Working More Collaboratively in the Wake of COVID-19

I was encouraged yesterday by a few tweets I saw from some education leaders who wondered aloud how various stakeholders in public schools might come to work more collaboratively in the wake of COVID-19. What if we could find ways to get outside of our "us vs. them" mentality when it comes to the divisions that often exist between classified, certificated, and administrative staff; the union and district administration; community members and schools; or even individual schools and the district? Is there some way we could all let go of long-held disputes and just work together to serve young people? What would that be like? How could we achieve it?

I greatly appreciated the questioning because it really got me thinking. What WOULD that be like? Why DOES working in public education feel adversarial so often? I mean, when I began teaching, I imagined most education professionals would probably get along pretty well. After all, we all chose this work for presumably similar reasons. But when I got into the classroom, and I began taking an interest in decisions being made that affected the schools, communities, and classrooms I worked in; I began to learn about the touchy politics related to school budgeting, boundary making, and class size. I discovered that even educators garrison themselves into opposing camps.

So, is there a way we can do things differently in the wake of COVID-19? I love the question. Any chance I'm offered to radically rethink the way we do things - I'll take it. So let's get to work. It seems to me that the first place we're going to have to start is by asking what's stopping us from working together now. And if we're going to consider that, I always think it most useful to get as close to the root cause as possible. And, when I sit back and reflect on all the teams, workgroups, and difficult conversations I've been a part of, I keep coming back to a single basic problem: a lack of trust.

Why is trust a basic problem? In an environment as politically charged as many of the school systems I've worked in, where the stakes often feel high and patience low, very few productive conversations are possible without trust. Without trust, we often struggle to even take another person at their word. And if we have a hard time believing what another person is saying, it's unlikely we're ever going to feel confident that they're working with us toward shared goals. 

Now, I should note that my experience in teaching has mostly been in what I consider to be violently underresourced schools. Some schools I've worked in did not employ school counselors or nurses, and nearly all of them expected near daily superhuman tasks of every adult in the building. You might imagine or be familiar with the sort of stress that is created in those environments, and how it can erode trust quickly. While that may not be the situation everyone finds themself in, I include this background about myself so you can better understand my perspective as you read through this blog post. I also believe there to be a tragically high number of schools in our country that match this description quite well.

If we could agree that trust is one of the most basic ingredients to productive collaboration among people with different roles and perspectives, then it might make a lot of sense to ask ourselves why trust is so hard to come by. Identifying a few of those reasons and considering some possible ways forward is the purpose of the rest of this blog post. I hope you'll find it useful and consider offering your own insights.

When I sat down to brainstorm the things that I've noticed tend make trust difficult (particularly some of the more upstream factors that often undercut possibilities for trust before they even have a chance), I began to divide them into structural/institutional factors and individual/interpersonal factors. In hopes of organizing my ideas in a way that makes sense, that's how I'll categorize those factors below.

Structural/Institutional Factors that Make Trust Difficult

When I talk about structural or institutional factors, I'm referring to factors that are inherent in the systems that make up the society and institutions in which we live and work. Even though structural/institutional factors may take a long time to change (in some cases, they may not be likely to change in our lifetime, and in others, they may not be ideal to change), I still think we benefit tremendously simply by being able to recognize some of these factors and how they are affecting us. I decided to begin with these factors because they have so much influence on how we interact with each other on an individual level, which we'll get to in a later part of this post. However, the two categories (structural/institutional and individual/interpersonal) are certainly very much intertwined with one another.

I think that possibly the most powerful structural factor working to inhibit possibilities for trust in many school systems is a lack of resources. School districts that are strapped for cash and professionals who barely have time to eat or go to the bathroom during the school day do not make for the sorts of ingredients that anyone would want in a recipe for trust. While this factor may not immediately seem intuitively responsible for low trust in school systems, I believe it has its hands in most, if not all, of the more obvious factors I write about below. I hope I can make this connection clear.

One factor hindering trust that a lack of resources can acutely exacerbate is social toxicity. Socially toxic environments exist where the necessary ingredients for social health, namely healthy and meaningful relationships, may be relatively low, and socially poisonous ingredients, such as high-risk behavior or bullying, may be relatively high (more on social toxicity in schools here). For a variety of reasons (any one of which could easily take an entire blog post), far too many of our schools have dangerously high levels of social toxicity. Both young people and adults, bringing unmetabolized and often unconscious trauma through the doors, regularly contribute to social toxicity. Socially toxic environments raise stress hormones, make it more difficult for us to work through our thoughts and emotions fully, and encourage defensive forms of reactivity. Working with barely enough time to accomplish basic job tasks, educators in underresourced schools also lack time to communicate clearly with one another, often work with overly burdensome class sizes, and lack basic social-emotional health support for their students and themselves. All of these factors have a tendency to damage existing relationships among education professionals and stifle relationships that might otherwise grow in less toxic, better resourced environments. 

Another factor I think we rarely discuss that makes trust difficult across a school district is the sheer size of our districts. Human beings are social creatures, and I think we may be healthiest when we have lots of face-to-face contact with the people we make important decisions with in our lives and in our schools. Unless we're working in extremely small districts, the opportunity for regular face-to-face contact and communication with people who are high-stakes decision-makers is extremely limited. It can be dangerously easy for us to vilify the caricatures we create in our minds of those with whom we disagree when we do not have the necessary amount of face-to-face communication with them. I suspect this happens whether we are being impacted by a decision or we are the decision-maker, and I think it can happen especially when our structures ensure that we spend most of our time with people who agree with us, or who at least share our positionality in the system. I'm afraid we do not do a good job of supporting people in different roles to spend much time with one another, but even when we do, we very literally struggle to communicate with each other across our different positions. The people with whom we spend our time reinforce our beliefs and construct the nuanced meanings we give to the words we use. When we encounter someone who does that with folks from perspectives other than the ones we're used to, it can be almost as if we're speaking a different language. I'm afraid this often leads to loads of inaccurate assumptions we make as we have these conversations, and they often only get reinforced after we leave them.

Even if we did have more time to spend with each other, and we spoke the same language, I rarely exist in politically charged spaces where those in disagreement have the sort of communication skills necessary to have meaningful conversation. I would argue that mainstream culture encourages the sort of discourse habits where each side is primarily invested in proving the other side wrong. I believe we pick up on this communication culture both consciously and unconsciously from our experience with media and in conversation with one another. Unknowingly, many of us engage in these conversations more to meet a need to be heard (which is totally legitimate, just often out of alignment with supposed purpose of the conversation) than to learn and grow from the interaction. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this is always the case, just that it might be the case more often than we realize. I believe we have a lot of work to do when it comes to shifting the way we engage with each other. This is sort of along the lines of the "It's not what you say; it's how you say it" mantra. Similarly, one could say, "It's not what you hear, it's how you hear it" (or whether you're even in a physiological and mental state capable of hearing it).

Perhaps the most pernicious and overwhelming structural/institutional factor making trust virtually impossible among all stakeholders in public schools is the widespread historical trauma many different groups of people have accumulated in their experience with public schools. Many of us know intimately or have learned about the longstanding and ongoing racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, adultist, and sexist policies and practices school systems and educational professionals have engaged in since public education began in this country. The effects of these systems of oppression are staggering, and it means that if we work in the public school system, regardless of how familiar with this legacy we are, or how equity-minded we may be, lots of people are going to distrust us, including other employees of the school system who may have chosen to work in public education specifically to do anti-oppressive work. It doesn't necessarily mean we've upheld these systems recently (although it's likely most folks have). It means that until our colleagues and community members can get to know us on a personal level, there's a decent chance they might make assumptions about us based on the fact that we represent a system that has historically treated many groups of people with extreme violence. This reality is not something any one person or small group of people is going to fix, and it's not something we as a society are going to fix soon. But being aware of the lingering effects of these traumas, and the understandable distrust they've created in all kinds of people, should help guide our thinking about how we work toward trust with one another. It may not always feel fair, but we will rarely be judged by others for who we really are, and the social dynamics of the world we've inherited are one reason for that. We should be careful about taking this distrust personally. The reactivity it can generate will not help others trust us more. More importantly, this understanding should help us explore alternative explanations for why we weren't able to communicate with another person rather than falling back on an explanation as simplistic as, "Well, they clearly don't get it."

Individual/Interpersonal Factors that Make Trust Difficult

Structural/Institutional factors often shape the nature of our inner realities and interpersonal experiences, so it should be no surprise to find that many of the individual/interpersonal factors that make trust difficult stem from factors above.

I'd like to begin this section by looking at some of the ways we're learning about how trauma can impact our ability to trust. I think it's relatively well understood today by those who study it that trauma can create a lingering after-effect in the body that prompts someone who's experienced trauma to see the threat of a similar trauma more quickly and clearly. While this is quite useful for avoiding future danger, it can also sometimes be maladaptive in predisposing us to interpreting possible future traumas in places that it may not actually exist. When this happens, we tend to adopt understandably defensive postures when we interact with people who remind us of people who've traumatized us in the past. This reality has massive implications for trust and for how we go about attempting difficult conversations about very difficult decisions that impact people's lives and their children. It also has implications for how people work with one another in relationships where there is an imbalance of power, which occurs daily in public education. Poorly handled, these relationships are at high risk for triggering both those who have relatively higher institutional rank and those who have lower rank, but perhaps most harmfully those with lower rank (see Julie Diamond's excellent book, Power: A User's Guide, for loads more on this). And if those relationships have been mishandled in the past, space must be created and the skill must be present for recovering them if trust is anywhere near possible. Otherwise, we risk putting people who've been effectively been abused in situations where they feel under regular threat in schools. Polyvagal theory suggests that attempting to have difficult conversations while people are in physiologically upregulated states is virtually a waste of time, and may even lead to situations that degrade trust even further. I believe an understanding of this reality could lead to significantly improved attempts to work collaboratively toward trust, on both individual and systemic levels.

Another seemingly obvious interpersonal reality we deal with that often makes trust difficult is that we do not all see the world the same way. Moreover, the way we have learned to understand the world is often extremely precious to our psychological state of well-being, particularly we when carry unmetabolized trauma. A intensely strong commitment or identification to our worldview is very often a symptom of feeling extremely threatened by something in the world we may or may not be entirely conscious of. The commitment we make to our sense of the way things are, and the way we think we fit into them, even when those beliefs are not particularly positive, nevertheless acts as sort of a lifesaver in the middle of a vast ocean of uncertainty. If we are in this situation, we might have an extremely difficult time being in a room with someone who tries to take that lifesaver away from us by suggesting a course of action that seems wildly inconsistent with our worldview. It will literally put us into survival mode, and make it impossible for us to listen or to speak clearly. Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that decisions made about school policy or practice don't have consequences for people in the real world. They absolutely do. Sometimes that person who's threatening our worldview is advocating for a policy that may very well threaten our well-being. And so there are many, many times when a conversation about what direction to take does represent a very real threat to a person or a group of people. Whether the threat is real or imagined, trust will be extremely hard to come by in those discussions that test people's basic sense of themselves and their world without adequate supports.

Let's move now to look at some of the interpersonal effects impacting trust that occur when stakeholders lack the opportunity to engage with one another regularly. As human beings, our sense of safety is deeply connected to our sense of belonging and community. The Dunbar Number refers to a popular theory concerning the number of people with whom we can have authentic and meaningful relationships. The basic premise suggests that beyond a certain number of people in our lives (possibly around 150), we simply do not have the brain space necessary to keep up with the sort of nuanced information necessary for sustaining meaningful relationships with others. When we include family, work, and social media, most of us are trying to keep up with way more than 150 folks. Our professional relationships may especially suffer when they predominantly consist the sorts of interactions in which we only ever see each other briefly once or twice a week, and get most of our correspondence with others via email. This is the unfortunate reality in many large institutions. Behind those emails and half-hearted hallway smiles, it becomes too easy to construct horrific caricatures of other people based on assumptions that confirm our sense of the way things are. As these unhelpful thoughts accumulate over time, they work behind the scenes to sabotage any possibility for a meaningful conversation with someone we disagree with.

The ongoing buildup of hostility and mistrust that can occur in some school buildings and systems can create a positive feedback loop. The more we erode trust, the more we erode trust. When we consider the factors that drive this positive feedback loop of diminishing trust, I think it is important to call out one of the most powerful drivers of it: virtually every employee working in the public school system is overwhelmed. I can't speak for other education professionals, but I always felt that being a teacher was really two jobs: there's the teaching part with students (which takes the overwhelming majority of our day), and there's the work outside of the classroom like grading, calling home, making CPS calls, following up with counselors, tutoring, going to meetings, taking attendance, long-term and short-term planning, differentiating for various learning needs (all of which would take up a full eight hour day without students ever being in our classrooms if there were time for it). The result of this overwhelming situation is that many of us are not able to keep up with our basic job requirements. In my experience, education professionals tend to deal socially with this reality in two ways. One approach is to present to colleagues as if we're superhuman and not at all overwhelmed by the demands of the job. This shows up in the form of subtle bragging about how we do things or off-handed questions about why other people can't keep up. This is understandable for those of us who seek the security and confidence that can come from being seen to do one's job well. The other way I've noticed we deal with the overwhelming workload is to vent about it with people we can trust, and otherwise feel inward shame for not being able to keep up with the imaginary "good educator" image we have in our heads. All in all, this creates an atmosphere in which being publicly honest about one's challenges can be far too vulnerable for most people. Moreover, public honesty about failure to meet basic job requirements can be quite threatening for a person professionally. I imagine this becomes more and more true as a person moves up the educational hierarchy. We do not exactly live in a culture that rewards leaders for being honest about their struggles or perceived failures. When it comes to extremely high-stakes topics like budget expenditures, staffing decisions, test scores, or graduation rates; the culture we live in means that people will often lie or deceive in order to appear as if they're adequate to the job (not at all to say that that's happening in every situation - just that there is incentive to do this). Naturally, others can often pick up on that through reading nonverbals or noticing evidence that fails to support their claims, and this, again, by way of underresourced school systems and overworked professionals, creates quite a difficult context in which to trust.

Possibilities Moving Forward

If you accept my premise that educational stakeholders working together more collaboratively in the wake of COVID-19 depends on building trust, then we might also be able to agree that we have a lot of work to do. Here are a few things in the way of solutions that I think might have some positive impact.

To my mind, the most glaring need our system has when it comes to being better equipped for trust-building is being better resourced. I'll leave that here for now, with the understanding that it's a pretty well-understood problem in public education, and change toward that end will take considerable time and effort. And even if we were fully resourced, there would still be plenty of work to do in building trust, so what would that look like?

First, and this may seem strange, but I don't think we are benefitted in building trust by beginning any conversation with this statement: "Look - we're all in this for the same reason: to help young people. So we need to be working together on this." I don't know about you, but I think a version of this statement has been spoken at virtually every workshop or conversation I've been a part of in public schools that was intended to outline a new initiative or build trust. And, I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. In fact, I think it erodes trust. I'll tell you why I really struggle with the use of this statement. First and foremost, I really do not believe that education professionals choose this line of work for the same reason. Even if we all consciously decided to enter education to help young people, humans almost never do things for just one reason. Moreover, I believe that our most powerful intentions are often unconscious. We may enter into something with a conscious intention, but actually be far more motivated by an unconscious intention. What intentions besides helping kids do people who work in education have, you ask? Well, there are many. Off the top of my head, I'd say: to earn a living (some far more lucrative than others), to bolster a self-image, to earn prestige among peers and particular segments of society, to act out unconscious codependent tendencies learned in childhood, an unconscious compulsion to save others, not knowing what else to do...

Now, I'm not saying I know why most professionals begin their careers in education. I'm also not judging any of these as inherently wrong. (I actually think that part of the problem is that education professionals are really not allowed to admit having various reasons for being educators in our professional culture. We are all expected to identify as rescuers of a sort, and this identity is often used against us when it comes to how much we should be expected to work or how little we should be expected to make.) It's just that I think that if we want to take a more useful approach to understanding each other as we move through hard conversations, we'd better understand that we're really not all in this for the exact same reasons, or even for just one reason, AND that our reasons often change over time. And our motivations will absolutely affect the way we engage with each other. 

Moreover, people in my experience who use the "We're all in this together statement" are very often (not always) unconsciously wielding their power and privilege unconsciously and irresponsibly. I often hear it used by someone with relatively high institutional rank in a situation in which they don't want an open discussion about a decision that's been made by a small number of people with a necessarily limited viewpoint without the consent or even input of the large number of people who it impacts. "We're all here for the kids" serves to distract from this reality by supposing that the decision that was made is infallibly in favor of children, and that it's now time for everyone to enact it. The phrase also sometimes comes with, "Come on, everyone. We all need to trust each other here." I struggle with this too because, to me, any simple appeal for working together that doesn't acknowledge and appreciate the complex structural, institutional, individual, and interpersonal realities we live that make trust difficult rings shallow. It implies that the speaker either does not understand the time and effort it might take to build real trust or would prefer to ignore the challenge for the sake of expediency and "getting things done," often projecting a sense that whatever they believe to be best for students is what is best for students, or "if only they would get on board, we could work these things out."

Long story short, my request is that we stop using these phrases and not imply that working together collaboratively should be simple.

That tangent aside, I certainly believe that a majority of people who invest their time in public education have the interests of students among their motivations. But a further problem emerges in that the question of what truly is in the interests of students is never widely agreed on, and there's good reason for this. We're different people with different perspectives. I'm sure thoughtful people have disagreed about what's best for young people for as long as people could disagree. The purpose of school and what young people should get from it is an enduring philosophical question that is valuable not because there will ever be a satisfying answer to it, but because there won't be. I actually believe that, in some ways, disagreement here is what we should be aiming for. I also believe opportunities for trust are lost when we don't commit time for having this dialogue openly and honestly among all stakeholders. I think we avoid this in our country because we're not sure how to handle the enormous variety of opinion that might emerge, and we're too busy trying to make sure schools succeed in their most basic functions, like safety or making sure classrooms have teachers in them. Hearing people's opinions about why they do the work they do or what they want for their student might feel to some like a waste of time when we could be doing something more "productive," but I think we build a lot of trust through listening. There is no need for us to agree on the big philosophical questions. There is a desperate need for us to understand each other's views. In addition to building trust, I think these dialogues also help us all learn.

However, it has always seemed to me that one of the most divisive realities in our decision-making processes is that there are often massive differences of perspective and opinion between those who look at public education from the lens of individual students and families (as paraeducators, teachers, students, and families often do), and those who necessarily have to look at outcomes from a system-wide perspective (as administrators, union leaders, and lawmakers do). Both of these perspectives are inherently valuable AND limited (and, of course, there are lots of people who attempt to look through both lenses). However, those who have power to make decisions in our systems are nearly always those who see most regularly reason through systems-level thinking (see James C. Scott's book, Seeing Like a State, and Jerry Muller's excellent book, The Tyranny of Metrics, for an overview of historical and contemporary data use and misuse by those whose job requires them to make large, systemic decisions that impact lots of people). If we're going to build trust and improve systems, I believe we must find ways to have both perspectives equally represented in decision-making processes (in addition, of course, to representation of all identities). Most importantly, voices of stakeholders from various backgrounds need to be BOTH represented in discussions around big issues AND have equitable amounts of power in determining the outcomes of those decisions. We absolutely must understand that an essential part of building trust is sharing power equitably. Obviously, this is no easy task, and there's no perfect way to do it, but even simple actionable steps in this direction can go a long way toward building trust.

Many of the challenges that stem from diverse perspectives might be supported by innovative strategies within districts for people to sit down and practice listening to one another. A facilitator might guide participants from varying backgrounds and positions through listening strategies and identify opportunities that arise for building trust. We could all benefit from learning and practicing new ways of talking to each other. Nothing would "get done" in our conventional way of thinking, but we would strengthen our bonds with one another and likely lower some of the social toxicity that exists in our systems.

In a similar vein, I'm afraid many of us need to learn almost entirely new skillsets when it comes to useful communication involving tough issues. Our go-to one-sided attempts to prove others wrong and demonize those we fail to understand will ensure that we remain at low levels of trust. Nonviolent Communication is one powerful tool I've found in working toward this. However, we should be wary of efforts to "civilize" communication that reinforce a violent cult of civility that functions to gaslight people, denying their emotions and expression of their unique lived experience. We must also work, simultaneously, toward raising our awareness about the many ways we've all been conditioned to imagine people as part of a violent social hierarchy as a function of things like race, ability, religion, class, sex, or gender expression. Attempting to disagree with one another openly and healthfully WHILE ALSO working to raise our consciousness around systems of oppression is no easy task, but I do think one can be supportive of the other. This effort, in addition to equitable power sharing, might be among the most important things we can do in building trust system-wide.

Lastly, it seems vital to me that the education system take the time to truly digest the substantial implications of polyvagal theory, one of many valuable theories which describe how trauma impacts bodies, and how upregulated physiological states make it nearly impossible for us to truly communicate. There are ways we can learn to regulate ourselves, not just with young people, but also with each other. These must be understood going into difficult conversations with people. Some of those methods involve learning to work internally with our own triggers. Others involve learning how to structure environments that help calm our nervous systems.

If you've managed to make it this far, I hope some of the ideas I've shared here have felt useful. If you feel I've gotten something wrong, or you'd like to share your insights with me, please reach out or comment below. We all become smarter when we can engage.


  1. Some great points here! You nailed it on the head about trust! And face to face anything is better than what we are having to do due to the pandemic. I like your thought about finding what truly is in a students best interest. I have actually - only occasionally though - had students whose best option was working from home online. These were rare, and usually students with high self motivation who tended to be loners. As someone who has experienced trauma myself, I enjoy learning more about how it affects our learning.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, James! Good points. I wonder, too, about how we find creative ways to support students and staff for whom our school environments can be quite triggering.

  2. Hi James,

    I really appreciate your thoughts here. I wonder (similarly) about how to build models of education that truly hear and have space for all stakeholders to have some sense of collective ownership/input/shared power.

    One thing that I'd like to share that I'm currently learning/working on is the systematic model of Sociocracy. For background:
    It works great in tandem with Nonviolent Communication (which I saw you mentioned above):
    And....I believe it has great potential for schools (the original methods/usage were actually created/honed in a school). For background on schools that are attempting to implement:
    And there's this awesome documentary made about a few schools in the Netherlands that use sociocracy:
    I currently work/teach at a school that is attempting to interweave sociocratic methods throughout our organization (work for a small charter in rural central Michigan) and while implementation at first has seemed a slow process that does require a fair amount of upfront learning... It has slowly transformed our organization to be more transparent, inclusive, clear on aims/purpose and more!

    I'm super curious about how Sociocracy could weave itself into larger schooling contexts such as larger districts (although it may be tough because it asks for administration to distribute/share power at a level that may be uncomfortable for them). Perhaps you have ideas?

    Also, appreciate your insight and wonderings about trauma and schools. It's something that's alive for me both as I look inward and think about my school.


    1. Hey Will,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the blog post and respond. I'm new to sociocracy, and extremely curious. I'm going to take some time to learn about it. Maybe we can connect and share some thinking. I think we might be able to really bounce some exciting ideas off one another.


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