Eric at our the School Culture Summit

Eric at our the School Culture Summit

Trust By Design

Excerpted from Dr. Eric Chagala’s presentation at the recent Learning for Living Culture Summit in Auburn, CA. Eric is the founding principal of VIDA (Vista Innovation and Design Academy) in San Diego, CA and was hired to close a failing school and reopen it as VIDA.

It may sound obvious or even trite to say that trust is the foundation for positive school culture. The truth is, at every school there is a unique combination of students, teachers, and parents who each have their own set of expectations, past experiences, joys, pains, and insecurities. This is why building trust is not easy. It is complex and it is hard, but it is absolutely crucial!

Building trust begins with intentionality and is composed of the following five ways of being.

Being Genuine: As the leader who was hired to completely overhaul a failing school, Eric became very public about sharing his failures and shortcomings. He knew that modeling this behavior would pave the way for others to do the same and redefining failure became a cornerstone of the VIDA way. At Vida, to “fail” means that one has embraced a First Attempt In Learning.

FAIL = First Attempt In Learning

Being Servant-like: When Eric encountered the oldest, grouchiest, most wishing-he-would-retire teacher on campus, he endeavored to simply and consistently serve this individual and encouraged the rest of the staff to do the same. Eric responded to this teacher’s roadblocks and excuses by asking what he could do to help or by personally providing what was needed. Over time, this unengaged, hostile teacher became the strongest supporter of the new school and of Eric.

“The way to really change people
is to inspire their hearts,
to be there for them, and to be vulnerable.”

Being Vulnerable: At one point, shortly after VIDA opened, one of Eric’s colleagues called him on a Saturday morning to let him know that the entire staff felt like Eric was being a jerk. Eric listened and took the feedback to heart without being defensive. To be vulnerable means to check your ego at the door and be brave enough to hear the truth and then act on it.

Being Accountable: Saying What We Mean, Doing What We Say: Eric called an emergency staff meeting on the Monday after he received the “you’re being a jerk” phone call. He apologized and engaged the team in honest conversation to address the issues that were problematic, and hasn’t had any more Saturday phone calls since then.

Being Biased Toward Action: Eric thinks of his position as being more like a camp counselor than a principal. Focusing on coming from a position of play vs. one of power, he aims to treat his colleagues as leaders who have unique gifts and skills to offer.

“How can you tap into the passions and
inspirations of teachers so that they’re fired
up to provide a more authentic and
interesting experience for students?”

There is no fancy algorithm or quick shortcut for creating positive school culture. It takes time, persistence, and courage. And most of all, it takes trust.

Find out more about Eric’s philosophies at, about his work at VIDA at and follow him on Twitter: @drchagala.