Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Trust Your Students

September 13, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

Education is catastrophically deficient in trust. Pro-accountability education reformers presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable teachers. Traditional instructors presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable students. Both viewpoints emerge from a noble desire to make classrooms high-performance spaces, but in actuality they suppress excellence.

Exemplifying an exasperating phenomenon that would make Karl Marx tsk, teacher mistrust metastasizes, particularly in the most underserved classrooms. Poor students and minorities, prejudged with the most ungenerous stereotypes, are consigned to the least constructivist and democratic classrooms (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000; Solomon et al., 1996). Already placed with remedial-oriented drill and skill teachers, students witness their peers ramp up their antisocial behaviors in response to authoritarian punishments (Cothran and Ennis, 1997).

Teachers can break this cycle with trust, even if it means risking that students will betray your faith in them. You have to make yourself vulnerable; otherwise, you aren't doing it right. Trust is an action word.

Benefits of Teachers Trusting Students

When teachers trust their students, the results are astonishing.

  • Academics: Academic performance improves (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001), and so do test scores (Ennis & McCauley, 2002).
  • Positive Behaviors: Students are more willing to follow classroom norms and work cooperatively with peers.
  • Engagement & Risk: Learners are more likely to engage with the curriculum and ask questions.

When teachers trust their students, their pedagogy changes.

  • Progressive Instruction: Teachers are more willing to engage in constructivist practices, according to the dissertation research of Virginia Louise Durnford, because progressive practices require instructors to trust that "children are capable of creating their own knowledge" (Rainer, Guyton, & Bowen, 2000, p.10).
  • Increased Differentiation: Classroom professionals are more likely to reshape old methods of instruction and try alternative strategies. They empower students who want to follow individual paths to content mastery.
  • Democratization: They share more control of the class with students (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001).
  • Improved Practice: Teachers seek out professional development (Tschannen-Moran, 2004) and grow their abilities.

In the following sections, I'll define trust and then offer research-supported ways of manifesting Vitamin-T.

What is Trust?

While love exercises the heart, trust exercises the soul.

Durnford writes that "definitions of trust include one or more of the following attributes: vulnerability, benevolence in motivation, reliability, competence, honesty and openness (Tschannen-Moran and Hoy, 2000)." The truster has to believe that both parties share mutual goals and that the trustee has the capacity to meet expectations.

Trust Factoids

  • Students' reputations affect trust.
  • Some people have more propensity to trust than others.
  • Poverty and diversity negatively affect trust.
  • High levels of trust -- the realm of faith and hope -- are hard to shake, even in the face of betrayal.
  • Trust is gradually developed in stages. Don't believe in trust at first sight.

How to Trust Students (and Show It)

    My students are like oysters. Life has not been good to them. Most of them have failed [. . .] To protect themselves, they build this shell around them. And as a teacher, what I have to do is wear away, literally by perseverance, wear away that shell to the point where I can get inside, or I have to make them open up . . . because once you show a student that they can succeed, you've found that pearl that is hidden deep inside.

Showing students your belief in them is easier when they trust you. It will help if you are honest and open. "I might only understand 80% of what you've just said," I tell students. "If you think I'm not hearing you, give me another chance. Let me know." It's not just a job to you, right? Give students extra cognitive and emotional reasons to trust you by surpassing expectations. Tyler Hester bought his ninth grade English students books with his own money. Watch how the gesture touched them.

Remember that students who do not experience trust from their teachers are less likely to learn (Ennis and McCauley 2002; Tschannen-Moran 2004). Fortunately, you can dial up your trust. Have a little faith.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Professional Learning
  • Student Engagement

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