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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Developing Students' Trust: The Key to a Learning Partnership

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I'm assistant superintendent of a small school district located just thirty miles south of San Antonio, Texas, with a total school population of 1,100 students. Even though people consider it a rural district, our existence is anything but bucolic.

Natalia is a bedroom community for San Antonio, and as such, we have to deal with many big-city issues. Our population is 75 percent Hispanic, but only about 15 percent of those students speak Spanish. Our biggest concerns are the achievement gap that exists between white and Hispanic students and the overall mentality of underachievement.

Although I wear many hats in my position, the one that feels most comfortable is the one relating to curriculum and instruction -- particularly, helping teachers maximize their instructional power and overcome barriers to student learning.

I am a pragmatist, and I believe in simple, systemic solutions. I firmly believe that the true art/skill/magic/science of teaching is to perfectly match your style with the individual student's needs. Conceptually, many teachers know this is the right way to teach. However, it flies in the face of what most teaching professionals practice. Today, students must adapt or fail.

In my posts, I will reflect on teaching in the truest sense of the word, from several angles. It all comes down to what you believe about students and what the best way to teach them is. Here is the first example of what I believe:

A shaggy but beautiful stray dog came to our house the other day. Our hearts went out to it, and we decided to help it. We put out some food, which it ate, but it refused to let us approach. Every time we tried, it would shy away and stay out of reach. The bottom line is that, for one reason or another, it did not trust us. Who knows what its history was? It trusted us enough to eat our food, but that was as far as it went.

I am sure that, given a few weeks, we could have built a relationship of trust with that dog -- but, unfortunately, it moved on and we haven't seen it since.

Students who come to our classrooms are much like that dog: Unless they trust us, they are unapproachable.

We earn our students' trust by showing them respect in the form of meaningful, challenging, and rewarding learning activities that are worthy of their time and best efforts.

Students in their early years of school are naturally trusting, and -- please don't take this the wrong way -- we abuse that trust in the name of socialization and classroom management. In essence, we teach them to obey rather than to explore. As students get older, they often trust less and start behaving much like our shaggy and suspicious visitor. Most will take what we offer but will not allow a learning partnership.

Trust works the other way, too. As teachers, we have learned to distrust our students. All it takes is one disruptive young person to ruin it for the rest of the students that follow. We don't want to get burned again, so we tighten the rules and narrow the focus. We develop an attitude that we can't trust our students to learn independently. Especially in the early grades, we feel it is our responsibility to control every aspect of their learning activities so things don't get out of hand, or so they don't make a mess.

We could call this way of thinking the color-between-the-lines syndrome: We like everything neat and orderly. So, by the time the students get to high school, some know how to color between the lines, while others drop out because they don't want to.

There is a solution to this -- student-centered learning -- and student independence and choice is a central part of it. Teaching is just as much about taking risks as learning is. A teacher has to take a chance on students and trust them enough to be independent learners. That can't happen if the teacher is uncomfortable about tailoring the curriculum to multiple levels of student performance. (You can bet we will be talking later on about this topic and about what student-centered learning really means.)

As I said earlier, teaching flows from what an educator believes is the best way to teach a student. That belief is not demonstrated in mission statements and platitudes, but it is clearly visible in the way teachers set up and run their classrooms and in how they treat their students.

Once a teacher understands the mechanics of the teaching cycle, discipline and classroom management take a secondary role, and the teacher can really focus on what he or she can do to help all of his or her students learn best -- whatever it takes. We have to get beyond the cycle, and do it in the early grades. Otherwise, we will end up trying to teach a bunch of skittish stray dogs for students.

How do you feel about this approach? Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I looked at the websites that you listed and it looks very interesting. I am honored that you would consider me to be involved. Certainly, I would like to discuss how I can help you in your quest. I will contact you from your website.


Ben Johnson

s hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this post very much; a great deal of what you have said resonates with my own learning as a teacher.

One comment about the "teaching self" that we carry each day with us into the classroom. The teacher that we want to be, and the teacher we suspect that others want us to be represent domains that, I believe, often collide...at the very least they intersect. As I become more proficient at what I do (and it has been a 25 year journey to this point), I find myself more comfortable in standing firmly in the domain of "the teacher I want to be." Not always easy, but always ultimately rewarding!

Stephen Hurley

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I know what you mean. The collision of the domains you refer to are not always agreeable. So I also believe that once a teacher has arrived at a professional level where they are confident in the teacher they want to be, they should stand firm. Any experienced teacher worth their salt can witness that good teaching has some supporting pillars that don't change over time and are unaffected by the latest research fad. In the same breath, there are some techniques that were always bad and are still propagated and in prevalent use, no matter how hard we try to eradicate them.

In regards to your comments about the "teachers we want to be", we are always talking about moving targets, well at least we should be. The "teacher we want to be" should always be improving and learning. The very best teachers I have ever met, no matter how much experience they have, are constantly and sincerely learning from other teachers, administrators, students and parents, and thus the "teacher they wanted to be" is now enhanced into the new "teacher they want to be." You appear to be one of those folks or you wouldn't have spent the time to read or comment on this blog. Thanks for the feedback--a crucial supporting pillar.

Ben Johnson

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that students have to trust teachers to learn from them. I teach midddle school so I probably see even more of the "skittish dog" behavior than elementary school teachers do. It is much easier to teach the students once you get to know them. It just takes so long to get to know 90 or so students. Any suggestions?

Lindsay Pinieski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I entered the public school system, the teacher was seen as the primary instructor and disciplinarian. Now, we try to allow the students to explore concepts and derive definitions on their own. Problem-based lessons offer a great way to differentiate learning so that each student can explore at his or her own pace. All students are encouraged to share what they find which builds trust between the students and the teacher. Every finding is celebrated and is not deemed as the "wrong answer." When students are responsible for their own learning, they seem to appreciate their education that much more.

April Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your ideas on students needing to trust teachers. I think that as a teacher it is so easy to fall into the rut of trying to make every student "color between-the-lines" instead of guiding students to discover through exploration the concepts that we are trying to teach. Students are more successful in the classroom when they are allowed to be responsible for their learning. Allowing students to be responsible for their learning involves risk on the students' and the teacher's parts. Each party must trust each other in order to take the risk. Your ideas have encouraged me to allow my kindergarten students to take more risk and to be responsible for their learning.

Lauren Bagwell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am blogging for the first time as part of a graduate level class. You have great ideas and insights. I am reading a book entitled,"On Being a Teacher The Human Dimension" by Jeffery Kottler. There are numerous chapters on building relationships with students with trust as the foundation. I've been teaching almost five years as an elementary music teacher. I agree that students can become robots which is very sad. I think there should be a balance between structure and exploration. I'll definitely be striving for that balance this year!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your analogy of the lost dog as compared to a student. I previously taught in an inner city alternative school that served middle school age expelled special education students and agree that there needs to be a level of trust built up between the student and the teacher. I feel that trust goes both ways and appreciate the fact that you brought that up on your blog. My students came from various backgrounds, and many of them held no value in education. Teachers were just horrible people who tried to force them to sit in one place, not yell out, and work on reading skills. They did not trust me or like me very much. I too, developed trust issues after being punched in the face by one of them. We were unable to develop a good working relationship where they learned and I guided them until trust was developed. The program, unfortunately, was dropped after the first year and we went our separate ways.

Due to that experience, I work harder each year to build a trusting and respectful relationship with my students. Students need to feel safe and comfortable in order for them to drop the barriers that sometimes develop for students who have learning difficulties. Once these barriers are dropped the students are able to actively participate in the learning process.

I have been reading your blog today and really appreciate the many analogies that you have come up with that pertain to education

Cicely Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do feel as though we are stomping out our students' creativity. My kindergarten students are graded on coloring, cutting and writing (letter formation). I am aware that these skills are mastered based on the development of the student. However, I am required to take grades on these skills. I do comment my students on their effort and grade them on their best work.

Tiffany Vosberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just finished reading a book called On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension by J. Kottler, S. Zehm, & E. Kottler (2005). In chapter 3 the authors discuss how the relationship a teacher builds with their students is the foundation for successful learning to occur in the classroom. The book has some good suggestions for how to build those trusting relationships with students primarily based on showing students that you care.

I have taught first grade for 5 years, and would agree with your comment that in the primary grades students are "naturally trusting." However, I have had a number of students whose trust I had to earn prior to any learning taking place. Showing genuine care and concern for students both personally as well as academically, together with believing in their abilities goes a long way to building that so important trust.

Kottler, J., Zehm, S., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

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