.   The number one factor to raise student achievement is to help teachers grow, improve and use the right practices, tools and strategies.

We can read great books about how the brain learns best to help us understand the best practices, strategies and tools.  My favorite is Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen.  And if you are trying to understand the best tools for high poverty schools, I love Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Engaging Students in Poverty, also by Eric Jensen.  When coaches are aware of high impact resources, they can guide the learning with the teachers.

Once a school has a focus on a “main thing” to drastically improve student achievement, goals are set and teachers create their own goals in order to improve in this “main thing” area.  They receive professional development in these areas and coaching in the planning and implementation process.  Research shows the power in coaching:  An estimated 95% of teachers who receive ongoing support and guidance through the coaching/partnership approach are more likely to learn and implement the new practices learned from the professional development (Showers, Joyce, and Bennett, 1987).

To conclude, there is much we can do to maximize learning for all students.  It starts with building a foundation of trust and maintaining that trust through collaborative efforts by connecting with teachers personally and professionally to help them achieve their goals so they can become more instructionally intelligent teachers.  They set goals that support the “main thing” so that student achievement is maximized!  An instructional coach has a critical role in helping teachers reach their goals.  Teachers can act as coaches to help students achieve their goals too.  Coaching means building trust so the coach and the coachee BOTH grow and change tremendously, so that we maximize learning every day for our students and for our teachers.

Bryk, Tony. et al. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago
Covey, Stephen. (2016).  How the Best Leaders Build Trust.  Leadership Now:  building a Community of Leaders.
Covey, Stephen. (2008).  The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.
Echeverria, R and Olalla, J.  (1993).  The Art of Ontological Coaching.  Boulder, CO:  Newfield Network.
Glaser, Judith (2014).  Conversational Intelligence:  How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results.  Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion Books.
Goodwin, B. and Heather Hein.  “Communicate in Ways that Count.”  Communication Skills for Leaders.  Educational Leadership, April 2015
Hanlin, D.C. (2014).  The relationship between emotional intelligence and research-based leadership practices of high school principals.  College Park:  Univ of Maryland.
Hasson, Uri. (2010).  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal
Hattie, John. (2009).  Visible Learning:  A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.  New York:  Routledge
Jensen, Eric. (2013).  Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.
Jensen, Eric. (2009) Teaching With Poverty In Mind. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.
Jensen, Eric. (2005).  Teaching with the Brain in Mind.  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.
Showers, Joyce, and Bennett.  Synthesis of Research on Staff Development:  A Framework for Future Study and a State-of-the-Art Analysis, 1987.  ASCD
Südhof TC. (2004) The synaptic vesicle cycle. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 27:509-547.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust Matters:  Leadership for Successful schools (2nd Ed).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Helpful Websites:

To understand Jim Knight’s coaching cycle better:

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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