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In Teachers We Trust: Can Kids Count on You?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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(Updated: 12/2013)

A while back, I wrote a post about how a great school leader has the trust of those they lead. Here's a question for teachers: Do we have the trust of those we teach?

The bottom line and absolute truth is that humans -- whether adults or children -- don't learn if we don't trust. At our school sites, we want the administrators to trust we are doing our best in the classrooms and they want us to trust they are doing their best. (As we know, this isn't always the case.)

Children easily vibe when adults lack trust with each other, and they aren't blind to the hypocrisy of those same adults telling them to trust their teachers and fellow students.

That said, trust is not a given. It has to be earned. And in an interdependent relationship as the one a teacher has with his students, without trust, there is often only a stagnant environment. According to educational consultant and author of Trust Matters, Megan Tschannen-Moran, in a hierarchal relationship, those in power -- teachers, in the case of the classroom -- are responsible for building trust.

Keep it Real

We've all seen the videos at after-school meetings of the model teacher -- the ones that leave us thinking: "Maybe I should be more like that super bubbly teacher with the sweet voice?"

But if you're going to end up sounding like Glenda the Good Witch, don't do it. Sure, mix it up, and add a few new slogans to your repertoire of words of encouragement. But be you. The kids will feel more comfortable, and so will you. Kids can smell phony. (Remember Holden Caulfield?)

Don't Take it Personally

Children are not our peers so how can they hurt or offend us the way someone are own age can? I'm always surprised when a teacher colleague is "crushed" by something a student did, didn't do, or said. We would save ourselves so much heartache by not personalizing the acts and words of children.

Be Honest

If you make a mistake and the kids know it, admit it. When we are honest and model a little humility for students, the trust grows exponentially. An occasional "I'd like to apologize to the class" goes a long, long way. If you are open to admitting to a mistake, the students will also be much more open to doing so.

Be Reliable

If I space out and don't call a friend back for a day or two, it's not that big of a deal. If I don't collect a project on the due date, or if I forget to reserve that bus for the fieldtrip I promised, it can shatter hard-earned trust with students in a single blow.

When I was teaching at an urban school in a poor area, the students were accustomed to being let down by "the system." And truth was, in their eyes, I represented the system. If I didn't follow through on that museum trip I mentioned we'd take, their faces told me everything. The message was this: "See, you are just like the rest of them. What did we expect?"

Be Fair

If you allow the student with a B in your class an extra day to turn in her essay, and don't when the student with a D (who incessantly talks and drives you slightly nuts) asks for more time, then you are not being fair. Fair means all students getting the same rules, and exceptions to those rules. Believe me, if you move the line for one student, and not another, kids talk, and they find out. Unfair teachers are the most despised -- and the least trusted.

Don't Confuse the Two

I don't know if you fell prey to it those first couple of years teaching, but I sure did. I thought if they liked me, they'd respect me and of course, trust me. Surprisingly, trust and liking someone don't really have much to do with each other. According to Tschannen-Moran, "It is possible to like someone you do not trust and trust someone you do not especially like."

Remain Competent

Whenever you are able, go to professional developments to learn new strategies and technology to assist you in teaching all students -- gifted, struggling, and English learners.

Also, stay sharp with the content you teach. That may mean reading the Twilight series if you are a middle school English teacher, or practicing simulated experiments on the computer at home if you teach science.

How do you grow teacher-student relationships in your classroom? What are some tips you'd like to share for building trust with students? We can't wait to hear your ideas!

Was this useful?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jessica Minotti Verderame's picture
Jessica Minotti Verderame
First Grade Teacher from Tampa, Florida

[quote]I read an idea in a parenting book the other day that I thought was really on point: we should talk to kids with the same level of respect that we'd use for our spouse, our religious leader, or our grandfather. When you think about it, there is really no reason to speak to kids more disrespectfully than any of these other important people! Can you imagine if the pastor from your church came over for dinner and spilled his milk? You would never say "I KNEW that was going to happen! I wish you could be responsible for just ONE second! Clean it up NOW!" Plus, this is a GREAT way to model how you expect students to talk to YOU, and each other! I am a school counselor, and am always amazed at how quickly kids, even the youngest ones, can sniff out genuine and authentic respect.[/quote]

As a part-time reading remediation teacher who will be a first- year full-time teacher next fall, I thank you for this insight. What a wonderful resource for working with our kids!
I began teaching as a substitute in an upscale urban neighborhood in the northeast; in the schools which I taught, children were treated as little adults. The culture of the city there seems to demand it. Harsh words/ humiliation (even unintended) can be viewed as corporal punishment.
I have recently moved to a coastal city in the south, and teach in a rural area farther inland. The student-teacher interaction here is so incredibly different from what I just came from! I occasionally wince at what I hear. It's not verbally abusive by any means... just nearly the complete opposite of what I am used to. However, the student-teacher relationships are amazing and I see the respect the students have for their teachers.
As I prepare for my first year of teaching (first gade), I have been spending considerable time trying to figure out my best plan of attack, so to speak. How do I act in the classroom, especially at the beginning of the year? I do have a tendency to be warm and silly with my kids, but I have found that does not necessarily lead to respect. How do I find balance?
Your insight about how to talk to the kids and how to treat them is a wonderful launching point.

Kim Kanaly's picture

Wow! Thanks for the fantastic reminder about the importance of trust in the classroom. I just finished up my first year of teaching and I now understand how important trust is in a student-teacher relationship. Most importantly, I believe teachers must be fair. I have heard students talk about how disrespected they felt when a teacher was unfair. This helped me keep myself in check when it comes to respect and trust with my students.

Sophy Phan's picture

It is very important to realize that the more students trust and respect you, the more they are willing to give you - their cooperation, attention, and effort - thus making you more successful in your teaching. Building trust with students will allow you to become an effective teacher. I believe that being able to relate to the students - getting to know them and listening to them - will really help build this trust and respect from them. Some of these students come into your classroom dealing with neglect from home and by reaching out to them, they will see that you care for them as an individual and trust you. There is a positive correlation between our success and that of the students'. The more they trust us, the more they can succeed and we, as teachers, are more effective and successful. As teachers, we are constantly giving but it is not a give and take relationship, because in order for us to give to them, they must give to us what we need - which is their trust and respect. You can not do your job as a teacher if there is no cooperation and attention from the students. Great advice! I have also believed that if the students like me, they will trust me, and that is not the case. Also, I have learned not to take their comments and actions personally. That has helped me greatly in building trust with them.

Tyler Hockaday's picture

This article is a great read, but man there are just some students that cannot be trusted. No matter how hard you try and to relate and be honest with them they will lie to your face like it's the easiest thing to do. I've had many experiences with students who have lied to my face and I even knew they were lying to me. I always love when parents get caught up in the lie and then they find out that it is their son or daughters fault and they are being lied to as well.

Michelle Venzon's picture

This article was helpful and relates to a book that I am currently reading for a class. I find that sometimes building trust with my students can become a tricky feat. Sometimes the line can be blurred to them and they start to treat me like a "friend". This is where I find it becomes difficult. While I want them to confide in me and feel comfortable, I also want them to remember that our relationship is not quite a friendship. How do we keep that from happening? I have reservations about allowing students, current or former, become my friends on Facebook. I would never want anything from my own page to be misconstrued and put my job in jeopardy. I think adding students to a social network page may be crossing the line a bit. I feel that we can keep good relationships with our students without "friend-adding". Does anybody have other suggestions for staying in the students' "loop"?

GreatScott's picture
HS English

I am a high school teacher. I agree with much of what has been said about the importance of trust and relationships in the classroom. I too scour student files, learn student names by the 2nd or 3rd day of class (I tell them this is my most important homework all year), and remind students that I am human, make mistakes, have emotions, and often learn from them just as they learn from me. I always admit when I am wrong, don't know the answer, or forget/don't follow through on a promise. I am friends with some students on Facebook-- especially students I coach in Debate. I tell students I am happy to be friends on Facebook, but only if they keep their posts clean. If they don't, I un-friend them. I tell them that if they use Fb for their "party and profanity headquarters," we wouldn't make good digital friends.

However, I am excited about the potential of sites like Edmodo and Schoology to allow educators to combine social networking with learning (Social Learning Network). These sites mimic Facebook in style and micro-blogging ability, but they are geared for teachers to use with classes so teachers create class groups, control enrollment, and can provide a social networking environment where students focus on school, assignments, etc. Try it out!! Students love these sites and already know how to use them bc of their similarity to Fb.

Sherri LaVelle's picture

What a great post! I have taught first grade for five years and children definitely know when you're faking it. They have a keen sense of spotting phonies. I agree that you have to earn someone's trust it doesn't just magically happen. One of the easiest ways to earn my students trust is to truly invest in them and be there for them. It takes a little bit of time, but in the long run trust is aquired fairly quickly and I have very strong relationships with my students for that school year and many more to come.

Allison Cook's picture

I taught for 8 years before I had my daughter and decided to become a stay at home mom. I hope to go back to the classroom someday. Reading your post was a great reminder to me of the importance of building significant relationships with our students. I think our students benefit from knowing that their teachers genuinely care for them. I can remember when one of my students was amazed that I remembered her name. I didn't realize that that would be such a big deal...but of course it would...because to her, it wasn't that I remembered her name...I had remembered her.
Speaking words of encouragement to our students, taking the time to notice an award they received or how they are doing in an extra curricular activity can mean a lot to our students and can help to build a good rapport with them. It's also important that our students see that we are real...we can laugh, we can joke, we can be sad...all within appropriate boundaries. We want them to respect our authority but we also want them to feel comfortable in our classrooms and around us.
Some things that I did to help build rapport and trust with my students were:

*Greeting them at the door
*Smiling at them
*Encouraging them
*Saying hello to them when I saw them other places
*Praising them
*Giving them leadership roles
*Allowing ownership of the class-establishing rules and expectations
*Maintaining classroom procedures and organization

Beth's picture

I totally agree with you. Especially, "trust is not a given. It has to be earned". I have the poster in my classroom that states "Respect is not given, it has to be earned". These two go hand in hand. There needs to be a mutual, two-way street between our students and us, as teachers. We both must be trusting of the other and also show that mutual respect. If our students feel we are fake, neither trust or respect will occur. If we ask them what they did over the weekend or ask them what is bothering them, but it is obvious our mind is elsewhere or we are not paying attention, a wall starts to go up. Children are very intuitive.

Unfortunately, in the special education field, many of my students come from dysfunctional homes, where there is already little respect or trust. They then look to us for it and when they don't see it there either, they shut down. They lose trust in all adults, which starts a vicious cycle for them.

As you stated, as educators we need to be real, honest, reliable and fair. The students will know if we are and will be more apt to be willing to learn if they feel their teacher has these qualities.

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