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The Invisible Elephant

Sometimes it seems the older I get, the less I’m sure of. But this much I know; the path to meaningful change is paved with trust.

Trust can help us accomplish some pretty incredible things. It helps teams soar and it can bolster the confidence of individuals. And the absence of trust can be catastrophic. The problem is trust is sometimes the last thing we consider when we see somebody behaving in a manner that is less than their best.

I’ve always loved math and problem-solving. When I was in middle school I joined an after-school math club that played this game called, “Krypto.” The object of the game was to add, subtract, multiple, or divide a set of five numbers in order to get to a pre-determined target number. And because I’m a bona fide nerd, I’m going to share a quick example:

[1, 5, 7, 8, 24 with a target number of 17]

In the example above, you’d most likely start with 24 and subtract 8. From there it’s pretty easy to work with the remaining three numbers to get to the target of 17.

Back to the story...

I’ll never forget the time our math club held a Krypto tournament after school. I must’ve been in the zone because I was looking at sets of numbers and nailing the target numbers in the blink of an eye. During a break in the action before the final round, the other kids in math club goaded our math teacher, Mr. Nelson, to play me. (And somehow I beat him too.)

Suffice it to say, I made it to the final round and something really strange happened. I honestly don’t remember if I withdrew from the tournament or threw the final round, but I do remember why I didn’t see things through.

I did not want my name announced on the loud speaker as the Krypto champion.

I didn’t trust that my classmates and friends would appreciate my mathematical prowess as much as I did at the time. I didn’t trust that it was safe to succeed at something academic. From my limited vantage point, our school culture (at least as I experienced it) didn’t support me making the effort.

Now you might be thinking this was more of a case of me lacking self-confidence or succumbing to some type of invisible peer pressure. This may have been true. However, I assure you that quitting (or throwing) that final round went against everything in my DNA.

So what does this mean for school leaders?

Many of us work in classrooms and schools where the people we serve have internally opted out of some portion of the work. And their decisions are usually not due to a lack of interest or skill. Nor are they trying to avoid hard work. Their decisions are based on a lack of trust. And a lack of trust can sometimes comes out sideways; it presents itself as negativity, isolation, quitting, or confrontation.

It can be easy to connect the dots above incorrectly and assume a person displaying some of these behaviors is the problem. But that's only because we're missing an invisible part of the picture. Trust.

If you want to build a culture that achieves, don’t start with the math facts or fancy new initiatives. Start by building trust. Trust is the cement that makes meaningful change stick.

It sounds so obvious, so why do we treat trust like the invisible elephant in the room? We know it's there and it can be painfully obvious when it's lacking. But what are we doing about it?

If this blog post resonated, you might like my newest book, Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The book tackles a tension many educators are feeling using a combination of stories and practical strategies. If you’re interested in technology integration, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students is a best-seller with Corwin Press. Both books are built on the belief that everything we do in education starts with relationships and connectedness.



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