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Gallup Blog
3 Ways Public School Leaders Can Foster Trust
Gallup Blog

3 Ways Public School Leaders Can Foster Trust

by Valerie J. Calderon and Nate Dvorak
Chart: data points are described in article

Americans' confidence in public schools rose to 36% in 2017, an eight-year high.

However, there is still enormous opportunity for growth, as school leaders can take a number of steps in their local school districts to ensure they capitalize on this positive trend in confidence.

Here are three strategies for school leaders, informed by Gallup research and the real-world experience of school districts around the country.

1. Invite and share feedback.

District leaders need to continually invite feedback from key constituents -- students, parents, faculty, staff and community members. These groups have unique experiences with the district and want their opinions to be heard.

This feedback can be obtained using large-scale surveys in some cases, and periodic one-on-one or small-group conversations in others. An intentional mix of quantitative and qualitative feedback allows leaders to both align and strengthen perceptions of the district across key groups.

Gallup research with parents of school-aged children shows that only about one in three have participated in a survey from their child's school. And fewer than half of parents who have participated say they received feedback on the results. But more than seven in 10 parents who received feedback say the survey can lead to positive change -- and that optimism, in turn, inspires higher engagement with their child's school.

Thousands of schools are collecting and sharing meaningful feedback from their students, using the Gallup Student Poll. The Gallup Student Poll is offered once per year at no cost to schools and provides an easy way to measure how engaged students are with school and how hopeful they are for the future. This survey is available for schools this fall from Sept. 25 through Oct. 27, and schools can register now to be part of it. The Gallup Student Poll measures what is right with schools and informs leaders about how they can create a more positive school culture for students, faculty and staff.

Gathering, sharing and acting on employee feedback is equally important to building an engaged school culture that inspires trust and confidence. Gallup research suggests that engaged teachers inspire engagement in their students. Employee feedback is a compass that helps leaders understand their employees' needs and make positive change that builds a trusting place for people to live, learn and work together.

2. Define and communicate a clear identity.

To create strong, positive perceptions, leaders should first take time to specifically define how the district wishes to be known in the community. Once this has been drafted and agreed to, leaders need to ensure they communicate consistent messages across constituent groups. The tone of these messages can vary but should include student and school success stories, while accounting for community realities. The identity of the district -- and the corresponding stories to communicate this identity -- could focus on graduation rates, district diversity, local economic conditions, and work or postsecondary opportunities for students. Regardless of the story shared, leaders should define and articulate the identity of their district and continually repeat and reinforce that identity through positive messaging.

By communicating messages that continually reinforce the mission and message of the school or district, leaders strengthen culture and cultivate trust and confidence. Again, the heart of these messages may be informed by feedback gathered through surveys and in-person conversations aimed at uncovering what people are most proud about and what they most appreciate about -- and need from -- their local school.

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3. Share successes that inspire confidence in others.

A recent Gallup survey of U.S. superintendents shows they are excited about the future of their own districts, while their optimism about U.S. public education more generally is blunted. These leaders should be sure to share the specific ideas, plans and achievements that excite them with each of their constituencies and, foremost, with their leadership team. They should also encourage administrators and leaders across their district to do the same in their local school communities.

Gallup research shows followers need trust, compassion, stability and hope from leaders. Leaders can build confidence and trust in their local public schools by sharing back what they have heard from surveys and focus groups, consistently highlighting what's working, letting their people know why they feel excited about the future, and humbly acknowledging and addressing areas for improvement. Consistent transparency and focused communication can help boost trust and confidence and inspire a hopeful vision for the future.

While it is certainly too soon to tell whether the reported upswing in public school confidence will persist, the momentum is positive. School leaders have the power to foster trust and confidence in their communities.

Does your school know the best ways to invite feedback and communicate a clear identity among students, staff and parents? Gallup can help you find out.

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