A reflection tool to help leaders cultivate a positive and ethical school climate

Building Relationships and Trust With Staff

School leaders reflect on a set of questions to help them assess their ability to build relationships and trust with their school staff.

Level: Adult
Duration: ≤ 15 minutes
My Notes: Add/Edit Notes

Planning For It

When You Might Use This Practice

  • At the start of the school year, especially if you are the new principal or if teacher turnover has been high
  • Before initiating a strategic planning process involving the school staff and community
  • During and after a school crisis, in order to strengthen trust between school leadership and staff


Time Required

  • ≤ 15 minutes over multiple sessions (consider using one set of questions at a time)



  • Optional: PDF of reflection questions with rating scale


Learning Objectives

School Leaders will:

  • Examine and rate their own characteristics that help to build relationships and trust with staff
  • Discuss the insights gleaned from this process
  • Use the results to identify strengths and areas for growth
  • Develop a strategic plan for personal improvement based on the results


Additional Supports


Character Strengths

  • Openness
  • Authenticity
  • Competence
  • Inspirational
  • Empowerment of others
  • Reliable


SEL Competencies

  • Self-Awareness


Mindfulness Components

  • Open Awareness
  • Non-Judgment

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

Before you begin (whether on your own or with a colleague or small group), pause, take a few deep, conscious breaths, and consider the following:

  • Why do I want to do this practice? Because I want to become a better leader, improve my relationships with school staff and students, cultivate a positive school climate, make the world a better place, or something else?
  • Am I ready to reflect on my ability to foster relationships and trust with the staff?
  • How will I navigate feelings of vulnerability if they emerge?
  • Is there a critical friend I can debrief with to get feedback?


For character education and other kinds of prosocial development initiatives to be optimally effective and for it to have the optimal impact on the flourishing of human goodness and academic success, school leaders need to make their own character development a personal priority. In this way, they encourage other adults in the school to commit to their own self-examination and development, in turn, becoming models for students.

Before beginning

There are several ways these questions can be used:

  • Simply answer them for yourself, as a self-reflection activity.
  • Rate yourself on each question (here is a downloadable version):
    • Circle the items that you rated “Never or almost never” and “Sometimes but not often” and that you would most like to improve.
    • Then, choose one or two as top priorities.
    • Next, use a goal-setting worksheet to start an Action Plan for improving each of these priorities.
  • Use them to rate another person, either by simply answering them or by using the rating scale.
  • Have a group of school leaders engage in a self-rating, and then discuss as a group the insights people gleaned from doing this. If your time is limited, you might choose one quality to focus on at a time.
  • Ask staff to rate you using the rating scale, and then compile the results. If you are very brave (courage is a leadership virtue), present the summed results to the staff and discuss them together.
  • Do a 360-procedure where you rate yourself, your supervisor rates you, and those you supervise rate you. Then compare the results, and ideally discuss them with others.
  • Use the results of any of these procedures to identify strengths and areas for growth. Then create a strategic plan for personal improvement based on the results. What specific characteristics do you want to work on? Create SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely). Consider having an “accountability buddy” to check in periodically to help monitor your progress and keep you on track.

The Questions



Good leaders need to be comfortable with themselves, willing to be vulnerable, and willing to authentically share themselves with those they lead and other school stakeholders. Of course this needs to be a measured judgment because the principal sets the emotional tone for the school, and there may be times where a more moderated demeanor will serve the greater good.

  • Do you welcome input?
  • Do you solicit input?
  • Do you reflect on and seriously consider input when you receive it? Are you willing to change?
  • Do you value innovation, new ideas, and creativity?
  • Are you flexible (not rigid)?
  • Do you seek opinions that are different from your own?



A leader needs to lead from her authentic self. It is critical to dig deep into who one truly is, why you chose to lead, and how you can best serve those you lead. Authenticity can also be understood as a form of integrity—a unity of your values, words, and deeds. Trust is critical to effective leadership. People cannot trust you if you are not authentic and do not demonstrate integrity.

  • Do you practice what you preach?
  • Are you the same person regardless of whom you are with?
  • Do people feel they can trust you?
  • Do you consistently live by your principles?
  • Are you reflective (not impulsive)?
  • Do you know yourself well; are you introspective?
  • Do people have a clear sense of who you are, what you value, and why you do what you do?
  • Do you intentionally let others know your motives and deeds?



Staff trust the leader to the degree that they perceive the leader as competent at her job and generally as an educator. When implementing a prosocial development initiative, this means managing the adult culture, guiding and modeling a developmental behavior management philosophy and system, and providing professional guidance on relevant professional development.

  • Are you good at understanding others?
  • Are you effective at building, maintaining, and restoring healthy relationships with others?
  • Do you know how to and do you model effective ways to work with others to improve their behaviors?
  • Do you model personal/professional growth, and are you able to motivate others to develop and grow?
  • Do others see you as a competent leader?



Being inspirational is about what others do because of you, not what you do. Do others follow, emulate, and admire you? To be an effective leader, others have to follow you. It is helpful to differentiate a charismatic leader from an inspirational leader. The former is always liked and may be respected; the latter is always respected and may be liked.

  • Do others want to follow you?
  • Do you motivate others to join your noble purpose?
  • Do others look up to you and emulate you?
  • Can you change others’ behavior simply by being or doing what you want them to be or do?
  • Do you bring out the best in others?



Excellent, caring educators can also be, in effect, dictators. They may be benevolent dictators but dictators nonetheless. It is the rarer case that an educator intuitively shares power and control in any meaningful or significant way. Empowering others is a form of respect for them and helps build relationships.

  • Do you share power with others?
  • Do you encourage teachers to share power with students and to create classrooms that are more democratic?
  • Do you authentically delegate authority to others?
  • Do you listen?
  • Do you have a collaborative leadership style?
  • Are you willing to “lose” debates and disagreements?



A central element in trusting someone is knowing you can depend on him or her. Part of that is being transparent (open, authentic), but another piece is predictability. Is the leader likely to do what they say they will and what you expect they will? Can you count on it?

  • Do you try to keep promises and meet deadlines?
  • Do people feel they can count on you to deliver what is promised or expected?
  • Are you seen as predictable and consistent?



Adapted from PRIMED for Character Education: Six Design Principles for School Improvement by Marvin W. Berkowitz. Copyright © 2021. Published by Routledge. Excerpted by permission of the publisher.

Reflection After the Practice

  • How did you and/or your colleagues respond to this reflection process?
  • What did you learn about yourself and each other?
  • Do you notice a shift in your approach to building relationships and trust after engaging in this reflection?
  • Do you notice any changes in your relationships with students, staff, or parents and caregivers?

The Research Behind It

Evidence That It Works

A study of reform efforts in 12 Chicago schools found that enabling positive, trusting relationships among staff members, including the leadership, is at the heart of school improvement.


Why Does It Matter?

Trusting relationships among the adults in a school form the foundation of a safe and caring school climate. School leaders play a key role in creating this foundation through their willingness to be vulnerable, holding benevolent intentions towards others, following through on their promises, and being open with information—all critical factors that, according to research, build trust.

Taking time to reflect on one’s strengths and areas for growth can increase self-awareness, a powerful tool for building trusting relationships. Indeed, studies have linked a leaders’ self-awareness to trust in themselves as leaders and trust between themselves and their followers.

“Trust is not simply a matter of truthfulness, or even constancy. It is also a matter of amity and goodwill. We trust those who have our best interests at heart, and mistrust those who seem deaf to our concerns.”
–Gary Hamel
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