"The teacher-led model effectively taught students that the school and classroom were places owned and shaped by adults, where any act other than quiet submission on the part of students was tantamount to insubordination. For learners to trust educators as individuals and the system as a whole, they need to feel ownership over the learning space."
Building a truly equitable, progressive 21st century education system means taking what worked well in the twentieth century and enhancing it using a combination of modern technology and highly reflective practice. However, we must also consider things the school system we’ve built doesn’t do well in order to improve our collective efforts to create successful futures for the next generation of learners. One such issue our American system hasn’t historically done well with is creating trust with learners.
If we view education through the old-fashioned, teacher-led lens, then trust may not seem that important in the classroom. Students simply need to “trust” the teacher as an authority figure and “trust” that the content is correct. The fact of the matter is, however, it’s just about impossible for learning to happen without real trust.
As Maslow’s Hierarchy, well-worn in education circles, points out, students’ basic needs must be met before they can tackle or even conceptualize issues of intellectual or educational self-improvement. This is one of the reasons schools provide free and reduced lunches. What we often forget to provide, however, is a place that meets students’ psychological needs: the need to be known socially, the need to form meaningful relationships with others and the need to build healthy self-esteem.
If schools continue to do well meeting students’ basic needs (shelter during the day, food, physical safety) and also find ways to improve at meeting psychological needs, then we’ll have created a system where students are supported and empowered to do incredible things. Here are a few actionable strategies teachers and administrators can use to support students psychologically and build trust with learners:
Provide Each Student with an Individualized Space
The teacher-led model effectively taught students that the school and classroom were places owned and shaped by adults, where any act other than quiet submission on the part of students was tantamount to insubordination. For learners to trust educators as individuals and the system as a whole, they need to feel ownership over the learning space.
While creating a literal “space” for each student in a school may be impractical due to architectural constraints, modern Learning Relationship Management platforms (LRMs) build trust and ownership by offering each student their own individualized square of cyberspace. Students can use these LRMs to create a Learner Profile, a personal learning space that’s all about them: their interests, their strengths, their goals, and a bank of strategies and resources for support. This profile-building and curating process helps learners gain valuable self-knowledge and metacognitive skill and empowers them to explore the world and curriculum in a way that makes sense and feels accessible to them.
Foster a One-on-One Dialogue Between Teachers & Students
Most of us are hardwired not to trust people we don’t know. From an early age, we’re told not to talk to strangers or accept gifts from adults we don’t know. This social conditioning, coupled with the common teacher desire not to be overly familiar with students, has led to decades of distance and misunderstanding between two groups who are supposed to work hand-in-hand.
In order to truly gain and leverage student trust, teachers and administrators must first work to get to know them - and not just through ice breakers done in the first week of school. Ideally, teachers are coaches and mentors to students, and that means there must be a strong, honest, ongoing dialogue that both sides respect. In order to accomplish this, we must break down well-established barriers between teachers and students. Online tools can be extremely useful for this work, as they are, in some sense, the native language of today’s students. While it’s obviously ill-advised for teachers and students to follow each other on traditional social media, strong Learning Relationship Management platforms provide messaging and communication features, so teachers and students can begin or continue a meaningful dialogue in a venue that’s safe and accessible for everyone.
Throw out Punitive and “Gotcha!” Teaching Practices
Here’s a major honesty pill: One of the reasons students don’t trust educators is because we often do a poor job deserving it. The natural teacher reaction to a funny or personal story is so often rebuke or correction that students eventually burn out on even trying to make a personal connection with their teachers. Additionally, we frequently hold ourselves to a separate set of standards for behavior in the learning space, which never goes unnoticed in the “fairness” obsessed world of children and adolescents.
If you’re trying to build a more powerful, trusting relationship between yourself as an educator and your students, take a moment (or a day or a week) to reflect on what you do in the classroom and what messages that sends students about your approachability, trustworthiness and value as a mentor. All this reflection is well worth the work, however, as true trust in the learning environment drives incredible achievement.