Collaboration: Ensure role clarity & build relational trust

In my previous post about revisiting purpose and countering competition, I start to talk about building trust because it is so integral to many other aspects of collaboration. In this post I talk a little bit more about the practices that build relational trust. 

One of the things in a network or cluster that can cause a breakdown in relationships and an erosion of trust between participants is a lack of role clarity. Developing a cluster vision, beliefs and goals together can foster role clarity over time as long as cluster leaders share leadership roles and involve all participants (including learners and their families) in the development of cluster vision and beliefs. If some cluster participants take on active leadership roles without agreement from others, resentment can build between participants as some take on more responsibilities while others sit back and don't take on any roles. 

I have found that the work of Lave and Wenger on Communities of Practice is useful in clarifying or deciding on the roles of network participants. Their work discusses the value of newcomers to communities of practice and the need to re-negotiate roles as the cluster membership changes. Sometimes when a new participant or group joins the network, it might not be sensible to assume that they will adopt the role of their predecessor or that everyone's role in the cluster should remain the same. I often encourage people to rethink roles, looking for the unique strengths that cluster participants (both new and old) bring to the vision and goals. This applies to any Ministry staff that may be working with a cluster too. Sometimes government officials can be seen as only having a role in providing funding or other support, or as those who check that compliance tasks are completed. However, the involvement of government officials as genuine partners in clusters and networks needs to be negotiated in ways that allow them to add value to the work and to foster productive feedback loops between practice and policy - taking successes and issues and using them to inform future policies. 

Developing trust is the precursor to network members fostering a shared understanding about why they are working together and then agreeing to do so. Only then can they establish good relationships that allow them to move beyond sharing in order to reach a common goal. Trust and respect must be present if group members are to work together to build skills and knowledge (Annan, 2007; Bryk and Schneider, 2003; West-Burnham and Otero, 2004).

To be genuinely committed to network goals teachers need to know and understand their roles in the network and the benefits for them should be clear (Head, 2003). Involving teachers in planning and target setting to gain their commitment is a good start, however according to Bryk and Schneider (2003) they also need to build “relational trust” (p. 42), a type of trust made up of actions that reduce the sense of vulnerability between network members who are dependent on one another to achieve desired outcomes. Such actions, as discussed by Bryk and Schneider, include “respectful exchanges” (p. 42) between group members even when there is disagreement. Leaders can encourage “relational trust” and establish “personal regard” between group members. Other practices such as De Lima’s (2001) “cognitive conflict” (p. 116) which must occur if teachers are to commit to change can be fostered by network leaders. Change and improvement will be enabled through fostering trusting and challenging behaviours alongside each other.

As trust is built between members they can develop relationships that are important for effective collaboration. These are relationships that are critical, challenging, and change focused, and that foster role clarity and a shared understanding about why the group members are working together. Therefore, building trust is critical to building most of the other practices required for effective collaboration to occur.

Practices schools should and should not use to foster role clarity and building of relational trust
Develop knowledge with school practitioners rather than for them.

Focus on positive change in thinking and practices.

Foster a collective belief that the community can achieve its desired outcomes.

Ensure that every network member has the goal of trying to advance the others’ learning.

Ensure strong interpersonal interactions that all network members to learn from each other.

Have formal leaders in the network who hold the role of setting and monitoring the network agenda/goals.

Share the leadership role with others and provide support to build capacity.

Build capability to have respectful exchanges even when people disagree.

Use professional ties to build trust.
Allow debate among teachers and leaders (and others) over state policies.

Use personal ties to build trust.

Have a preoccupation with relationships.

Allow network members to attach their loyalties to cliques that cause segmentation.

Firestone and Pennell (1997) found that teacher networks resulted in a greater focus on building teacher capacity because there was no debate among the teachers over state policies and more focus on teachers’ learning needs. I included this point in the "Don't" column above because I have seen how debate over state policies can weaken a cluster's focus on goals, change and improvement. I believe that there is a time and place for debate over state policies and I don't think it is when networks and clusters could gain more from directly focusing on learning, change, transformation and improvement. Rather than stopping all debate over state policies, I suggest that cluster participants consider carefully whether or not the debate will result in benefits for learners and whether or not the topic of debate is within their circle of influence. It may be best to avoid the de-railing of good work. Perhaps those interested could plan separately for any joint effort in opposing or discussing state policies. 


Annan, B. (2007). A Theory for Schooling Improvement; Consistency and Connectivity to Improve Instructional Practice. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Auckland Faculty of Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

Bryk, A.S. & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: a core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6).

De Lima, J. A. (2001). Forgetting about friendship: using conflict in teacher communities as a catalyst for school change. Journal of Educational Change, 2, 97-122.

Firestone, W. A., and Pennell, J. R. (1997). Designing State-Sponsored Teacher Networks: A Comparison of Two Cases. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 2, 237-266.

Head, G. (2003). Effective Collaboration: deep collaboration as an essential element of the learning process. Journal of Educational Inquiry, 4, 2, 47-61.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

West-Burnham, J., and Otero, G. (2004). Educational leadership and social capital. Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria Seminar Series, August, no. 136.