We Have To Trust Each Other: Functional Adult Networks Create Social Capital for Students ☆

Current research on social capital shows that vast and varied structural and functional networks affect student achievement on high-stakes, state-mandated student achievement tests.  Student success is, therefore, affected not only by the students’ own disposition and characteristics, but also affected by social capital in the forms of community support, parental involvement in and support of school culture, and school support, both in and out of the classroom.

In peeling back the layers of social capital, researchers have turned their interest to the role of supportive, functional relationships, both those in which the student is a participant, and those by which the student is surrounded.   These relationships, in order to have a positive effect on student success, must be characterized by bonds of mutual relational trust and agreed-upon supportive group norms.  The achievement of goals, in particular, is facilitated by relationships that are functional in their ability to share information through meaningful social relations.  In “Relational Networks, Social Trust and Norms: A Social Capital Perspective on Students’ Chances of Academic Success,” Roger D. Goddard describes the importance of relationships characterized by “high levels of social trust” in that they are “more likely to openly exchange information and to act with caring and benevolence toward one another than those in relationships lacking trust” (Goddard, 2003, p. 60).  Bryk and Schneider (2002) confirmed this essential trust in schools “by showing that trusting relationships among adults were critical to achievement of students in Chicago elementary schools engaged in restructuring” (Goddard, 2003, p. 61).

Adults who disrespect, mistreat and undermine each other plague schools all over the country: I have seen, on both coasts and in schools of widely varying SES (social economic status), that while we are busy encouraging students to tolerate and respect their peers, often we are modeling the opposite when we think the door to the staff lounge is closed.  This discord and enmity leaks out underneath the door, surely filling the halls with the stink of backstabbing and the fog of forgotten collegiality.

So what does all this mean for the Teachers College Reading and Math Buddies?  For me, this research is confirmation of something I have certainly observed working in the classroom of a school here in Morningside Heights.  Not only am I fostering student achievement by building meaningful, trusting relationships with my four little buddies, but I am also helping them to achieve by building a powerful professional and personal relationship with my cooperating teacher. Each morning at nine, she allows me into her classroom community: she greets me with enthusiasm, welcomes me with a chair, and asks how I am doing; she trusts me with four of her students for thirty minutes each, every day of the week; she invites me on field trips to museums and parks.  In return, I respect her and her established learning community, dedicating myself to supporting these students in their progress and achievement.  My cooperating teacher and I have built a relationship on mutual trust and respect, functioning around tacitly agreed-upon and developed norms, and because we trust each other, and because the students see this trust, we each confirm for them in turn the authority and ability of the other.

Certainly I am providing direct social capital for my four little buddies within the individual dyads: I am one-on-one emotional and academic support inside of the school community, and I also provide evidence of community support as a member of Teachers College functioning inside the walls of the school.  However, I think it would be a mistake to discount the importance and impact on the social capital reserves of the buddies through my meaningful relationship with their teacher.  By constructing norms of relational trust, adults model the creation of structural and functional networks of social capital for their students, leading them by example towards greater success.


Goddard, R. D.  (Spring 2003).  “Relational Networks, Social Trust and Norms: A Social Capital Perspective on Students’ Chances of Academic Success.”  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.  Vol. 25, No. 1.  Pp. 59-74.