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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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